Back in November 2008, then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev made a stark warning to NATO: “Russia will deploy Iskander missile systems in its enclave in Kaliningrad to neutralize, if necessary, the anti-ballistic missile system in Europe.” Subsequently we reported in 2013 that in a seeming escalation as the US ballistic shield of Europe appeared on its way to completion, there were unconfirmed reports that Russia had deployed a “double-digit” amount of SS-26 mobile units within Kaliningrad.
Fast forward to this past May, when in a dramatic development for the global nuclear balance of power, we reported that starting May 12, the United States would launch its European missile defense system dubbed Aegis Ashore at a remote airbase in the town of Deveselu, Romania, almost a decade after Washington proposed protecting NATO from Iranian rockets and despite repeated Russian warnings that the West is threatening the peace in central Europe.
As Robert Bell, a NATO-based envoy of U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter explained “we now have the capability to protect NATO in Europe. The Iranians are increasing their capabilities and we have to be ahead of that. The system is not aimed against Russia,” he told reporters, adding that the system will soon be handed over to NATO command.
We also noted that the Kremlin, which for years has warned that it would have no choice than to escalate proportionally, was “incensed at such of show of force by its Cold War rival in formerly communist-ruled eastern Europe where it once held sway.” Moscow said that the U.S.-led alliance is trying to encircle it close to the strategically important Black Sea, home to a Russian naval fleet and where NATO is also considering increasing patrols. Russia has good reason to be worried: the US move is a clear defection from the carefully established Game Theory equilibrium in the aftermath of the nuclear arms race, one which potentially removes a Russian first strike threat, thereby pressuring Russia.
We added that “the precarious nuclear balance of power in Europe has suddenly shifted, and quite dramatically: despite U.S. assurances, the Kremlin said the missile shield’s real aim is to neutralize Moscow’s nuclear arsenal long enough for the United States to make a first strike on Russia in the event of war.“
To be sure, Russia was furious and Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov told reporters in a conference call that “we have been saying right from when this story started that our experts are convinced that the deployment of the ABM system poses a certain threat to the Russian Federation” adding that “measures are being taken to ensure the necessary level of security for Russia,” he said. “The president himself, let me remind you, has repeatedly asked who the system will work against.”
The led us to the following conclusion in May: “we are absolutely certain, another nuclear ICBM deployment in the proximity of central Europe is imminent as Russia has no choice but to respond and this time it will be very much confirmed.“
This was indeed confirmed yesterday when the WSJ reported that Russia has shipped a sophisticated nuclear-capable missile system toward its territorial exclave bordering Poland, according to Western government officials, introducing a powerful military asset into an already tense region and prompting expressions of concern by allied officials.
A Russian naval ship had been observed carrying an Iskander missile system toward the country’s Kaliningrad port. Kaliningrad is a seaside exclave of Russian territory between Poland and Lithuania.
The WSJ observes that Russia has stationed the system in Kaliningrad before, but only briefly, for military exercises. Confirming our previous reports, it also notes that the Kremlin has threatened to deploy the Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad on a permanent basis in response to the construction of the Aegis Ashore missile defense system in Poland.
Iskander missile systems are mobile and carry two solid-propellant single-stage guided missiles. While there are various versions of the system, the guided missiles have a range of between 250 and 310 miles. That would give it access to most of the territory of the Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—and their southern neighbor, Poland.
Missiles launched from versions of the Iskander system could reach from Kaliningrad well into Germany, U.S. military officials have said. This presents challenges for the American-made NATO missile defense system, which is designed to intercept missiles traveling much longer distances.
While Russian officials contacted by the Wall Street Journal declined to comment on the alleged move, Western officials said they believe Moscow deployed the missiles on a temporary basis as a display of strength as its relations with the U.S. reach a low. Having accurately predicted the Russian response earlier in the year, we very much doubt this move is temporary. In fact, quite the opposite.
And while NATO has been quite eager to expand its presence in countries neighboring Russia, and to engage in the Aegis Ashore ABM shield which Russia explicitly warned would lead to this retaliation, it was certainly not happy with the Russian action.
“While we cannot comment on intelligence matters, any deployment close to our borders of missiles that can carry nuclear warheads would not help to lower tensions,” Mr. White said. “We need more—not less—transparency and predictability on military activities to avoid incidents and the risk of misunderstandings.”
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This is merely the latest escalation in long-running processm in which both sides have provoked each other to encourage even more military retaliation. The past year has also witnessed a steady rise in tensions between Russia and European neighbors such as Poland.
On the Russian side, the military has deployed increasingly sophisticated surface-to-surface missiles and mobile infantry divisions capable of seizing all three Baltic states within 60 hours, according to a recent analysis by the Rand Corporation, a U.S.-based think tank. On Friday, a Russian war plane flew into Estonian air space, an increasingly frequent occurrence in that area.
The U.S. and NATO have also boosted their own position in the Baltics. In July, NATO agreed to position up to 4,000 soldiers in Poland and each of the Baltic States beginning in 2017. The U.S. is set to begin rotating a heavy brigade, to be headquartered in Poland.
Cited by the WSJ, Air Force Lt Col David Faggard, a spokesman for U.S. European Command in Germany, said he was aware of the public reports of the deployment. “If these reports are true, this would mark an unfortunate and unnecessary event that could lead to unintended escalation and destabilization,” he said.
Considering that Putin is responding to a previous NATO action which he warned would lead to precisely this outcome, we are confident that an “unintended escalation and destabilization” is precisely what NATO originally desired.
A schematic of the Iskander (SS-26 Stone) missile system is shown below.