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MOSCOW: Russia is likely to deploy advanced nuclear-capable missiles in its European exclave of Kaliningrad by 2019, casting the move as a reply to a US-backed missile shield, and may one day put them in Crimea too, sources close to its military predict.
That would fuel what is already the worst standoff between Russia and the West since the Cold War and put a swathe of territory in Nato members Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in the cross-hairs.
Russia would probably have deployed the missile — called the Iskander, the Persian name for Alexander the Great — in Kaliningrad regardless, and the targets it will cover can be struck by longer-range Russian missiles anyway.
But Russian and Western experts say the US-backed shield, which Moscow says is aimed at blunting its own nuclear capabilities, gives the Kremlin the political cover it needs to justify something it was planning all along.
“The Russians plan to do a lot of things they have had in train for some time,” said Steven Pifer, former US ambassador to Ukraine, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“There’s a long history in Moscow of saying what they’re doing is in response to what you guys did, even though they planned it in advance.” Nato is holding a summit in Warsaw next month to decide how best to deter Russia after Moscow’s lightning annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014. The United States, Britain and Germany have said they will command new battalions in Poland and the Baltics to send Moscow a message.
The summit may prompt Russia to announce counter-measures, but sources close to the Russian military believe Moscow will wait until a planned Polish missile defence site opens in late 2018 to unveil a more serious response.
The Kremlin has often threatened to put nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles in Kaliningrad, a slice of Russia wedged between Poland and Lithuania, as a riposte to the shield, part of which went online in Romania last month. But it has kept the West guessing about its real intentions.
Mikhail Barabanov, a senior research fellow at the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), which advises the Russian Defence Ministry, said it now looked like the Kremlin would deploy them there permanently by 2019.
“By all accounts, the deployment of the Iskanders in Kaliningrad Region is now inevitable,” Barabanov said, adding the missile brigade currently stationed there was using older shorter-range Tochka-U missiles slated for replacement.
The Iskander, a mobile ballistic missile system codenamed SS-26 Stone by Nato, replaced the Soviet Scud missile. Its two guided missiles have a range of up to 500 kilometres and can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads.
Russia has twice deployed Iskanders to Kaliningrad on exercises only to reportedly later withdraw them.
US military officials say the US-backed shield which Russia objects to is not aimed at countering a possible Russian threat, but at shooting down missiles from what it describes as rogue states like Iran. Russia says it simply doesn’t believe that explanation.
After the United States switched on the Romanian part of the shield, President Vladimir Putin warned Romania and Poland could find themselves targeted by Russian missiles.
“There’s a very high chance Iskanders will be deployed in Kaliningrad,” Ivan Konovalov, director of the Centre for Strategic Trend Studies in Moscow, said.