A new twist in the natural gas pricing dispute between Russia and Ukraine

There are reports that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko discussed the possibiliy of giving American specialists access to top-secret radar stations in Ukraine. This would have serious implications for Russia’s missile attack warning system.

Our Ukrainian partners have apparently tried to play a new card at the negotiation table where Moscow and Kiev are heatedly discussing the problem of charging Ukraine market prices for natural gas as of 2006. There have been reports that during a recent visit to Ukraine by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, she and President Viktor Yushchenko discussed the possibility of giving American specialists access to some top-secret radar stations, part of a missile attack early warning system, located on the Kherson peninsula at Sevastopol and in Mukachevo. These radars, built in the Soviet era, have been operating entirely in Russia’s interests since 1992; in return, Russia pays Ukraine $1.2 million a year. Giving foreigners access to these extremely important facilities means that the Russian Defense Ministry would no longer be able to reliably track ICBM launches from foreign nuclear submarines in the Mediterranean or the southern and central Atlantic. This information gap in Russia’s costly missile defense system would even call into question our ability to provide effective nuclear deterrence. Clearly, urgent measures would have to be taken. This would require a huge amount of money.

From our files:

Our country started building a missile attack early warning system in 1976. It now consists of two parts: one on the ground, the other in space. The ground-based component comprises eight separate radar installations – five of which (including Sevastopol and Mukachevo) ended up outside Russia after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Data from these stations is transmitted to the Missile and Space Defense command center at Solnechnogorsk, near Moscow.

It should be noted that this isn’t the first time Ukraine has tried putting pressure on Moscow via the Russian military’s need for data from Sevastopol and Mukachevo. In April 2004, several Ukrainian parties and organizations of a nationalist persuasion appealed to the Ukrainian government to shut down these and other facilities. In part, their appeal read as follows: “Having a key element of Russia’s missile attack warning system located on our territory places Ukraine at a direct risk of being hit by a pre-emptive nuclear strike.” These political bargainers were unpersuaded by the obvious fact that Ukraine’s pseudo-patriots are unlikely to survive even if a nuclear apocalypse starts from the Urals rather than from Sevastopol and Mukachevo. Fortunately, however, the Ukrainian government ignored the appeal.

In February 2005, further fuel was added to the potential inter-state dispute by Colonel-General Anatoly Toropchin, Commander of the Ukrainian Air Force, who suddenly took it into his head that over a million dollars a year is insufficient compensation for the data from Sevastopol. He pointed out that Russia pays $5 million a year for the use of a similar radar installation at Gabal in Azerbaijan. The Ukrainian officer apparently forgot that the Sevastopol and Mukachevo radars are entirely controlled by Ukraine and operated by Ukrainian military personnel – they only sell data to Solnechnogorsk. The Gabal radar, on the other hand, is operated by Russian personnel; hence, it’s an order of magnitude more reliable for Moscow. Correspondingly, the price is higher.

It’s worth noting that Kiev is being much more subtle this time. The package of proposals given to the Americans by President Yushchenko concerns expanding cooperation in space exploration. This move doesn’t look like it’s intended to spite Russia. It seems to be part of military conversion in Ukraine, where former military installations would be used for the benefit of all humanity, to monitor orbit areas. Yet this coincidence seems all too suspicious, given that Kiev is facing the need to pay more for natural gas.

We requested comments from Colonel-General Walter Krasovsky, who commanded the Missile and Space Defense forces in 1986-91.

Walter Krasovsky:

In my view, the clash of military-political interests over radar installations in Ukraine cannot be considered in isolation from the overall plan of the United States for achieving total dominance in outer space. Missile defense bases are already under construction in Alaska – to be completed in 2007 – and in California. An agreement has almost been reached on deploying elements of the missile defense system in Poland. The United States also has plans for Hungary and Bulgaria. And even the recent agreement with Romania to give the United States access to four military facilities there should be viewed in the context of the latest events.

The Americans are particularly interested in Ukraine. Given Ukraine’s determination to join NATO, in the near future those radar installations could form the foundation for some new NATO bases, in direct proximity to Russia’s borders. We need to calculate the possible consequences right now. Data exchange has been based on the agreement of 1992, but that agreement had no solid foundation right from the start. We have faced a similar situation before: once Latvia gained independence, it shut down the Skrunda radar station, which was extremely important for Russia. Back then, the gap was filled almost immediately by the Baranovichi radar in Belarus. Now, however, we don’t have any replacement cover for our south-western air and space borders. Even under the most favorable circumstances, it will take a fairly long time to build the mobile missile attack warning stations described back in 2001 by Colonel-General Anatoly Perminov, former commander of the Space Forces.

We need at least two such radars – in the north and in the south. Construction of the first is making more or less good progress, but work on the second is moving more slowly. These radars are as vital as oxygen for us, since the United States intends to implement its Prospect plan by as soon as 2010: in-depth modernization of the US Armed Forces and establishing the first stage of national missile defense. Meanwhile, some of our military commanders maintain that the American national missile defense doesn’t pose any threat to Russia. But strengthening it means weakening Russia’s missile attack warning system.

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