(CNSNews.com) – Three months after the United States deployed the first asset in its new European missile defense architecture – a guided missile cruiser equipped to track and destroy ballistic missiles in flight – Russia is bristling at the ship’s presence in its neighborhood.
The USS Monterey, which deployed to Europe in early March, this week is reported to be taking part in annual multi-country exercises in the Black Sea, co-hosted by the U.S. and Ukraine.
In a strongly worded statement issued Sunday, the Russian foreign ministry deplored its presence, highlighting the Kremlin’s enduring concerns that the missile defense shield threatens its security by weakening the Russian nuclear deterrent.
Washington has long insisted that the system is designed to protect against potential missile attack from the Middle East, principally Iran, pointing out that it will be dwarfed by – and therefore pose to threat to – the Russian nuclear arsenal.
The Bush administration initially planned a ballistic missile defense (BMD) umbrella to defend its allies from the threat of long-range Iranian missiles, with facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia resisted.
Following a lengthy review, President Obama announced in 2009 an alternative “phased adaptive approach” designed to protect first southeastern Europe, and eventually all of the continent, against short- and medium-range missiles.
The first phase, according to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, comprises Aegis BMD-equipped ships deployed in the Mediterranean Sea and a transportable radar surveillance system located in southern Europe. A second phase, from 2015, will involve an interceptor located at a Romanian airbase.
Russia has been invited to participate in what is now a NATO project, but talks have stalled over differences about command and control issues.
Now Moscow wants to know why the Monterey has left the Mediterranean and is in the Black Sea.
The foreign ministry said Russia had made it clear it would view any deployment of “U.S. strategic infrastructure in the immediate vicinity of our borders” as a threat to Russia’s security.
“The reconnaissance by the American anti-missile personnel in the Black Sea once again proves the necessity of working out clear legal guarantees that the anti-missile defense system that is being deployed in Europe is not targeted against Russia’s nuclear deterrence potential,” it said.
The ministry also wondered why it was necessary for the Monterey to take part in the Sea Breeze 2011 exercise: “If this is an ordinary visit, then it is unclear why a warship with this type of armament was chosen to move to this quite sensitive region.”
According to the U.S. Navy, this year’s Sea Breeze exercise will cover counter-piracy operations, search and seizure training and non-combatant evacuation. A ground component will see forces train in combating piracy, drug, weapons and people smuggling and other illicit activity.
More than a dozen countries are taking part, most of them NATO members or members of the alliance’s Partnership for Peace program.
U.S. Navy Capt. Daniel Schebler said in Ukraine it was essential for countries to train together in order to operate efficiently as a team when necessary.
“We face threats nowadays that cross national borders and it’s important that we train and work together to counter those threats, whether it’s to counter trafficking of drugs, persons or weapons, or issues such as piracy in the Black and Mediterranean seas and around the world,” 6th Fleet Public Affairs quoted him as saying.
Asked about the Russian foreign ministry’s complaints, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Monday it was entitled to its opinion.
“But we have a strong bilateral relationship with Ukraine, and it’s in keeping with that kind of partnership that these exercises take place.”
Ukraine’s Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovich has moved away from his Western-leaning predecessor’s bid to take the former Soviet republic into NATO – an initiative which Moscow had firmly opposed.
Yanukovich also accommodated Russia by allowing its Black Sea Fleet to use the Crimean port of Sevastopol for another 25 years, in exchange for discounted natural gas supplies. His predecessor, Viktor Yuschenko, had wanted the Russian ships and personnel to leave when the current lease expired in 2017.
Still, Yanukovich has sought cordial ties with the West and did not block last year’s Sea Breeze drill shortly after taking office, or the 2011 one. The exercises have been conducted in Ukrainian waters most years since 1997.
Addressing a conference on NATO-Ukraine cooperation last week, U.S. Ambassador to Kiev John Tefft outlined avenues for working together, despite the decision by Ukraine’s parliament last year declaring the country a “non-bloc” state that will not pursue NATO membership.
“The United States fully supports Ukraine’s right to choose its own alliances, and to make such decisions independently,” Tefft said. “NATO membership is a demand-driven process, which requires aspirants to meet NATO’s performance-based standards. The alliance’s door remains open to Ukraine should it decide to pursue membership in the future.”