Why the Iskander?

iskander.jpgAriel Cohen at Heritage believes that Moscow has made a “shrewd geopolitical move” by threatening U.S. president-elect Barack Obama with missiles in Kaliningrad, and may have inadvertently painted him into a corner, given that he will be reluctant to show any “sign of weakness.”  It is an especially aggressive piece, considering that this is a phantom issue – a distraction, but Cohen raises some interesting points.

The Kremlin and the Russian military are keeping the myth of a Western military menace alive for their own ends while using the threat of short-range missile deployment in Kaliningrad and the Baltic Fleet for two reasons.

First, the Russian military, despite its victories in Georgia, remains conventionally weaker than the NATO forces. According to U.S. military sources, Moscow may be seeking a pretext to integrate tactical nuclear systems, such as the dual-capacity conventional/nuclear Iskander, into frontline units that would otherwise be too weak to counter NATO. These integrated systems could also hit a broad range of targets in Europe, such as air bases, depots, and a concentration of NATO troops within the 280-kilometer range of the Iskander missile.

Second,Medvedev’s recent declaration of willingness to not deploy the missilesto Kaliningrad in exchange for a cancellation of the missile defensesystem reveals the political motive behind the initial declaration ofintent to deploy the Iskanders: By using missile deployment as abargaining chip, the Kremlin secures a means of further dividing Europeand United States over the missile system, a tactic reminiscent of theU.S.-Europe rift over the deployment of SS-20s in the 1980s.

Germanyand France in particular are unhappy with the U.S. not initially askingtheir permission for the missile defense deployment. This rancorfurthers weakens the alliance and adds fodder to EU security anddefense policy advocates’ opposition to NATO. Moscow counts onbolstering missile defense skeptics among American allies in Europe ifit places nuclear weapons on Poland’s border. Such skepticism, theKremlin believes, is strengthening its argument that the U.S. missileinterceptors will lead to a dangerous arms escalation in the region.

Russia’sthreat is indeed a shrewd geopolitical move. By opposing Washington,Moscow is trying to drive new wedges between “old” and “new” Europe,and between Europe and the U.S. As a major source of Europe’s energysupply, Russia has a tremendous amount of economic influence over U.S.allies in the region, enough to make its wedge-driving strategy arealistic threat.

The lack of a unified Western position allowsMoscow, also through the means of its energy diplomacy, to apply theancient Roman principle of divide et impera to its relationswith the Europeans and Americans. Without a strong and unified responsefrom the West, Russia will be able to maximize its advantages inEastern Europe and the former Soviet space while minimizing itsweaknesses and thereby achieve gains at the expense of U.S. and itsallies.