Missile defense, NATO, and the significance of the periphery: Three pings on Russia-Ukraine

Bad negotiating.

And there it is:  the Biden administration agrees to put missile defense in Europe up for negotiation with Moscow.

That’s not what most will acknowledge at this point, including, of course, the Biden administration.  But that’s what it is.

On Wednesday, Americans learned of communications between NATO and Russia in which Russia proposed visits to sites in Poland and Romania where the U.S. deploys our Aegis Ashore missile defense system.  (Note, however, that the site in Poland has yet to become operational and has been delayed by years due to reported “contractor performance issues.”  That can’t help having a curious sound to it.  See p. 7(11) here.)

The purpose of the visits: to verify that we have no Tomahawk cruise missiles deployed in the launch tubes.

Aegis Ashore is a ground-based variant of the BMD system deployed in our Aegis cruiser and destroyer warships.  Although it can’t perform the same function as the ground-based interceptors (GBI) President Obama nixed for Eastern Europe back in 2009, it’s the “replacement” choice he made for the GBI installation after he canceled it.  The Aegis Ashore set is part of the NATO network defending European territory against intermediate-range missiles.

Another key U.S. component is the BMD ships themselves, of which we have four forward-based in Europe for that dedicated mission.  These are the warships that rotate frequently through the Black Sea (one of the BMD monitoring and response stations), and are regularly buzzed there by Russian aircraft and warships.  Other BMD ships deploy on scheduled rotations from the U.S. East coast.

As USNI notes, the Aegis intercept missile, the SM-3, is launched from the same tubes as the Tomahawk cruise missile.  Our warships carry a load of both SM-3s and Tomahawks.  The BMD systems in Romania and Poland don’t have Tomahawk stocks to load with.

But the Russians want to come on-site and verify that by visual inspection.

Sounds reasonable, maybe?  On superficial consideration, it might well.  And to the extent it followed the conventions of arms negotiation, the Biden administration seems to have done the expected thing.  Team Biden has stated that they’ll discuss the proposal for such visits in the context of a reciprocal concession by Russia; i.e., the U.S. would be able to visit two missile sites from which Russia can hold Europe at risk (presumably with intermediate-range missiles).

But think at least one move ahead, and this doesn’t look like such a good idea.  The Aegis warships offshore are the prism through which to see that clearly.

Aegis destroyer USS John Finn (DDG-113) launches an SM3 BlkIIA missile in 2020. USN image

Because if Russia wants to verify that there are no Tomahawks in the launch tubes in Poland and Romania, Russia will next want to verify that there are no Tomahawks in the launch tubes of Aegis warships on BMD patrol in the Black Sea – or anywhere within Tomahawk range of Russia.

Let any SM-3 launch tubes become subject to “Tomahawk verification,” and Moscow will have successfully linked U.S./NATO defenses to Russia’s fear of aggression.  This is a principle the U.S. has long, and very properly, resisted accepting as a premise in negotiations with Russia.  There’s no going down that path without putting all U.S. and NATO defenses on the bargaining table.  (And remember, NATO missile defenses are against other potential threats besides Russia.  Iran can range Eastern Europe with intermediate-range missiles, although a nuclear warhead is not known to be in that mix yet.  China can also hit Europe with ICBMs.  The potential today for intercepting Chinese missiles in the terminal phase would be rudimentary at best, but at no time is there a good argument for making even a rudimentary capability subject to a Russian veto.)

Ranges of operational Iranian ballistic missiles. Graphic BBC
Ranges of Chinese ICBMs. Graphic: Missile Defense Advocacy; author annotation

Alert readers will have already noticed that this is a one-sided, bore-sighted proposal to begin with – as if Russia doesn’t have sea-launched cruise missiles (e.g., Kalibrs) within range of Europe, North America, and the Far East on a regular if not constant basis now, and as if there are no SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missiles deployable within range of Europe.

Indeed, the proposal is advanced as if Russia doesn’t have missile defense systems to employ against the Tomahawk.

Back in the 1980s, Soviet Russia was initially urgent in the preliminary INF talks about putting the Tomahawk cruise missile on the table and negotiating limits, if not eliminating it from the European theater entirely.  The Reagan administration hewed to a firm “No” on that demand, which was and remains the right thing to do.  Our Aegis warships patrol interchangeably all over the globe; we can’t hobble our Navy with a theater-specific agreement on one of their baseline functions.  (Our Tomahawk-loaded attack submarines, and now converted Ohio-class SSGNs, mustn’t be subject to any such agreements or verification regimes.)

Now that Russia has a very similar sea-based capability in the Kalibr, the negotiating premises would have more permutations and be even messier, which under the Biden administration would be heavily to Russia’s advantage.

Starting off a round of negotiations on this complex issue with a proposal for visual inspection of tubes is as close to a non-executable non-starter as it gets.  But anyone who imagines the Russians aren’t already thinking of presenting us with such a conundrum, as a bargaining position they have to be baited down from, hasn’t been paying attention to the Russians.

As is frequently the case, the Russians’ purpose with the visual-inspection proposal isn’t so much to get visual inspections.  They know very well that we could act deceptively in managing such inspections, just as they could (and assuredly would) themselves if we came into their missile sites with a magnifying glass.

The purpose is to get us to agree in principle to something we didn’t intend to, which Russia can then take advantage of for a host of additional objectives.

In this case, the goal is to link our missile defenses in principle to Russia’s FOOM – Fear of Offensive Missiles.  The short answer to this should be, “No, you have missile defenses of your own.  If you want to enlarge negotiations to encompass other weapon systems, we can talk about that.  But asking for visual inspection of our theater defenses in the field is a non-starter.”*

Ping two: The NATO baby goes in for its splitting

Caroline Glick, in an opinion column on 28 January, made the astute and accurate observation that to the extent Vladimir Putin divides the will of NATO and paralyzes the alliance, he will have won his biggest victory without firing a shot.

Glick is 100% right about this.  I enthusiastically recommend her column, which says what needs to be said on the topic.

And I don’t say that just because what she’s describing is what I previewed back on 12 January, in an article about the flare-up in Kazakhstan.

Rather than rewording it, I’ll just import a couple of pull quotes from that article.  There’s a reason for doing this, so hang on.  In that article three weeks ago, I suggested an outline of Putin’s thinking on the unrest in Kazakhstan:

[Putin would think] the Biden cabal has miscalculated with an attempt to present him with a two-front problem, and that he can win big by demonstrating he can turn the table, to greater effect.

It wouldn’t do Putin a great deal of good to merely survive the attempt he perceives.  Events are moving fast now, many of them not instigated by him. …

Now, and not some hazy day in the future, is the time to present the Atlantic alliance structure with the pressure of decisions it probably can’t withstand (at least in Putin’s view).  Putin has been aiming to destabilize and transform the “Atlantic” security structure (Russia’s language for referring to it) for nearly two decades, and the obvious move now is to counter the [perceived] Kazakhstan gambit with a concerted effort to do just that.

In addition to such obvious issues as the use of Nord Stream 2, I proposed that Russia would, in essence, try to leverage NATO out of the strategic premises of the alliance itself by crafting the negotiating slate in Russian terms.

Putin won’t want to negotiate on NATO’s terms, but on his.  On his terms, he can use negotiations not so much to gain concessions for Russia as to divide NATO. …

Rather, it’s at least 50-50 that we would start to see the NATO consensus fall apart, on exactly the matters Putin seeks concessions on. 


The more Putin can destabilize the neighborhood, the less likely NATO members are to see making sacrifices for alliance unity as a good idea.

With the disclosure from El Pais about how the dialogue on inspecting the missile defense sites came about (the El Pais sourcing is referenced by USNI), that appears to be what Russia is doing.

The initiative seems to be all on the Russian side:  “The Russian authorities,” reports El Pais, “demanded a written response to their proposal to sign a deal that gave security guarantees to Moscow regarding the expansion of NATO to the east. Moscow even included a draft version of the hypothetical deal.”

“The response,” we are told, “was two texts: one … on the part of Washington; and another … from the Atlantic Alliance. … The US and NATO have coordinated their responses, which are complementary but do contain some differences.

“The main difference …” El Pais continues, “is that Washington is prepared to discuss the concept of ‘indivisibility of security,’ which the OSCE approved at its summit in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan in 2010. Moscow … [uses] this principle to allege that the eventual entry of Ukraine into NATO would affect its security. The text from the US warns that it does not share the Russian point of view … the document from Washington makes clear that it ‘continues to firmly support NATO’s Open Door Policy,’ and so does not exclude the future incorporation of Ukraine or Georgia into the Alliance.

“The NATO text [the separate one from the Atlantic Alliance] also reinforces its open-door policy …” says El Pais.  But it apparently doesn’t express a willingness to discuss the “indivisibility of security” concept with Russia.

El Pais then adds the closer: “Moscow is yet to send a written reply, but allied sources say that Russia has called on the United States and NATO to unify their responses and for the latter to agree to a discussion of the concept of ‘indivisibility of security,’ as the US has done.”

This may seem eye-watering and arcane, but this is where the rubber meets the road.  Readers can verify at the El Pais link that the Alliance response and U.S. response are not worded identically, but the need to resolve that to meet Russia’s demand for a unified response is only one issue.

The other is the main one:  Russia doesn’t want to talk about NATO’s Open Door policy because Russia is satisfied with it – or even just wants a sort of clarifying review of it.

The Russian demand is more in the nature of the frequent calls by activists for a national dialogue in the U.S. about “race.”  The purpose is to gain commitment to a basically unending forum in which complaints are lodged, and no one gets to leave in a polite atmosphere if concessions have not been made to the dissatisfied party.

Putin wants a full NATO forum for this because that’s how you set up a scheme to pit allies against each other.  Controlling the agenda in such forums, and maneuvering into the center seat, is a Russian trademark in international diplomacy.

It doesn’t get more basic-premise-y, as regards an alliance, than why and how decisions are made to admit allies.  That’s what Russia wants to put on the table in formal talks.  Russia is claiming an interested party’s veto over the NATO alliance’s policy on admitting new allies, and seeking to make it a bargaining chip.

That, plus demanding a right to inspect NATO defenses in the field, is a clear diplomatic assault (in the latter case an almost funny one) on the very purpose of the NATO alliance.

Ping three: More things than are dreamt of in our philosophy

There is little point in getting indignant about what Russia is trying to do.  As outlined in the 12 January Kazakhstan piece, I’ve imagined for some time during the Russian buildup around Ukraine that Putin has something much bigger in view than merely subjugating Kyiv with a thousand cuts on the Ukrainian border.  With Caroline Glick, I think it’s dividing the NATO alliance; for my own part, I think it’s about presenting NATO with the fait accompli of an extinguished raison d’être.

Diplomacy and demonstrations, like the one made off the coast of Ireland in the last 10 days – a reminder of U.S. defensive vulnerabilities – are Russia’s classic means of framing and emphasizing such points.  Russia makes the point and then lets it sink in, even if there’s no live-fire follow-up.  (Moscow agreed this week to refrain from holding the previewed naval exercise in the originally declared area in Ireland’s EEZ.  But the point about what U.S. and allied assets can be held at risk had been made, which was what the demonstration of spinning everyone up was for.**)

The stakes are high: the very pillars of U.S. security – including our unaddressed vulnerability to Russian SLBMs – and the NATO alliance.  I suspect that’s a key reason the buildup around Ukraine has been such a vast one.  It’s a buildup we have to recognize as being about more than the potential to invade Ukraine. It’s about Russia making a game-changing play.

There’s a lot we could talk about, such as the U.S. plan to shift troops around into Poland, Romania, and Germany.  Among these deployments, the one carrying the most risk for our troops would seem to be the one in Poland, sitting across a tense frontier from a Belarus being overloaded with Russian forces.

U.S. 2nd Cavalry Regiment soldiers maneuver a Stryker armored vehicle during a training exercise at 7th Army Training Command’s Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, Jan 2022, U.S. Army, Markus Rauchenberger

I’m eyeing the deployment to Romania with some concern, however, even though it’s on the NATO side of Ukraine.  The inherent signal of a Stryker squadron is readiness for combat, and there’s more than one way to attack a small unit deployed to a lightly defended location.  Our troops in Poland will be in a more heavily-fortified situation.

Other topics are the timing of a potential Russian attack, which analysts suppose will not be until the full buildup in Belarus is complete, given the weaponry that has been assembled there.  One estimate suggests a no-earlier-than date of about 9 February.

We can also ponder the possibilities of Russia, China, and even Iran and North Korea creating a hydra-headed problem that’s too big to deal with all at once, with, say, rockets and drones flying into Middle Eastern nations, provocations from North Korea, and concurrent maneuvers against Ukraine and Taiwan.

But I want to conclude with a separate thought, prompted by a most significant event earlier this week, which has flown under the radar.  The event was the meeting of Israeli president Isaac Herzog with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohamed bin Zayed, at which “HaTikva,” the national anthem of Israel, was played in UAE for the opening ceremony.

As little as three years ago, almost no one on earth would have envisioned such a development in Arab-Israeli relations.

Although a number of observers had finally concluded that the old, Oslo-based “Peace Process” framework was a dead letter, there was no consensus vision for a follow-on to it.  It was largely assumed that whatever Jared Kushner and the team of Trump officials were trying to do would meet with no more success than the Peace Process or any alternative scheme propounded by previous Israeli or U.S. administrations.

Yet the Abraham Accords turned out to be a very real geopolitical development, with concrete and game-changing consequences.

Aside from the primary roles played by the visionary Mohamed bin Zayed and Benjamin Netanyahu, it took a most convention-breaking American presidency to bring the Abraham Accords about. 

Moreover, if the media and certain halls of political leadership had been paying more attention at the time (i.e., in 2020), it’s conceivable that the Abraham Accords might have been sunk before the signing ceremony in September 2020.

Abraham Accords signing 15 Sep 2020. Fox News video. L-R: Bahrain. FM Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa. Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. President Trump. UAE, FM Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan. Fox News video

But – seemingly against the odds – they weren’t.  It has occurred to me on a number of occasions in the last few years that major, even tectonic political developments have been attended by enormous distractions, some of which divert our attention in ways that are beneficial for positive outcomes.

The diversions can be most disruptive and unwelcome, as the relentless assault of the media on the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency has been, for example.  But without such diversions, I wonder if the harassment, redirected, would instead have been too much for quiet efforts like pursuit of the Abraham Accords.

I bring this up because the Abraham Accords broke out of a diplomatic and strategic framework few could envision breaking out of.  The same can be said of the potential for breaking out of the NATO framework.  It may be necessary, and not as a response to pressure from the machinations of Vladimir Putin (which need not be the governor of any decision we make).  It may be necessary because, as with Oslo and the Peace Process, the old framework is no longer the best toolset for our current reality.

A discussion of NATO must be deferred to another time.  But I do suggest, as a final thought, that we not approach it with fear.  The key, in a NATO confrontation with Putin’s Russia, is not so much shoring up the existing framework of cues and expectations as it is deciding for ourselves what the geostrategic priorities are, and what we’re going to do about them.

The predicate of the Abraham Accords was recognizing that the Palestinian Authority could not be left in the driver’s seat, gripping everyone else by the short hairs.  That was a strange proposition, alarming for some, and not where most people were looking for the light bulb to go on.  And as we approach the confrontation over Ukraine, peering, as ever, through a glass darkly, we should be alert for the light to come on where we may not be expecting it to.


* Note, if nothing else, that the proposal of a two-for-two inspection exchange program is functionally unbalanced, and therefore inherently unworkable.  The missile sites the U.S. would seek to inspect would not be defensive sites where “offensive” missile types might be lurking.  We haven’t made that assertion, at any rate.  Russia would be asking to inspect our defenses; we’d be asking to inspect offensive weapon emplacements, such as the Iskander site in Kaliningrad.  There would be no basis for agreement on such an arrangement.  Likewise with SSC-8 GLCMs, which manifestly are not systems that serve a dual operational purpose.  It’s nuts.

The U.S. might conceivably ask to inspect an S-400 or S-500 site, but there would be no valid point since the respective launchers aren’t used for other missiles (and in any case the systems are highly mobile; no inspection today would be a still-valid data point tomorrow).  It would be inspection solely for rote reciprocity’s sake.

No attempt to make reciprocity realistic could go any direction other than requiring the U.S. to complicate our weapon systems with inconvenient functional separation at the launch-tube level.  Robust missile defenses are the better answer – which is what the Reagan administration, already disposed to favor defense for the ICBM problem, saw nearly 40 years ago.


** For previous Russian demonstrations of where U.S. defensive vulnerabilities exist, see this article and its links to earlier ones on the gaping vulnerability in the strategic defense of Guam.  Russia spent years pointing it out to us – not because Putin wanted us to fix it, but so that we’d understand he knew it was there, and was prepared to exploit it.

Threat calculus for Tu-95/AS-15 land-attack missile versus Guam. (Google map; author annotation)

It’s possible for refueled U.S. fighters to intercept a Bear bomber approaching Guam on the otherwise unguarded approach from the Kamchatka area, but a special effort is required, one that was apparently not undertaken in the Obama years. A lack of reporting on such unintercepted flights during Trump’s term suggests we may have elected to close this gap.

For the original explanation of the vulnerability, see the passage (paragraph number 6) that starts as follows at this link:  “There are two main ways for Russian bombers to get to Guam.  Both matter to the local nations’ sense of security – and the implications of one of them amount to a major strategic vulnerability for the U.S. …”

Feature image:  Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense site in Romania Oct 2021. US Navy Photo via USNI.


4 thoughts on “Missile defense, NATO, and the significance of the periphery: Three pings on Russia-Ukraine”

  1. “You probe with bayonets: if you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw” – V. Lenin

    Pootie Poot is nothing if not a Psychopathic Russian Autocrat. And Biden and surrounding puppeteers are certainly mush.

    This was never about Poots burning scarce military resources having the Ukies take chunks out of his barely competent conscript army. (Yes, he’d win but burn lots of loot and bodies doing it.) This was always about the typical Russian paranoid brinksmanship that sees everything through the eyes of an evil despot.

    Russia has suffered nearly 30 years of ignominious diplomatic and territorial defeats. Tsar Vladimir wants his empire back, and doesn’t have the economy to wage war to do it, so he’s going to bluff, murder, cajole, and con his way into accomplishing the same thing. His narcissistic pride won’t allow him to do anything else.

    So, he’ll continue to work to divide NATO, Finlandize the Krauts, and bully the former Warsaw Pact nations into heading for the tall grass after wetting themselves. All he really has is the threat of nuclear war, and that’s the leverage that he’s going to use. He knows the Democrats and their similar pacifist ilk in Europe can be bullied into dropping their defenses. He knows that they are fundamental cowards who will always attempt to buy peace with weakness and appeasement. All of this is really stoking his ego. It doesn’t really do Russia any good, but he’s a despot, and only his fantasy Russia is what counts.

    Of course, Biden is stupid, and senile to go along with his craven cowardly corruption. The opposition Mote and Bailey crew want to pull up the draw bridges and throw silly taunts in Arthur’s general direction. Which means we are facing a monster with a wet noodle and Europe is run by a Drunk, a Nebbish, and a Russian sycophant. Dark times ahead. -OAB

  2. Lots of good points to comment on. I’ll pick up on a few for now.
    Any pseudo-concessions to Russia on missile defense (what would have worked in the 2000’s) are now moot points, they’re now insufficient to salvage the security situation in Europe. A case of “too little to late”, so to speak. Both sides giving the positive appearance of talking about the issue might buy some time (for both sides) to come up with something more satisfactory, though I doubt that’ll be enough. We’re headed for a major geopolitical revision is Europe.
    Since Glick and her POV perched in the east Med came up in the piece, savor this. . . the United States has effectively withdrawn support for the EastMed Natural Gas pipeline (juxtapose this with the goings on around Nord Stream 2). This is telling, on many levels, here are a few, economically, on our fracked LNG promotion, and unfortunately geopolitically, concerning our positions on Israel/Greece/Cyprus, Egypt, Turkey, how we ‘really’ see Europe’s energy dependence and the geopolitical/security ramifications thereof. There’s much more, unfortunately, don’t have the time to get into it anymore. 🙂 I’ll leave delving into my points and follow up analysis to your imaginations. –jg

  3. “Stupidity has a habit of getting its way” — Albert Camus
    Normandy Format talks concerning implementing Minsk Agreements break down before they even get off the ground.
    The Ukrainians continue to reject talking directly to the the LNR/DNR.
    Sorry to be alarmist, but it’s a matter of time ’til we’re playing for all the marbles in the Ukraine now. . . obviously hope I’m wrong. –jg

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