Sources close to the Russian military say the Kremlin will likely deploy nuclear-capable missiles directly on a NATO border, as well as to its newly annexed territory in Crimea.
The missile of concern is the SS-26 Stone, or “Iskander,” named after Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great. The short-range ballistic missile is custom-built to defeat air defense systems, such as the one NATO is currently implementing across its member states. Experts close to the Russian Defense Ministry say the weapons will likely be deployed in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave region located between Poland and Lithuania, by 2019, with deployments to Crimea possible later.
“By all accounts, the deployment of the Iskanders in Kaliningrad Region is now inevitable,” Mikhail Barabanov, a senior research fellow with Moscow’s Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), told Reuters. He noted the archaic Tochka-U missiles currently stationed in the region were supposed to be replaced, giving the Kremlin an excuse to make the upgrade.
Several NATO members are within the Iskander’s range if it’s deployed from Kaliningrad, including Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. A RAND corporation study found that Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania could be overrun by Russian forces within sixty hours, but it did not factor in the use of nuclear weapons. The threat posed to the Baltics is higher since with the Iskander in Kaliningrad.
U.S. forces activated a portion of a new missile defense system in Romania on May 12, much to the disdain of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Iskander, with its ability to defeat such systems, serves as an ideal counter-punch for the Kremlin.
“There’s a very high chance Iskanders will be deployed in Kaliningrad,” Ivan Konovalov, the director of Moscow’s Center for Strategic Trend Studies, told Reuters. “But the Iskanders are our ace card in the standoff over missile defense and NATO’s activity around our borders. We need to use it cleverly. There’s a big game going on and we don’t want to throw it away at the start. We’ll play it when Russia needs it most politically.”
Both Konovalov and Barabanov concurred that an Iskander deployment to Crimea in the future is likely, though current submarine deployments in the area would probably be enough for the time being.
The Iskander deployment question comes at a time when NATO-Russia tensions are the highest they have been since the Cold War. The back-and-forth jabs between the two powers have rapidly escalated since Putin’s military adventurism in Ukraine in 2014. As a result, Putin has made thinly veiled threats that he may use tactical nuclear weapons in a confrontation with NATO. Despite the clearly rising threat, the Obama administration has made significant cuts in missile defense procurement for next year’s military budget.
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