A pro-Russia militant holds up a stuffed animal as others look on at the site of the crash of a Malaysian airliner in rebel-held east Ukraine on July 18. (Dominique Faget / Getty Images)
WARSAW — The shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines passenger aircraft over eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists are fighting against Ukraine’s pro-government troops, is likely to further contribute to security concerns in Eastern Europe, where NATO allies eye increased cooperation in the field of defense and joint arms procurements.
The Ukraine issue and the shootdown is expected to be front and center this week during a meeting of Eastern European NATO member states in Warsaw. It is also expected to speed up plans for joint weapons purchases, for items as small as ammunition and as large as fighter jets.
As of July 18, Russia and Ukraine had denied responsibility for the surface-to-air missile strike that took down the Malaysian airliner July 17, killing 298 passengers and crew members aboard the Boeing 777-200.
In response to the latest developments, Ukrainian officials say that the government’s military strategy in eastern Ukraine needs to be overhauled.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on July 18 that Russia’s direct military involvement in the conflict necessitates that the Ukrainian Armed Forces modify their “tactical approach” to the ongoing operation against pro-Russian separatists. Poroshenko said the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces was planning to regroup troops in eastern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, local analysts say Poroshenko, who assumed office June 7, has succeeded in enhancing the coordination and effectiveness of Ukraine’s military efforts, allowing pro-government troops to secure several cities in the country’s east, including Sloviansk, one of the former strongholds of Russia-backed rebels.
“The bulk of [Ukraine’s] military efforts is carried out by regular forces, while, at an earlier stage, the volunteers of National Guard and other informal units, which had much less training, were largely responsible [for these efforts],” the Centre for Eastern Studies, a Polish government-run think tank, said in a July 9 analysis.
Common Defense Projects
The issue of the escalating conflict in Ukraine is likely to be addressed at a regional summit to be held by Eastern European NATO member states this week. Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and his counterparts from the three Baltic States, which comprise Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as the presidents of Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania and Bulgaria are set to meet July 22 in Warsaw to discuss potential fields of defense and security cooperation by the nine countries.
“We would very much like that these countries present a common view on the future of NATO,” Komorowski said, as quoted by local news agency PAP. “This common position must comprise the issue of strengthening NATO on its eastern flank.”
Ahead of the July 22 talks, Slovak President Andrej Kiska said that, due to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, there is a “lower level of security” in the region, and, as a result, the involved Eastern European allies should “work on joint projects in the field of defense.”
The Polish government has been one of the most vocal critics of Russia’s occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk condemned the shooting down of the airliner as an “act of terror.”
Joint Arms Procurements
Some countries are already launching joint defense projects in response to the Ukraine crisis.
In late April, the Czech and Slovak defense ministries signed an agreement to launch joint air patrols next year and cooperate on special forces operations and military procurements.
Under the plan, some of the joint acquisitions of weapons and military equipment are to include radars and personal weapons for Slovak and Czech troops.
In addition to this, the Slovak Air Force is reportedly planning to acquire Saab JAS 39 Gripen fighter jets to replace its fleet of Russia-built Mikoyan MiG-29 aircraft. This would increase the interoperability of the two armed forces, as the Czech Air Force operates Gripens.
The aspect of joint procurements was further explored by a deal signed by the two ministries July 17. The document “confirms the willingness and readiness of the Czech Ministry of Defense to work closely with its Slovak counterpart” in the field of “acquisitions of personal weapons,” the Czech ministry said in a statement. The possible joint purchases could include assault rifles and handguns.
Meanwhile, local analysts say neighboring countries are increasingly eyeing joint purchases of weapons for their respective armed forces, responding to increased security concerns in the region by a closer cooperation of Eastern European militaries.
As an example of such a trend, Sweden’s Saab and the European Defence Agency this month signed a framework agreement for potential orders of Carl-Gustaf ammunition to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the Czech Republic. The deal, signed by the five EU and NATO member states, is for a five-year period, and includes an option for a two-year renewal.
The contract is for potential orders of about 460 million krona (US $67.5 million), the Swedish firm said in a statement. ■