Russia sees the European antiballistic missile defense shield (EPPA) as a threat meant to undermine its security and upset the post-Cold War strategic balance. In response, the German newspaper Bild has recently reported that Moscow deployed ten nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave north-east of the Polish border. These rockets are capable of inflicting serious damage deep into Polish and Baltic territory, and their deployment is designed to counter the U.S. plans for a missile shield in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Warsaw and Vilnius have already issued statements of concern. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said he did not receive any information from Russia regarding the deployment, but he expects consultations with NATO and EU partners in regards to the next steps for handling the issue. Artis Pabriks, the Latvian defense minister, said that Russian behavior undermines mutual trust and creates unnecessary political tension. The Baltic states are particularly wary about their relationship with Russia due to their close proximity and historical subordination under the Iron Curtain.
For Central and Eastern Europe, this “extra-deployment” news is worrisome, however it is not altogether surprising. The pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia reported that Russian offensive weapons have been placed on the NATO borders for as long as 18 months following the initial U.S. plan for the European defense shield. According to Stanisław Koziej, chief of the Polish National Security Bureau, the current deployment of Russian missiles in Kaliningrad is nothing more than the Kremlin’s propaganda tool designed to dissuade European public opinion about the need to develop air and missile defense architectures. For Russia, the latest progress toward a nuclear agreement with Iran was a good excuse to forcefully remind Europeans about their unnecessary ambitions to complete the EPAA. Following the successful expert-level talks between Tehran and six world powers over the implementation of a landmark nuclear deal, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the United States will no longer have a reason for building a long-touted missile defense shield in Europe, since its primary design was to deter threats from “rouge states” such as North Korea and Iran. But despite Russian missile propaganda, the United States is committed to developing the interceptor installations in Central and Eastern Europe to counter short, medium, and intermediate-range missile threats. Many Europeans have already expressed their concerns over the possibility of a next U.S. administration scrapping the EPAA altogether.
For the United States, the Russian deployment of Iskander missiles is nothing more than Moscow’s continued display of power in Central Europe and the Baltic states. Although the eastern frontier of NATO is not considered a high security threat, for Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltics, it is sometimes referred to as a playground where Washington’s and Moscow’s agendas clash. From the former Soviet satellite states’ standpoint, Russia aspires to restore its great power status by consciously moving along a negative trajectory vis-a-vis the United States. For Central Europe, the U.S. strategic pivot toward Asia and its engagement in the Middle East leaves Europe abandoned, with an open-door invitation for Russia to spread its pro-Putin influence and pseudo-deterrent intimidation. The United States believes, however, that NATO members in Europe should do more to guarantee their own security rather than constantly rely on U.S. support. This stalemate between Europe and the United States is an outcome of NATO’s lack of a strategic vision toward Russia. If Russia prevails, it will strengthen that country’s regional position in Eastern Europe. NATO strategy for the region needs rethinking and closer transatlantic cooperation. Europe continues to observe growing political regress in its eastern corner, now with Ukraine swiftly falling into the Russian grip. One can only imagine the magnitude of the Western failure if the next Zapad military exercises were to be carried out with Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian armies.