AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
In the Russian assault on Ukraine, one type of weaponry increasingly appears to be playing a decisive role in wearing down the Ukrainian defenders – ballistic missiles. For the United States and the rest of NATO, Russia’s effective use of missiles should be a dire warning about the need to bolster their missile defenses and develop adequate response capabilities in the event of future Russian aggression.
According to the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valeriy Zaluzhny, as of earlier this week the Russians had fired 113 missiles on the country, including the Kalibr cruise missile and short-range Iskander missile. Many of these were aimed not just at military targets, but also residential areas. In Kharkiv, an advisor to the Ukrainian Minister of the Interior reported that Russians had shelled residential buildings with Grad ballistic missiles, leading to dozens of civilian casualties.
Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, has also alleged that Russia has used a thermobaric weapon, known as a “vacuum bomb,” in its invasion of her country. While there has been no official confirmation of this claim, Ukraine State News has also reported that Russian forces dropped a vacuum bomb on the city of Akhtyrka, in the northeastern region of Sumy. Vacuum bombs can be particularly devastating in urban warfare, as they create a huge fireball and massive shock wave that can destroy reinforced buildings.
While Russia’s extensive use of ballistic missiles in Ukraine has certainly produced shocking images of destruction, it should perhaps not be all that surprising. In fact, President Ronald Reagan warned of the threat from Russian ballistic missiles all the way back in 1983 in an address that outlined an ambitious new plan for missile defense called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
Europe is also all too familiar with this danger. It is impossible to forget how disgruntled Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic’s army in November 1993, with 600 bombs and more than 20,000 shells, attacked downtown Sarajevo, shattering the peace euphoria that rose after the collapse of Soviet Union.
President Reagan’s prescient warnings about Russian missiles carried through to later administrations as well. During the first enlargement of NATO in March 1999, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright emphasized missile defense in remarks that were reminiscent of Reagan’s vision of an anti-nuclear umbrella.
Following growing aggression from Putin in the early 2000’s, the U.S. and NATO again began to take steps toward bolstering their missile defenses. The U.S., working with Poland, the Czech Republic, and Romania, developed the Ground Based Interceptors system with supporting radars that could detect and eliminate the latest Russian missile technology. Notably, the system would also have been part of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System that could have in the future intercepted long-range missiles from Iran.
However, following a meeting of NATO leaders at the Bucharest Summit in April of 2008, where all were in agreement on the project, Russia began sowing discord through its ambassadors in several key Eastern European countries, creating the false impression that the U.S. had hostile intentions.
First, Russians claimed that the proposed updated missile defenses could be used for the deployment of Tomahawk cruise missiles. Second, the Kremlin asserted that the radar stations would be able to detect the launch of Russia’s strategic weapons, diminishing its deterrence strength. Third, Putin opposed the establishment of further U.S. military bases on Russia’s borders.
None of Russia’s claims were true. All of the U.S. military installments would have been open for Russian inspection, and even Russian military specialists knew that the claims of Tomahawk missile deployments were false, as Russian specialist Alexander Golz recently wrote.
However, President Obama soon capitulated to Russian pressure, halting construction of a radar site in the Czech Republic. Mr. Obama defunding the project narrowed the deployment of U.S. military personnel, eliminating a need for new military bases. In the service of his idealistic goals about a renewed relationship with Russia, President Obama threw away the greatest chance for long-term security in Eastern Europe in a generation.
Obama’s defense spending cuts also undermined the development of new U.S. missile technology to keep pace with the Russians, and increasingly the Chinese, who have now successfully tested hypersonic missiles for which the U.S. has essentially no defense against.
At the same time, Putin continued to demand the complete dismantling of the entire missile defense infrastructure in Central and Eastern Europe. Now, the West sees clearly Putin’s goal: to leave the U.S. and its NATO allies defenseless against an onslaught of Russian missiles. For decades U.S. leaders naively bought Putin’s line about Russian security concerns, drawing down their defenses while Putin stockpiled weapons.
Thankfully, President Trump began a buildup of U.S. military capabilities again soon after taking office, and demanded that NATO allies meet their military spending requirements and not remain reliant on U.S. aid. That in part explains Putin’s reluctance to take aggressive action during President Trump’s tenure, as he has done now under every other American president in the 21st century.
While the West, and particularly eastern flank NATO countries, should stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people, they should also view the conflict as a dire warning about what could soon await them. Absent adequate defenses, Putin could soon turn a hail of missiles on any other country along his borders, all under the same false pretenses of ensuring Russian “security.” As President Reagan recognized, the best deterrence is strength, and investment in new defenses to counter whatever new weapons Putin hopes to use to expand his evil empire.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, theologian, and researcher.