Belmont Club

The missiles of November

Former Spook, an ex-intelligence analyst, described Russia’s deployment of SS-26 Iskander to Kaliningrad as a “shot across the bow” of the incoming administration. The purpose of these missiles was to threaten to destroy components of the planned US anti-missile defense shield in to be based in Poland. The SS-26s themselves are fired from mobile launchers and designed to launch “effective missile strikes at small-size targets of particular importance” on very short notice. Russian President Dimitry Medvedev also said that Russia “plans to jam a radar located in the Czech Republic, used to detect in-bound missiles and guide the Polish-based interceptors.”

Together the moves are designed to neutralize the US ballistic missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. By threatening to destroy the interceptors and jam the radar which may guide them, Russia can blow a hole in the defense shield. But they always could, from sheer numbers alone. The shield was never designed to blunt a Russian attack only that of a rogue state’s. That makes the reasons for the Russian move all the more puzzling. According to Phil Coyle, a former Pentagon weapons tester quoted by Wired, the US ballistic missile defense systems are nearly useless, at least in their current state. “The system proposed for Poland and the Czech Republic doesn’t exist, has never been tested, and has no demonstrated effectiveness to defend Europe or the U.S. under realistic operational conditions”.

A Russian threat to bombard Poland simply because it had a potential defense system useful against Iran might be construed as overly provocative, especially since Barack Obama had said in his campaign that “he would institute an ‘Independent Defense Priorities Board,’ cut investments from an ‘unproven missile defense system,’ ‘set a goal for a world without nuclear weapons,’ ‘work with Russia to take our ICBM’s off hair trigger alert’ and ‘slow the development of Future Combat Systems.'” Why would Russia seek to provoke an Obama administration already prepared to concede the missile defense system? The answer, according to the private think-tank STRATFOR, was that the moves were aimed at emphasizing Russian strength to pry Russia away the Ukraine, a challenge which would split NATO.

The morning after Obama’s election, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced that Russia was deploying missiles in its European exclave of Kaliningrad in response to the U.S. deployment of ballistic missile defense systems in Poland. Obama opposed the Russians on their August intervention in Georgia, but he has never enunciated a clear Russia policy. We expect Ukraine will have shifted its political alignment toward Russia, and Moscow will be rapidly moving to create a sphere of influence before Obama can bring his attention — and U.S. power — to bear.

Obama will again turn to the Europeans to create a coalition to resist the Russians. But the Europeans will again be divided. The Germans can’t afford to alienate the Russians because of German energy dependence on Russia and because Germany does not want to fight another Cold War. The British and French may be more inclined to address the question, but certainly not to the point of resurrecting NATO as a major military force.

If STRATFOR is correct the Russian missile deployment is simply a prelude to a wider geopolitical game. It’s the opening bell of a main event whose outlines have yet to be definitely discerned.

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