By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 6, 2008
MOSCOW, Nov. 5 -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned in a nationally televised address Wednesday that he will deploy short-range missiles near Poland capable of striking NATO
territory if the new Obama administration presses ahead with plans to build a missile defense shield in Europe.
The threat, which came just hours after the conclusion of the U.S. election, appeared intended to signal Moscow's priorities to the American president-elect. It could present an early foreign policy test for Barack Obama, who says he supports a missile defense system against Iran but has also accused the Bush administration of exaggerating the system's capabilities and rushing deployment for political purposes.
The Kremlin argues that the U.S. missile shield is a threat to Russia's national security. But the Bush administration has said it is designed only to intercept a potential nuclear launch from a country such as Iran and presents no danger to Russia, whose nuclear arsenal could easily overwhelm it.
Kremlin officials have floated plans before to move missiles into the Baltic region of Kaliningrad to counter the American shield, but Medvedev's warning was the most explicit and public statement of the threat to date by a top Russian leader. Some analysts described it as the first serious Russian military threat against the West since the fall of the Soviet Union, and it struck a discordant note amid an otherwise welcoming global reaction to Obama's election. The campaign declined to comment on Medvedev's warning.
In a wide-ranging speech in which he sharply criticized the United States but also offered to repair relations with its incoming president, Medvedev accused Washington of using Russia's recent war with Georgia as an excuse to accelerate development of the missile defense system. He said he would respond by deploying Iskander missiles "to neutralize, when necessary," the U.S. shield.
He said the missiles would be supplemented by "radioelectronic equipment" to jam the U.S. system and by naval forces, presumably missile-armed warships in the Baltic Sea. He also said he had canceled plans to dismantle three missile regiments south of Kaliningrad in the western town of Kozelsk.
"I want to stress that these are forced measures," he said. "We have told our partners more than once that we want positive cooperation, that we want to act together against common threats. But they, unfortunately, don't want to listen to us."
Iskander missiles are lightweight, high-precision, surface-to-surface rockets that can be launched quickly from mobile platforms and carry nuclear or conventional payloads. Officially, they can strike ground targets up to 170 miles away, but analysts said their actual range could be much greater.
From Kaliningrad -- a Russian exclave on the Baltic coast surrounded by Poland and Lithuania and cut off from the rest of Russia -- NATO territory would be within striking distance, including a proposed U.S. interceptor base that Poland agreed in August to host. It is unclear whether the Iskander could also hit a radar station scheduled to be built in the Czech Republic as part of the shield system.
Lithuania condemned the Russian plan and called on its NATO allies to intervene. "This is just a demonstration of force inside Russia carried out in justification of an aggressive ambition," said Defense Minister Juozas Olekas, according to the Interfax news agency.
Poland, Lithuania and the Czech Republic are all NATO members.
Alexander Pikayev, an arms control specialist at the Moscow-based Institute of World Economy and International Relations, said Russia has an arsenal of strategic nuclear missiles capable of striking Western Europe, but no land-based, tactical missiles that can do the same. A treaty between the United States and Russia in the early 1990s banned the use of medium-range missiles.
Deployment of the Iskander in Kaliningrad "would change the situation quite considerably," Pikayev said, and cause alarm in capitals across Europe.
Medvedev's remarks came in his first state of the nation address since taking office in May, a 90-minute speech in the Kremlin's grand St. George Hall in which he also proposed extending the term of the Russian presidency from four years to six. The idea renewed speculation about a return to office by his predecessor and patron, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, because the Kremlin said the change would not apply to Medvedev.
Medvedev outlined a limited agenda of political reforms, condemning the state's infringement of individual rights and calling for measures to give small opposition parties a few legislative seats and require the prime minister to answer to the parliament. But pro-democracy politicians dismissed the proposals as window dressing on an increasingly authoritarian system.
Medvedev devoted nearly a third of his speech to denouncing what he called the "mistaken, egotistical and sometimes simply dangerous" policies of the United States, which he blamed for causing the global financial crisis as well as the Georgian war in August.
But he also held out the possibility of a fresh start with Obama, saying he hoped "our new partners, the new U.S. administration, will make a choice in favor of a full-fledged relationship with Russia."
"It is true that these relations are not going through the easiest period today," he said. "But I would like to stress that we have no problems with the American people. We have no inherent anti-Americanism."
Medvedev also sent a telegram congratulating Obama. "Russian-American relations have historically been an important factor for stability in the world," he wrote, according to the Kremlin press service. "I hope for a constructive dialogue with you based on trust and consideration of each other's interests."
Though Medvedev and Putin have escalated their rhetoric against the United States since the Georgian war, analysts said the timing and anti-American tone of the speech were extraordinary given the widely held belief here that Obama is less ideological in his approach to Moscow than his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain.
Alexander Golts, a Russian writer and military affairs specialist, said Russian leaders since the Soviet era have generally refrained from aggressively criticizing the United States in the first months after a presidential election.
"But it's been less than 24 hours since the election, and the Russian president is announcing new measures against the U.S.," he said Wednesday. "It looks more than serious, and it's very strange."
Calling it the "first time in 20 years that Russia has announced a real military threat to the West," Golts said Medvedev's statement appeared intended to satisfy a domestic audience. Obama has been less than enthusiastic about the missile shield, and public threats by the Kremlin could make it more difficult for him to abandon the project, he said.
Talks on cooperating on the shield have all but collapsed, with the Russian government seeking some type of international control over the system and the Bush administration sticking with long-standing U.S. policy requiring strategic weapons to remain under Washington's command.
Asked for reaction to Medvedev's announcement, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, "We have made it clear that missile defense is designed to protect us all from rogue states."
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz in Washington contributed to this report.