- - Thursday, May 8, 2014

The rapid onset of the crisis in Ukraine masks a long-term strategy of a resurgent Russia to dominate Eurasia once again.

Securing Ukraine’s independence must involve American responses to pre-empt Russia’s goal of strengthening its military and economic leverage over Europe, and that means a demonstration of American resolve in Poland. Failure to act on this dimension of the Ukrainian crisis will undermine Ukrainian independence and will reinforce the Russian goal of distancing Europe from the United States.

Russia has little interest in war with Ukraine, and failing to buy Ukraine’s future with a financial gift to Victor Yanukovych, Russian President Vladimir Putin now has only a limited tool set to use, beyond military actions, to disrupt growing Ukrainian ties to Europe. Make no mistake, though, Russia has been working for a long time through energy dependence and covert means to blunt closer European, much less American, connections to all the former Soviet states. From Mr. Putin’s perspective, Russia can leave nothing to chance.

As soon as he gained power, Mr. Putin began to restore Russia, particularly through exports of energy to key target areas, including Ukraine and Europe. The suspension of natural-gas deliveries has been used by Russia many times to gain Ukrainian concessions. An invasion of Georgia in 2008 further conveyed Russia’s willingness to project power over the “near abroad,” and its success was reinforced by weak international reactions, including those of a distracted United States.

Ukraine is different than Georgia, however. The Ukraine crisis persists in the world’s headlines, ensuring that bloodshed between Russian and Ukrainian military forces would profoundly undermine Russia’s drive for influence in Eurasia and its claim to legitimacy. This gives the United States leverage to act.

Mr. Putin may calculate that a low-intensity conflict may be sufficient to achieve his goals without losing public support at home. In addition, Mr. Putin continues his own form of economic sanctions to keep Europe off-balance, such as tacitly threatening energy arteries feeding European, especially German, industry. These tactics may be working, evidenced by Hungary’s prime minister eschewing sanctioning Russia because 80 percent of Hungarian energy comes from Russia, and by the visit of the CEO of Germany’s Siemens to Moscow to ensure their deals would survive.

It is clear Eastern Europe is increasingly nervous about its geopolitical position, with Moldova already being talked about as the next Ukraine. Poland, therefore, looms as the critical pivot point for American power projection. Strategically located and historically vulnerable Poland’s importance to the United States and Europe cannot be overstated.

U.S. responses to the Ukraine crisis are designed to extract economic costs from Russia, to strengthen Ukraine, and to restore confidence of Ukraine’s European neighbors. The United States is deploying some 600 troops to Poland and the Baltics, Danish F-16s will soon arrive in Estonia, and NATO is debating stationing forces in Eastern European NATO states. These steps are largely symbolic, but appropriate for the narrow window of opportunity that the West has to signal the full range of costs Russia will face as she angles to shape the May 25 Ukrainian elections.

A critical element of U.S. power projection would be the deployment of advanced air defenses to Poland. Poland has committed $45 billion to acquire air defenses to counter fighters, bombers, drones, cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles. Poland recently narrowed its selection to Patriot, MEADS (Medium Extended Air Defense System) and Israeli and French systems. All could provide important defensive capabilities to Poland, but in varying time periods.

The MEADS contractor appeals to economic considerations by offering Poland co-development and co-production opportunities, and claims better performance than its American competitor, Patriot. Yet, the U.S. Army has decided not to deploy MEADS, in part because of its huge cost overruns. The system remains a “concept system,” one that has not even been field-tested, much less deployed. Furthermore, the most generous of projections has MEADS online in 2018.

The U.S. air-defense system of choice is Patriot, which is actively deployed and can be rapidly fielded in Poland during this crisis period. As with all military systems, it is upgraded constantly, narrowing any claims for technical advantages of MEADS over Patriot. Patriot was deployed in Turkey in 2012 within weeks of Ankara’s request for air-defense enhancements along its border with Syria. Putting aside the money and politics surrounding a major procurement opportunity, Patriot can immediately provide the defensive military capability Poland needs, as well as the credible geopolitical signal the United States needs to send Russia in time to be relevant during this crisis.

The United States should propose deployment of Patriot in Poland as a credible, effective and inherently defensive military asset, one that can uniquely reinforce the broader U.S. geopolitical strategy today and in the future.

Jeffrey Starr served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia from 1998 to 2001.