Missile deployment signals a more assertive Russia

Iskander missile launcher Image copyright AP
Image caption Russia says the deployment of Iskander missiles in the western part of the country does not violate any international agreements

Russia has confirmed that it has deployed tactical ballistic missiles in its western military district along its borders with Nato.

At least some of the Iskander-M or SS-26 Stone missiles are believed to have been deployed in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

With a 400km (248 mile) range they could potentially threaten targets in the Baltic states and Poland.

The move is seen as yet another signal from Moscow of its unhappiness at Nato plans to station elements of its anti-missile defences close to Russian territory.

And it promises perhaps a more assertive stance from Russia over the coming year.

Missile diplomacy

Kaliningrad - a small parcel of Russian territory with a coastline on the Baltic Sea, squeezed between Lithuania to the north and Poland to the south, has frequently been the location for this kind of missile diplomacy.

In 2001 there were reports of SS-23 missiles being moved into the exclave. In early 2011 there were initial reports of the newer Iskander missile being deployed. Indications were that they were subsequently withdrawn.

Now again, nearly three years later, the Iskanders appear to be back.

So what is going on and what does the latest deployment of these missiles signify?

Russia has long-warned that it will take whatever steps it sees as necessary to counter US and Nato plans to develop anti-ballistic missile defences in Europe.

It is especially aggrieved at the land-based elements of such a system, some of which are to be deployed in Poland.

Efforts by both the US and Nato to convince Russia of the limited scope of their missile defence plans have failed to make much of an impact in Moscow.

Russia is also annoyed by what it sees as Nato's regressive re-orientation.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Nato insists the drills staged in Poland and the Baltic states were not aimed at sharpening defences against Russia

Amidst the winding down of its mission in Afghanistan, the Atlantic Alliance is re-focussing on its core business - the defence of the territory of its own members.

A recent exercise, Steadfast Jazz - held in November in Poland and the Baltic republics which simulated Nato reaction forces coming to the aid of an Alliance member that had been attacked - was seen in Moscow as an echo of the Cold War.

New direction

But Russian opposition to missile defence and its annoyance at Nato exercises are only part of the picture.

Russia itself is promoting a more assertive foreign policy.

As far as Moscow is concerned it has returned to Middle Eastern diplomacy, playing a key role in the Syria crisis and the Iranian nuclear discussions.

In military terms there has been a significant stepping up of Russian naval activity in the Mediterranean.

Russia has strong-armed the Ukrainian government into choosing between a tilt towards Brussels or Moscow.

And Russia is re-vamping a number of state-linked news organisations to better spread Moscow's message abroad.

Stepped up diplomacy and improvements to Russia's soft power projection have gone hand in hand with efforts to bolster its military power projection as well.

The naval deployments in the Mediterranean are only part of this.

Cold War re-visited?

Russia is attempting to modernise and professionalise its armed forces. But what is striking is the central role that it still gives to nuclear weapons.

New nuclear delivery systems are a top priority for President Vladimir Putin.

In part this reflects a necessary modernisation. But the focus on nuclear weaponry could also be a reflection of economic constraints and broader problems in upgrading the country's conventional forces.

Much of what Russia is doing is a response to perceived threats from the US.

Washington's prompt global strike plan for conventional missiles that can hit targets anywhere in the world at short notice has alarmed the Russians.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Deveselu base in southern Romania will house a US ballistic missile defence system

A senior Russian official insisted earlier this month that Moscow would have no hesitation in using nuclear weapons if its territory came under attack.

There may be echoes of the Cold War here. There is no looming confrontation.

Nonetheless all the signals are there that relations between Russia and the West could be heading for a bumpy period.

Next year Nato will hold a summit meeting in South Wales marking the end of its combat mission in Afghanistan.

A return to core business will inevitably throw up frictions with Moscow.

Nato and Western diplomats, in general, are going to have to deal with a more assertive and, in some senses, a more self-confident Russia.

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