The political head-on clash between the White House and the Kremlin over extending U.S. ballistic missile defense systems through former Soviet dominated Europe last week moved east from Poland and the Czech Republic to Ukraine.
A lengthy dispatch in the respected Moscow business newspaper Kommersant covered the visit to the Ukraine capital Kiev -- almost entirely un-remarked in the mainstream U.S media -- of Lt. Gen. Henry "Trey" Obering, the director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.
Obering headed a U.S. delegation that arrived in Kiev March 21. According to Kommersant, they held talks with "(Ukrainian) Defense Minister Vitaly Gaiduk, presidential advisor Vladimir Gorbulin, deputies from the Upper Rada (the Ukrainian parliament), and representatives from the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry."
"At the Americans' request, the meetings were held behind closed doors, with Gen. Obering appearing in public only at a final press conference to discuss what brought him to Kiev and the talks that he had with Ukrainian military and government officials," Kommersant said.
The Russian newspaper said Obering and his colleagues sought to reassure the Ukrainians that Washington's plans to install a ground-based anti-ballistic missile interceptors in Poland, guided by radars deployed in the Czech Republic, were not intended to neutralize Russia's formidable Strategic Missile Forces, but were intended only to protect European nations from missiles that might be fired by so-called rogue" states such as North Korea or Iran.
According to the Kommersant report, Obering told Ukrainian journalists "We are talking about no more than 10 interceptors. ... They would have no effect against the hundreds of missiles and thousands of warheads that the Russians have. ... They are not even in the proper position if we were concerned about Russian missiles.''
Obering and his delegation were visiting a deeply divided country. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko won power in a re-held national election following Ukraine's Orange Revolution. However, since then, the pro-American Yushchenko has been forced to share power with the man he defeated, pro-Russian current Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych
Kommersant described Gen. Obering as "being handled with utmost care by ... Yushchenko."
"Eager to make Gen. Obering feel welcome in Kiev, President Yushchenko argued in an interview with Euronews the day before the American delegation arrived that the idea of Poland and the Czech Republic hosting elements of the U.S. missile defense shield in is in Europe's best interest.," the newspaper said
"We are talking about the installation of components that are defensive in nature and that will serve the interests not only of Poland and the Czech Republic but of Europe as a whole," Kommersant quoted Yushchenko as telling Euronews. But the Russian newspaper immediately went on to note that this pro-BMD position cut no ice with Yanukovych.
"The visit by the Americans is an overture. Their plan is to at least test the waters, to find out how the Ukrainian elite feels about the missile defense system and to try to make sure that it does not come out against [the system]. They need the Ukrainians to not destroy Eastern European solidarity on this question," Vadim Karasev, the director of the Kiev Institute of Global Strategy, told Kommersant. "Right now the Ukrainian military is not unanimously opposed to the missile shield, and that is significant."
Kommersant concluded that "Gen. Obering has every reason to believe that his visit to Kiev Wednesday was successful. "
However, President Yushchenko knew he still had to face a Ukrainian parliament where his political foes, spearheaded by PM Yanukovych, still held the upper hand.
On Friday, Yushchenko "warned the Verkhovna Rada against making injudicious decisions regarding foreign missile defense systems and suggested holding consultations on the issue," the Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported.
"The president has warned the Verkhovna Rada against making any decisions regarding the deployment of missile defense systems in the neighboring countries," presidential secretariat chief Viktor Baloha said according to the report.
The political tug of war over Ukraine's position on the BMD deployment plans in Europe has only just begin. According to Interfax-Ukraine, Baloha said a long process was about to start in which Yushchenko would have to negotiate with Yanukovych, the chairman of the Verkhovna Rada, or parliament, and the heads of the various parliamentary groups in Kiev.
After all that, Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council would consider it. "And only following the National Security and Defense Council session will we, all the government branches, be able to politically assess this, and the president of Ukraine will the be making the decisions," Baloha said.
The great debate over BMD that is splitting Ukraine down the middle can be interpreted in different ways. It can be seen as a triumph of still-expanding American influence in Eastern Europe that even a nation of more than 50 million people that was part of the Soviet Union until the end of 1991, and that remained closely allied with Moscow over the following decade, is now tilting towards Washington.
Champions of the Bush administration's BMD policies on Europe will certainly see it this way. And they can argue that hanging tough on BMD expansion is therefore essential to further extend U.S. influence in Central and Eastern Europe.
However, the anger, and even alarm, that these developments have already evoked in Moscow may undercut Gen. Obering's factual arguments that the number of ABM interceptors being deployed will not in reality affect the deterrent capabilities of Russia's nuclear forces.
In terms of hard, military realities, Gen. Obering is entirely correct. But the political battles now convulsing Ukraine may be interpreted by the Russians as confirming their worst fears that BMD deployment in Europe is corrosive to their interests.