There was no immediate response from NATO, but Poland – potentially the most likely target – called the development “worrying,” while the State Department said the U.S. has “urged Moscow to take no steps to destabilize the region.”
Germany’s Bild newspaper reported at the weekend that according to satellite imagery Russia has moved Iskander-M missile systems into Kaliningrad, the small exclave of Russian territory wedged between Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic Sea. It said missiles also had been deployed along Russia’s borders with the Baltic states.
Russian defense ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov on Monday confirmed Iskander battalions had been deployed in Russia’s “western military district,” and said the move was not in violation of any international agreements.
His brief statement did not say how long the missiles have been deployed, how many there were, or narrow down their location.
The “western military district” includes the whole of western Russia, including Kaliningrad. The rest of the country is broken down into southern, central and eastern military districts.
Russia’s Izvestia newspaper quoted an unidentified defense ministry official as saying the missiles had been deployed “for some time” already.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. has raised concerns with Moscow “regarding Russia’s deployment of the Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad. We’ve urged Moscow to take no steps to destabilize the region. We’ve made that point with them.”
The Iskander (known by NATO as SS-26) is a mobile ballistic missile with a range of up to 250 miles. A launch from Kaliningrad could bring into reach much of Poland including Warsaw as well as Redzikowo, the small air base in the north of the country where missile interceptors are due to be stationed by 2018 as part of the NATO defense shield.
“Plans to deploy Iskander-M missiles in the Kaliningrad district are disturbing and Poland has said so many times,” the Polish foreign ministry said in a statement Monday, adding that it expected to hold consultations over the matter with NATO and the European Union. Lithuania also voiced concern.
The European missile defense shield, which is already operational at a limited level, is designed to protect against the threat of missile attack from Iran.
Russia views the Iran justification as a pretext, however, charging that the system will weaken its nuclear deterrent. It recently began arguing that an international nuclear deal reached with Iran last month would eliminate NATO’s declared reason for the system, although the U.S. dismisses the claim.
When the Soviet Union collapsed it shed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, leaving Kaliningrad cut off from the rest of the Russian federation. With Poland joining NATO in 1999, followed by the Baltic states in 2004, the now strategically-located exclave – which is roughly the size of Connecticut – became a useful tool for Kremlin saber-rattling against the West, both in response to NATO enlargement and missile defense proposals.
The missile defense dispute goes back more than a decade, and Russia has periodically raised the possibility of stationing missiles in Kaliningrad. As early as mid-2007 then-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov made the threat at a time when the Bush administration was moving ahead with an earlier version of the missile defense plan.
Late the following year, then-President Dmitry Medvedev in his first state-of-the-nation address said that if the missile defense system went ahead in Europe, Russia would deploy Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad to “neutralize” it.
At the time Russia-U.S. relations were at a low point after Russia’s invasion of Georgia that summer. During the brief war Russia fired several dozen shorter-range SS-21 missiles, and it was also reported – although not confirmed – that it used Iskanders then for the first time in combat conditions.
President Obama in 2009 abandoned some of the components of his predecessor’s missile defense project, replacing it with a phased plan, starting with ship-borne interceptors in southern Europe and later adding land-based ones in Romania and Poland, with the eventual aim of providing protection for all of Europe by 2018.
The alterations were widely viewed as a concession to Moscow in line with Obama’s pledge to “reset” strained bilateral relations, but the Kremlin remained unhappy.
Medvedev repeated the Kaliningrad threat in Nov. 2011, warning Russia may deploy “advanced offensive weapon systems” near its borders with Europe. He did so again at a security conference in Moscow in March 2012.
In May 2012, just days before Vladimir Putin returned for a third presidential term, Russia’s top general further raised the temperature, warning that the missile defense situation could lead to “a decision to use destructive force pre-emptively.”
“The placement of new strike weapons in the south and northwest of Russia against missile defense components, including the deployment of Iskander missile systems in Kaliningrad region, is one possible way of incapacitating the European missile defense infrastructure,” the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov as saying at an international conference in Moscow.
NATO repeatedly has invited Russia to cooperate in missile defense, but talks have stalled over differences about command and control, data-sharing and other issues, including Russian demands for written guarantees that the shield will never be used to neutralize its defenses.