Russia tests NATO alliance in Eastern Europe

News that you have not seen reported on the network evening news programs this week . . . NPR reports Russia Seen Moving New Missiles To Eastern Europe:

In what could mark an escalation of tensions with the West, commercial satellite images suggest that Russia is moving a new generation of nuclear-capable missiles into Eastern Europe.

Russia appears to be preparing to permanently base its Iskander missile system in Kaliningrad, a sliver of territory it controls along the Baltic coast between Lithuania and Poland. Arms control experts shared fresh satellite imagery with NPR, which they say provides evidence that the Iskander will soon be housed in the Russian-controlled enclave.

The images show ground being cleared for tentlike shelters used at other Iskander bases, says Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “The pattern, and the size, and the location strongly suggest to us that this is the beginning phase of construction of the shelters for Iskander,” Lewis says.

Kalingrad

Lewis and Finnish defense analyst Veli-Pekka Kivimäki, a doctoral student on open-source intelligence, discovered the construction through digital sleuthing. First, they searched Russia’s Facebook, known as VKontakte, for images taken by military conscripts assigned to missile units (Russian grunts are prolific on social media, according to Lewis). Comparing the images posted by conscripts to the satellite imagery, they were able to pinpoint the missile base in Kaliningrad where the Iskanders have sometimes been sent on training exercises.

They then monitored the bases until they saw construction of what they recognized as permanent storage structures used for Iskander missiles.

Lewis says placing Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad is a provocative act. Kaliningrad has been controlled by Russia since World War II. It lies far to the west of Russia’s own border, putting any missiles based there within range of additional targets in Europe. “Things that are in Kaliningrad… can reach places that they could not otherwise reach in Russia,” Lewis says.

Lewis and other experts believe Russia may be also developing a longer-range cruise missile that would allow the Iskander system to reach targets in Western Europe as well. That missile, if it does exist, would violate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which prohibits medium-range cruise missiles from being deployed on the ground.

If Russia has decided to permanently position Iskander in Kaliningrad, “It may be in response to a number of things,” says retired Brig. Gen. Peter Zwack, who served as defense attaché to Russia from 2012 to 2014.

The U.S. has recently deployed a missile defense system in Romania and is building a second base in Poland. U.S. and European officials say those sites are to defend against potential ballistic launches from Iran, but Zwack says that Russia views them as provocations. The new Polish missile defense site would be within range of the Iskander, adds Lewis.

But Zwack says it’s important not to overreact. Russia already has nuclear-capable systems based in Kaliningrad, including SS-21 ballistic missiles. The new Iskanders will “freak the local neighbors,” he says, but they “will not change any strategic equation, because if they go into tactical mode, it’s the end of the world anyway.”

Ultimately, Zwack says he believes any decision to put Iskanders into Kaliningrad is about sending a message to NATO and the West that Russia disapproves of their activities.

The Wall Street Journal adds, Russia’s Buildup in Kaliningrad to Test Donald Trump on NATO:

Military maneuvering here in the Baltic region by Russia and NATO presents a challenge for President-elect Donald Trump and his commitment to America’s European allies.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization plans to station a multinational force on its eastern flank by May as a deterrent following Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine. But already in January, a brigade from the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division will arrive in Germany and then move to Poland—before Inauguration Day, according to U.S. military officials.

After conducting systems tests in Poland, one battalion will go back to Germany to the training center, another battalion will go to the Baltic states and one battalion will go to Romania, the officials said.

NATO military officials held an exercise last week to help plan the deployment. “There are units ready to deploy on the other side of the holidays,” U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Russia has been moving in recent months to deploy new antiship missile systems, S-400 air defenses and nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to the Kaliningrad region, long its citadel on the Baltic Sea.

The exclave is now sandwiched between new NATO members Poland and Lithuania. Officials in Washington and Brussels have said the buildup is meant to test the Western alliance—a postwar mutual-defense pact that Mr. Trump raised questions about during his campaign.

State Department spokesman John Kirby last month called the deployment unwarranted and “destabilizing to European security.”

Moscow quickly fired back.

“Russian state security is the prerogative of our country’s leadership alone,” said Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the ministry of defense. “So any claims and suggestions about where, when, what and how we need to ensure our security on our territory, keep to yourselves.”

Russian officials have described the Iskander deployment as a counterweight to missile-defense systems the U.S. has put in Romania and plans to install in Poland. Washington says the systems are to guard against missiles fired toward Europe from countries such as Iran, but Russia sees them as a threat.

Asked in November about the missile deployment, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by the news agency Interfax as saying: ”NATO is an aggressive bloc, so Russia is doing everything necessary to respond to that.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described the alliance’s moves as measured.

“We don’t want confrontation,” he said Wednesday. “But we have to respond when we see a more assertive Russia acting the way that they have done in Ukraine and the military build up close to our borders.”

Despite the heated rhetoric, President Vladimir Putin said Russia is “ready to cooperate” with the Trump administration. “It is important to normalize [ties] and begin to develop a bilateral relationship,” he said on Dec. 1.

During his campaign, Mr. Trump expressed admiration for Mr. Putin’s leadership and said the U.S. and Russia could cooperate more on fighting terrorism.

Meanwhile, his comments about NATO’s collective defense obligations have raised hackles among U.S. allies. In an interview with the New York Times, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked the Baltic states, he would consider coming to their defense only after reviewing “if they have fulfilled their obligations to us.”

Perhaps the Russians are preparing to test this naive political novice in the early days of his administration to see just how much they can get away with in Ukraine and the Baltic states. We may soon find out just how much Trump is Putin’s puppet.

2 responses to “Russia tests NATO alliance in Eastern Europe

  1. Senator John Kavanagh

    Looks like it’s time for President Obama to draw another symbolic line in the sand. His weakness emboldened Russia. Hopefully that will end with Trump.