Russia has “suspended” plans to deploy Iskander missiles in its European enclave of Kaliningrad.  Unveiled in November, the plans were intended to be a response to the U.S. missile defense installations scheduled to be built in the Czech Republic and Poland.  A Russian military official said the announcement is related to indications from the U.S. that Obama is reconsidering whether to move forward with the defense system.


Russia has halted plans to deploy missiles near the Polish border, a Russian news agency quoted the military as saying on Wednesday, in the clearest sign yet Moscow is seeking better ties with the new U.S. administration.

Moscow had threatened to deploy the missiles to counter a missile shield proposed by former President George W. Bush for eastern Europe.  President Barack Obama has not reversed Bush’s decision but has said he would consider it on its merits.  Analysts said if confirmed the Russian move – which follows a phone conversation this week between Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev – could open the way for renewed dialogue on other issues that divide their countries.


“The implementation of these plans has been halted in connection with the fact that the new U.S. administration is not rushing through plans to deploy” elements of its missile defense shield in Europe, Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed official in the Russian military’s general staff as saying.

According to Deutsche Welle, the anonymous government source said, “Russia doesn’t need the Iskander missiles if there won’t be any U.S. missile defense elements in eastern Europe.”  Spiegel similarly attributed the following to Interfax: “The realization of these plans has been suspended in connection with the fact that the new US administration is not forging ahead with plans to deploy US missile defense elements in Poland and the Czech Republic.”

Analysts are calling the halt a signal of goodwill amid Moscow’s continued concern over NATO’s eastward expansion and its perception of the missile defense system as a threat to Russia.  Incidentally, Medvedev ordered the missile deployment to Kaliningrad, a small enclave between Poland and Lithuania, the day of Obama’s election; news then followed that deployment of the Iskanders would be contingent upon construction of the U.S. missile defense bases.

Obama has said that he wants assurances the missile defense system works before it is constructed in Europe.  Putin specifically mentioned this when discussing Moscow’s decision.  The FT: “Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin said this week in a television interview, ‘In Obama’s inner circle, they are saying there is no need to rush it [the missile deployment], and it needs to be further analysed, and we welcome such statements.'”

Unfortunately, a few reasons to be skeptical remain.  First, today’s “conciliatory move” (as the Guardian calls it) appears intentionally timed to coincide with a speech by Putin at the Davos summit.  Second, the FT noted that other Russian government sources were quick to dismiss as “rubbish” the news that missiles would not be deployed in Kaliningrad.  Finally, the presence (or lack of presence) of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad doesn’t seem to be a major challenge to the existing European security architecture; former Atlantic Council assistant editor Neil Leslie:

The new generation of Iskanders deliver a conventional 900-pound warhead to targets up to 400 kilometers away, putting them within range of the BMDS [Ballistic Missile Defense System] units in northern Poland.  The Iskanders, launched from mobile trucks, follow a flat trajectory and are capable of violent evasive maneuvers, including the deployment of decoys that allow the missiles to bypass hostile countermeasures.  This gives them a high probability of successfully evading BMDS units in Poland that are designed to take down ICBMs coasting above the atmosphere, rather than Iskander missiles which do not follow a traditional ballistic trajectory.  In order to protect DoD assets from Iskander strikes, the U.S. would have to rely on short- to medium-range interceptors such as the Patriot (PAC-3) and Aegis systems, capable only of limited area defense.

True, the Iskander is an offensive weapon capable of targeting missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, but this does not mean the U.S. BDMS will be “neutralized” as Medvedev claims.  Nor does it increase the likelihood that Russia will seek to use these missiles in a pre-emptive strike.  Such an attack would result in immediate and overwhelming retaliation by NATO, which the Kremlin will continue to avoid.  Military strategy, therefore, will not fundamentally change if the construction of BMDS or the stationing of missiles in Kaliningrad goes ahead.

Update – 1/29/09:

At a news briefing Wednesday, a State Department spokesman said that the U.S. cannot confirm reports in the Russian media that Moscow is halting the deployment of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over the phone on Tuesday, but the content of this conversation was not made public.  Again, until official Russian confirmation of such plans or a U.S.-Russia dialogue over missile defense emerges, the reports remain welcome news but should not be over-interpreted.

Peter Cassata is associate editor of the Atlantic Council.