On November 5th – less than 24 hours after the victory of Barack Obama in the US presidential race – Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced that his country would install short-range semiballistic missiles in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.
The deployment is part of Russia’s bid to halt the construction of the Ballistic Missile Defense Shield in Europe, a project virulently opposed by the Kremlin. Medvedev’s statement is a clear indication that after months of threats and intimidation, the Russian leadership has finally settled on a definitive course of action. The sheer audacity of their plan will become obvious once we take a closer look at the details of the proposed move.
Kaliningrad Oblast, the region that will host the missiles, is one of Russia’s most strategically important pieces of real estate. Roughly the size of Connecticut and not territorially contiguous with Russia proper, Kaliningrad is located some 350 kilometers west of Russia’s border. Situated on the coast of the Baltic Sea, it is bounded by Lithuania to the north and Poland to the south.
Poland has recently come to play a crucial role in the construction of the Defense Shield by agreeing to host ten interceptor missile silos. Warsaw’s decision has greatly angered the Kremlin which has frenetically sought to dissuade Poland from participating in the project. In a statement made earlier this year, Vladimir Putin even went so far as to hint at the possibility of a nuclear strike.
Given Russia’s strenuous opposition to the Shield, there is something incongruous about its choice of countermeasure. A single-stage missile, the Iskander carries a non-detachable warhead which takes about 480 kilograms of conventional explosives. The rocket’s parameters are decidedly modest as far as modern missile weaponry goes and a far cry from the bombastic rhetoric of only a few months ago.
The Russian psyche has always been inclined toward the grandiose and dramatic. The deployment of the relatively unimpressive Iskander is thus sharply at variance with the Russian way of doing things. This should raise red flags, especially with Vladimir Putin in charge, a man who first made a name for himself as a wily KGB agent. Clearly, there is more to the plan than meets the eye.
The more we probe the details of the upcoming deployment, the more obvious it becomes that that the Russians intend to do something which has until now been considered unthinkable. They actually do mean to use those rockets.
Having failed to block the construction of the Shield by diplomacy, intimidation and threats, the Russians have realized that they must pull off something dramatic in order to derail the project. At the same time, they need to be careful that their move is not so excessive as to provoke a full-fledged military escalation. With Obama in the White House, they think they have come up with the solution.
Once we connect the dots, the outlines of their ploy emerge with sobering clarity. What the Russians intend to do is to attack one of the Polish interceptor silos, but in a manner that will cause minimum damage and casualties.
This explains the choice of the Iskander whose parameters are ideal for the job. Due to its relatively small payload, the missile does not cause widespread destruction; it is primarily used to target single structures such as factory building, store depots and airport terminals. The physical damage that an Iskander rocket would inflict on a silo under construction would thus be limited. And if fired at the right moment – late at night, for example – it may be possible to avoid casualties altogether.
The Kremlin’s calculation is that such a show of strength would impress and intimidate the coming US president. At the same time, the limited extent of the injury would not force his hand into initiating a wide-scale military confrontation. A vacillating president could justifiably resort to lesser measures and still save face, even winning praise for exercising restraint from the international community.
The question is how President Obama would respond to such a contingency. The Russians have apparently concluded that he would not take America to war over an incident involving limited damage and few casualties. After all, even hawkish Ronald Reagan did little to respond to the deadly attack on US marine barracks in Lebanon. Bill Clinton did virtually nothing to punish those behind the attacks on two US embassies in Africa and on the USS Cole. Even though those acts were committed by stateless terrorist organizations, the United States had a good idea which countries provided haven and support. And yet America chose not to respond. Moscow thus feels reasonably confident that the US will not want an escalation over a relatively minor event, especially while it is being overextended with two wars elsewhere.
The Russians will make Obama’s position more difficult by claiming they had intelligence showing that the targeted silo was being fitted with offensive armaments. Such a situation cannot be tolerated, they will say, as it would place potentially hostile ballistic missiles within 600 hundred kilometers of their border. This would be the same as the United States facing the possibility of a ballistic attack from the Cayman Islands. Should the US offer evidence refuting Russian claims, they will fall back on the excuse of faulty intelligence. Their error should not be judged too harshly, they will argue, especially not by a country that was so wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
This being said, the Russians are fully aware that there well may be harsh consequences to their attack. Obama may organize an international regime of sanctions; there will be diplomatic condemnation and possibly a host of other penalties as well. The United States may even attack Kaliningrad and destroy the site and weapon systems responsible for the launch. But this is all a price Russia is willing to pay as long as the United States stops pressing ahead with the Shield.
They are probably correct. To begin with, Barack Obama has never publicly embraced the Defense Shield. While campaigning for the Democratic nomination, he repeatedly made statements that seemed to suggest he might put the project on hold if elected. Earlier this year in a video statement to a group called Caucus for Priorities, Obama said, “I will cut tens of billions of dollars in wasteful spending. I will cut investments in unproven missile defense systems.”
When several months later Obama was asked by a reporter about his views on the issue, he said, “I think it makes perfect sense to deploy a system that works. But we have to make sure that the technology works. And without having reviewed the technological capabilities of the system that’s being deployed in Poland, I’ve said that Congress should review it.”
These statements suggest that Obama may be toying with the idea of scrapping the project. A Russian strike may give him just the excuse he needs. Once the furor and outrage subside, the Russians themselves will help Obama make his case. They will pledge to cut all atomic cooperation with Iran and promise to pressure other rogue regimes into abandoning their nuclear weapons programs. With assurances such as these, Obama will be able to say that the Shield is no longer needed, since it was the threat from these countries that prompted its construction in the first place. Now, with Moscow’s cooperation, the problem will be taken care of.
Most westerners will greet such an announcement with joy and approval. But if they would turn eastward and listen carefully, they would hear an echo of hearty laughter bouncing off the Kremlin’s walls.