Strength­en­ing Poland dur­ing the Ukrainian cri­sis

Pro­vid­ing U.S. mis­sile de­fense would send an ef­fec­tive mes­sage to Rus­sia

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Jef­frey Starr

The rapid on­set of the cri­sis in Ukraine masks a long-term strat­egy of a resur­gent Rus­sia to dom­i­nate Eura­sia once again. Se­cur­ing Ukraine’s in­de­pen­dence must in­volve Amer­i­can re­sponses to pre-empt Rus­sia’s goal of strength­en­ing its mil­i­tary and eco­nomic lever­age over Europe, and that means a demon­stra­tion of Amer­i­can re­solve in Poland. Fail­ure to act on this di­men­sion of the Ukrainian cri­sis will un­der­mine Ukrainian in­de­pen­dence and will re­in­force the Rus­sian goal of dis­tanc­ing Europe from the United States.

Rus­sia has lit­tle in­ter­est in war with Ukraine, and fail­ing to buy Ukraine’s fu­ture with a fi­nan­cial gift to Vic­tor Yanukovych, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin now has only a lim­ited tool set to use, be­yond mil­i­tary ac­tions, to dis­rupt grow­ing Ukrainian ties to Europe. Make no mis­take, though, Rus­sia has been work­ing for a long time through en­ergy de­pen­dence and covert means to blunt closer Euro­pean, much less Amer­i­can, con­nec­tions to all the for­mer Soviet states. From Mr. Putin’s per­spec­tive, Rus­sia can leave noth­ing to chance.

As soon as he gained power, Mr. Putin be­gan to re­store Rus­sia, par­tic­u­larly through ex­ports of en­ergy to key tar­get ar­eas, in­clud­ing Ukraine and Europe. The sus­pen­sion of nat­u­ral-gas de­liv­er­ies has been used by Rus­sia many times to gain Ukrainian con­ces­sions. An in­va­sion of Ge­or­gia in 2008 fur­ther con­veyed Rus­sia’s will­ing­ness to project power over the “near abroad,” and its suc­cess was re­in­forced by weak in­ter­na­tional re­ac­tions, in­clud­ing those of a dis­tracted United States.

Ukraine is dif­fer­ent than Ge­or­gia, how­ever. The Ukraine cri­sis per­sists in the world’s head­lines, en­sur­ing that blood­shed be­tween Rus­sian and Ukrainian mil­i­tary forces would pro­foundly un­der­mine Rus­sia’s drive for in­flu­ence in Eura­sia and its claim to le­git­i­macy. This gives the United States lever­age to act.

Mr. Putin may cal­cu­late that a low-in­ten­sity con­flict may be suf­fi­cient to achieve his goals with­out los­ing pub­lic sup­port at home. In ad­di­tion, Mr. Putin con­tin­ues his own form of eco­nomic sanc­tions to keep Europe off-bal­ance, such as tac­itly threat­en­ing en­ergy ar­ter­ies feed­ing Euro­pean, es­pe­cially Ger­man, in­dus­try. These tac­tics may be work­ing, ev­i­denced by Hun­gary’s prime min­is­ter es­chew­ing sanc­tion­ing Rus­sia be­cause 80 per­cent of Hun­gar­ian en­ergy comes from Rus­sia, and by the visit of the CEO of Ger­many’s Siemens to Moscow to en­sure their deals would sur­vive.

It is clear East­ern Europe is in­creas­ingly ner­vous about its geopo­lit­i­cal po­si­tion, with Moldova al­ready be­ing talked about as the next Ukraine. Poland, there­fore, looms as the crit­i­cal pivot point for Amer­i­can power pro­jec­tion. Strate­gi­cally lo­cated and his­tor­i­cally vul­ner­a­ble Poland’s im­por­tance to the United States and Europe can­not be over­stated.

U.S. re­sponses to the Ukraine cri­sis are de­signed to ex­tract eco­nomic costs from Rus­sia, to strengthen Ukraine, and to re­store con­fi­dence of Ukraine’s Euro­pean neigh­bors. The United States is de­ploy­ing some 600 troops to Poland and the Baltics, Dan­ish F-16s will soon ar­rive in Es­to­nia, and NATO is de­bat­ing sta­tion­ing forces in East­ern Euro­pean NATO states. These steps are largely sym­bolic, but ap­pro­pri­ate for the nar­row win­dow of op­por­tu­nity that the West has to sig­nal the full range of costs Rus­sia will face as she an­gles to shape the May 25 Ukrainian elec­tions.

A crit­i­cal el­e­ment of U.S. power pro­jec­tion would be the de­ploy­ment of ad­vanced air de­fenses to Poland. Poland has com­mit­ted $45 bil­lion to ac­quire air de­fenses to counter fight­ers, bombers, drones, cruise mis­siles and short-range bal­lis­tic mis­siles. Poland re­cently nar­rowed its se­lec­tion to Pa­triot, MEADS (Medium Ex­tended Air De­fense Sys­tem) and Is­raeli and French sys­tems. All could pro­vide im­por­tant de­fen­sive ca­pa­bil­i­ties to Poland, but in vary­ing time pe­ri­ods.

The MEADS con­trac­tor ap­peals to eco­nomic con­sid­er­a­tions by of­fer­ing Poland co-devel­op­ment and co­pro­duc­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties, and claims bet­ter per­for­mance than its Amer­i­can com­peti­tor, Pa­triot. Yet, the U.S. Army has de­cided not to de­ploy MEADS, in part be­cause of its huge cost over­runs. The sys­tem re­mains a “con­cept sys­tem,” one that has not even been field­tested, much less de­ployed. Fur­ther­more, the most gen­er­ous of pro­jec­tions has MEADS on­line in 2018. The U.S. air-de­fense sys­tem of choice is Pa­triot, which is ac­tively de­ployed and can be rapidly fielded in Poland dur­ing this cri­sis pe­riod. As with all mil­i­tary sys­tems, it is up­graded con­stantly, nar­row­ing any claims for tech­ni­cal ad­van­tages of MEADS over Pa­triot. Pa­triot was de­ployed in Turkey in 2012 within weeks of Ankara’s re­quest for air-de­fense en­hance­ments along its bor­der with Syria. Putting aside the money and pol­i­tics sur­round­ing a ma­jor pro­cure­ment op­por­tu­nity, Pa­triot can im­me­di­ately pro­vide the de­fen­sive mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­ity Poland needs, as well as the cred­i­ble geopo­lit­i­cal sig­nal the United States needs to send Rus­sia in time to be rel­e­vant dur­ing this cri­sis.

The United States should pro­pose de­ploy­ment of Pa­triot in Poland as a cred­i­ble, ef­fec­tive and in­her­ently de­fen­sive mil­i­tary as­set, one that can uniquely re­in­force the broader U.S. geopo­lit­i­cal strat­egy to­day and in the fu­ture. Jef­frey Starr served as deputy as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of de­fense for Rus­sia, Ukraine and Eura­sia from 1998 to 2001.

ILLUSTRATION BY GREG GROESCH/THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

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