The return of missile diplomacy

Dmitry Medvedev attending the WEF

Missile diplomacy is now back in full swing as Russia pledges to deploy new missiles in its westernmost region, Sergei Blagov writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Sergei Blagov for ISN Security Watch

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in his first state-of-the-nation address on 5 November, announced that Russia would deploy new missiles in Kaliningrad, the country’s western enclave situated between Lithuania and Poland on the Baltic Sea.

Medvedev ordered the Iskander nuclear-capable short-range missile systems deployed on the EU’s eastern frontier, saying prompt action was necessary because the West had ignored Russia’s concerns over planned US missile defense installations in Eastern Europe.

The European Union expressed strong concern over Russia’s decision to deploy missiles in Kaliningrad. NATO criticized the move as well, and the outgoing Bush administration has repeated its disappointment with Russia’s stated missile intentions. In contrast, China’s Foreign Ministry reportedly voiced “understanding” concerning Russia’s decision.

Some analysts speculated that Russia was challenging US President-elect Barack Obama by the Kaliningrad announcement, which came within hours of the election results.

However, the Russia move should have come as no surprise to observers. In recent years, the Kremlin has repeatedly blamed US missile defense plans for raising the risk of a nuclear confrontation in Europe and warned that Russia would respond by targeting European countries with its missiles, “turning Europe into a powder keg.”

As early as July 2007, officials in Moscow warned that Russia could deploy short-range missiles in the Kaliningrad region as a response to US missile defense actions. The deployment of the Iskander (“Alexander the Great”) missiles in Kaliningrad could place a sizable chunk of NATO territory within their range, rendering these short-range tactical missiles strategic weapons.

In May 2007, Russia successfully tested a new cruise version of the Iskander-M (SS-26 Stone). The R-500, a new cruise missile adapted for the Iskander launcher, was reported to be able to overcome air and missile defenses, while its range remained limited to 500 kilometers, still in line with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

The Kremlin has also questioned the INF’s relevance. The INF Treaty between the US and the former Soviet Union, signed in 1987, eliminated nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers. In February 2007, then-president Vladimir Putin declared that the INF no longer served Russia’s interests.

Apart from threats to respond to US missile defense creep, Russia has also tried to negotiate with the US on the issue. In May and July 2007, Russia suggested the two countries jointly use the Armavir radar station now under construction in southern Russia, and offered to share with the US the Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan. While not overtly rejecting Russian initiatives, Washington moved ahead with its missile shield in Eastern Europe.

Last year, Russia moved to abandon a key European arms control treaty, which limited armed forces deployment in a vast area between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains. In July 2007, Russia withdrew from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). Moscow’s departure from the CFE Treaty came as the latest in a series of Russian gestures, aimed to highlight its opposition against US missile defense plans for Eastern Europe.

Russian experts also remain divided over the proposed Kaliningrad missile deployment. Some insisted that measures suggested by Medvedev would suffice to “neutralize” the threat posed by the US facilities. Others argue the plan is little more than a political gesture lacking actual military substance.

The Kremlin itself lost little time in clarifying its Kaliningrad missile plans. One day after the announcement, Medvedev said that Russia was ready for better relations with the incoming US president. Following talks with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice over the weekend, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly voiced hope of a constructive defense shield dialog with Obama’s administration.

Furthermore, Russian officials made it clear the Kaliningrad missile deployment plans were not final. All measures announced by Medvedev could be reviewed if Washington agreed to review its own strategy in Europe, argued Konstantin Kosachev, head of the international relations committee of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. “As long as they create problems for us, encircle Russia by new weapons systems, Russia will react,” he was quoted as saying. “Obama will come to understand that Russia is seriously concerned over the European development,” Kosachev said.

Russia appeared to be successful it getting itself placed on top of Obama’s agenda, with the president-elect’s advisers clarifying that Obama had made no commitment to a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, despite pledges to the contrary by Polish President Lech Kaczynski.

Following Medvedev’s remarks on the Kaliningrad missile deployment, Russia received new proposals from the US on the planned anti-missile system – proposals Moscow swiftly rejected as unsatisfactory.

By announcing deployment of the Iskander missiles, Medvedev apparently intended neither to steal headlines from Obama’s victory, nor to come up with a cold-war-style challenge for the president-elect. And Russia hardly has any interest in turning the Central Europe into the frontline of a new cold war. Instead, the Kaliningrad move should be viewed as Moscow’s attempt to gain another bargaining tool in negotiations with a new US administration.

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