MOSCOW — Ukraine wants a nuclear missile shield, according to the country’s security chief, something that would almost certainly provoke an aggressive response from Russia.
Ukraine is “rebuilding our missile shield, the main task of which is to defend against aggression from Russia,” Oleksandr Turchynov, the head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said Wednesday in an interview published by the Ukrainian news agency Ukrinform.
Turchynov explained that the new objective is part of a play to strengthen Ukraine’s defenses through “economic, political and military measures” as Kiev continues to fight a war against pro-Moscow separatists in the east. It also comes during a period in which Russia has said that it could deploy nuclear weapons to the recently annexed territory of Crimea. He called on “all leading countries” to help Ukraine defend itself against the potential nuclear threat from Russia through “interaction and systemic coordination.”
But if Ukraine is asking to host Western missile defense systems on its soil, the West isn’t necessarily going to go along.
“There’s no offer or plan to place U.S. or NATO ballistic missile defense systems in Ukraine. I don’t think we’re exactly sure what they’re referring to,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a briefing Wednesday when asked about Turchynov’s comments. “All existing and planned elements are on NATO territory, for example. And certainly, NATO missile defense is not directed against Russia, but against threats from the Middle East.”
Russia also expressed its pointed opposition to the idea Wednesday.
“The deployment of missile defense elements in Ukrainian territory would entail the need for Russia to take countermeasures,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, adding that if Ukraine hosted U.S. missile defense systems, “this can certainly be viewed only negatively.”
When President Obama took office, he scrapped plans to build a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, replacing them with a phased program to deploy defensive systems in Poland and Romania.
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the start of hostilities in eastern Ukraine last year, Poland and the Baltic states have called on NATO to focus its anti-ballistic missile defense system against Russia. Poland also announced last month that it would spend $8 billion on missile defense and military helicopters.
It is difficult to see how cash-strapped Ukraine could procure a similar missile shield if it were not provided by the West.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed Turchynov’s comments as belonging to a category of statements that are “absolutely futile, counterproductive and nothing more than shaking the air.”
Lavrov also was skeptical that Ukraine would ever join NATO or the European Union, noting that “the European countries themselves are talking about this very reluctantly.”
The subject of missile defense in Ukraine is fraught with competing emotions of pride and regret. Ukraine once held the world’s third-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons, but dismantled it and joined the ranks of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty after the breakup of the Soviet Union, in exchange for security assurances from both Russia and the West.
Those assurances were written in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which Ukraine called upon repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, after Russia annexed Crimea and the West did little to intervene beyond threats and later by imposing sanctions. Ukrainian policy experts and government advisers have since opined that if Ukraine had maintained even part of its nuclear arsenal, Russia would never have annexed Crimea or supported an uprising of pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Turchynov’s interview comes just days after U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland visited Russia for the first time in months, for discussions with their counterparts and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The talks, aimed at coordinating the two countries’ efforts to rein in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, were not immediately conclusive. But they marked a notable shift in tone, as Russian and U.S. diplomats traditionally at loggerheads spoke of working together. On Wednesday, Lavrov added that Russia is ready to resume cooperation with NATO when the security alliance decides to resurrect “practical cooperation” activities with Russia.
Yet as the United States and Russia take tentative steps to work more closely together, the diplomatic gap between Ukraine and Russia seems to be widening.
This week, Ukraine’s cabinet terminated a military-technical cooperation agreement with Russia that has been in place since 1993, while Ukraine’s parliament voted to freeze payments on its foreign debts until they can be restructured. Ukraine owes a significant portion of its foreign debt to Russia, which said Wednesday that the new law is tantamount to a default.