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George Niculescu

Head of Research, The European Geopolitical Forum

Column: Military and Security

On 11 April 2019, NATO confirmed US plans to deploy of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to Romania. According to NATO officials, the United States will fulfill its commitment to NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defence by the temporary deployment of a THAAD system to Deveselu in Romania: “The THAAD unit will be under NATO operational control and the full political control of the North Atlantic Council. It will only remain operational until the Aegis Ashore Romania site is back online. The update and deployment are expected to last several weeks,” said the news release. It was also stressed that according to NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defence system, the THAAD unit will be focused on potential threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic area. “This site provides a defensive capability to deter future conflicts, and to defend ourselves and our NATO allies, should deterrence fail,” EUCOM said. The THAAD is strictly a defensive weapon system, and a key element of NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS). The scheduled work is part of the United States European Phased Adaptive Approach to ballistic missile defense, which has been implemented since September 2009.

This is primarily not about Russia-Romania relations, but rather about the quite poor status of current NATO-Russia relations. The Romanian acceptance of the deployment on its territory of the US system is due to the strategic and operational commitments enshrined in Romania’s NATO membership. By acquiescing to those moves, Bucharest is merely meeting its alliance commitments, which, according to repeated statements by both NATO and Romanian officials, are not directly targeting Russian missile systems per se. In addition, the new system was deployed on a temporary basis to maintain NATO’s operational capability during the upgrading of the Aegis Ashore Romania system. Possible Russian military or hybrid reactions against Romania, as an individual state, would be counter-productive in the sense that it would support the perception of an imminent Russian strategic threat against Romania’s national security. Consequently, further anti-Russian rapprochement between Romania and Ukraine would become more likely, in particular in the Black Sea region.

On 11 April 2019, NATO confirmed US plans to deploy of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to Romania. According to NATO officials, the United States will fulfill its commitment to NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defence by the temporary deployment of a THAAD system to Deveselu in Romania: “The THAAD unit will be under NATO operational control and the full political control of the North Atlantic Council. It will only remain operational until the Aegis Ashore Romania site is back online. The update and deployment are expected to last several weeks,” said the news release. It was also stressed that according to NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defence system, the THAAD unit will be focused on potential threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic area. “This site provides a defensive capability to deter future conflicts, and to defend ourselves and our NATO allies, should deterrence fail,” EUCOM said. The THAAD is strictly a defensive weapon system, and a key element of NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS). The scheduled work is part of the United States European Phased Adaptive Approach to ballistic missile defense, which has been implemented since September 2009.

In response, Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Grushko said: “Russia is “closely following” the temporary deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to the Deveselu base in Romania.” Referring to the THAAD system deployment to Romania, he further told TASS reporters: "We are closely following this. There is a Russian saying: ‘Nothing is more permanent than a temporary fix’.” He also raised two questions related to this move by the US: what reasons are for the THAAD deployment as it is, and what the modernization of facilities in Romania involves? Mr. Grushko further concluded: “It is well known that the United States is currently enhancing missile interception technology and many no longer keep it secret that the US anti-missile system, including its European segment integrated into NATO, needs to be capable of intercepting missile systems operated by the Russian Federation."

Prokhor Tebin:
Europe under Aegis

Given this recent exchange of official statements between NATO and Russia on the temporary deployment of the THAAD system to Romania, I would formulate the following personal opinions.

First, this is primarily not about Russia-Romania relations, but rather about the quite poor status of current NATO-Russia relations. The Romanian acceptance of the deployment on its territory of the US system is due to the strategic and operational commitments enshrined in Romania’s NATO membership. By acquiescing to those moves, Bucharest is merely meeting its alliance commitments, which, according to repeated statements by both NATO and Romanian officials, are not directly targeting Russian missile systems per se. In addition, the new system was deployed on a temporary basis to maintain NATO’s operational capability during the upgrading of the Aegis Ashore Romania system. Possible Russian military or hybrid reactions against Romania, as an individual state, would be counter-productive in the sense that it would support the perception of an imminent Russian strategic threat against Romania’s national security. Consequently, further anti-Russian rapprochement between Romania and Ukraine would become more likely, in particular in the Black Sea region.

Second, the response of the Russian deputy minister reflected the current precarious status of NATO-Russia relations and the current lack of mutual trust resulting from the ongoing geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West over their common neighborhood. Russia’s recent decision to deploy TU-22M3 bombers and Iskander missiles in Crimea might also have plaid a critical role in sustaining NATO’s security dilemma in relations with Russia. Over the last years, we have witnessed a tit-for-tat succession of mutual deployments of NATO and Russian military assets and capabilities, which made the other side feel threatened and hence bound to respond in kind with its own deployments of capabilities to counter those of the perceived adversary.

Third, the source of the current Western geopolitical confrontation with Russia is highly controversial, even among Western scholars, let aside the Russians. On the one hand, there is a large score of analysts who blame Moscow’s expansionism. For example, Jan Bugajski is persuaded that the primary objective of Moscow’s foreign policy is to restore Russia as a major pole of power in a multipolar world. Moscow’s overarching goal would be to reverse the predominance of the United States within Europe and Eurasia.

On the other hand, professor John Mearsheimer contended that the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis of 2014 could not be blamed entirely on Russia. He pointed instead at the triad of Western liberal policies in Ukraine, and more broadly in EU’s Eastern neighborhood, i.e. NATO’s enlargement, EU’s expansion, and the promotion of democracy. Mearsheimer further explained Russia’s aggressive reaction in Crimea and Donbas from a geopolitical perspective where great powers would always be sensitive to potential threats near their home territory. Mearsheimer suggested that the United States and its Allies should consider making Ukraine a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia instead of striving to Westernize it. The goal would be to have a sovereign and independent Ukraine that falls neither in the Russian nor in the Western camp.

Irrespective of the reasons of the current crisis in Western-Russian relations, this could only come to an end by agreeing upon a new European security model, hopefully reflecting a ‘new European security deal’. Such a new model should re-balance the international system at both global and at European levels and should reintroduce predictability in international relations by means of new international law or other political, economic or military tools. For example, a 2018 RAND Study on “Rethinking the Regional Order of post-Soviet Europe and Eurasia” proposed the negotiation of a new East European security deal. Such a deal would require that both Russia and the West would commit themselves to respecting the current membership of existing institutions, and to define a framework for the regional integration of non-member states, and a template for how both Russia and the West can relate to such a state without producing conflict. The proposed compromise would consist of both Russia and the West agreeing to establish a regional integration area, resembling to a buffer zone, which would complement the existing institutions: NATO, EU, CSTO, and EAEU. Unfortunately, we are far away from such an outcome, mainly due to diverging perspectives of relevant actors on the nature, scope, and rules of a new European security model.


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