The United States is contemplating adding Ukraine to its ballistic missile defense (BMD) plans, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow said Oct. 9. But STRATFOR sources in Moscow said including Ukraine in its BMD plans is not the only move the United States is considering in the country. Vershbow's statement surprised the Russians, and the United States will be working quickly to assert its influence in the former Soviet republics.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow said Oct. 9 that the United States is considering adding Ukraine to its ballistic missile defense (BMD) network. The statement caught the Russians off guard, prompting an immediate response from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the move was "unexpected" and further clarification was needed. But according to STRATFOR sources in Moscow, this is not the only move the United States is planning or considering in Ukraine. Over the next three months, Vershbow will be dispatched to Ukraine and Georgia for a series of visits designed to increase and facilitate U.S. presence in these countries. Indeed, Vershbow — who is widely regarded as an important figure in the U.S. defense establishment and as a former ambassador to Russia is well versed on matters pertaining to the two former Soviet republics — will be concentrating exclusively on Ukraine and Georgia as the end of the year approaches. This is significant in that these are the two countries in Russia's near abroad that Moscow has deemed most crucial in re-establishing its influence, and ones that the Kremlin believed it had locked up. In Georgia, Vershbow will be overseeing coordination of an expansion of U.S. training to the country's troops. And unlike in the past, when such training was small-scale and mostly defensive in nature and mainly meant to train troops headed to Afghanistan and Iraq, this renewed focus will be greater in scope of personnel and resources and will likely include offensive training as well. In Ukraine, apart from the decision already announced of BMD expansion into the country, it is rumored that the United States could encourage the resumption of weapons transfers into Georgia, a very sensitive issue given accusations by Moscow of such transfers during the August 2008 Russo-Georgian war. It is clear that Russia would deem such moves as bold threats. But given that Ukraine has largely reversed its Western leanings that reached their climax during the Orange Revolution, most camps within Ukraine also would not push for such provocative moves supported by the United States. Ukraine's foreign minister immediately spoke out against the BMD development as illegitimate and “unconstitutional.” However, there is one camp — or rather one person — who would support such moves: Ukraine's pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko. And that is precisely who Vershbow reportedly will be going to sell these plans. Yushchenko is hardly a popular figure in his country, with public approval ratings as low as 3 percent, and he is largely unloved by his own (fractured) political party as well. The country's leading political figures — Yulia Timoshenko and Viktor Yanukovich — as well as the parliament and Cabinet constantly speak against him and block almost any legislation supported by him. But that still does not take away from the fact that Yushchenko is still president, and that the commander-in-chief still maintains control of three key establishments in Ukraine: the intelligence service (SBU), the military-industrial complex, and the military itself. No matter how unpopular, Yushchenko still calls the shots in these areas, and these are the critical areas that Vershbow plans on addressing. But as in most geopolitical matters, timing is essential. It is all but assured that come January, when Ukraine holds presidential elections, Yushchenko will be swept from power by a more pro-Russian candidate — hence losing his powers to control these key ministries. That means any cooperation between the United States and Ukraine must occur in the next three months before the next government, coerced by Moscow, is likely to reverse actions taken. And considering the escalating crisis brewing over Iran, one in which the Russians have enormous strategic leverage, the United States knows it must make moves — bold moves — soon if it wants to get Russia to consider its interests seriously. And there is no clearer way for the United States to play its hand with Moscow than sending a key defense figure to Ukraine and Georgia to coordinate and execute such moves.