Lithuania, Poland concerned about deployment of missiles by Russia

AP

Lithuania and Poland on Monday expressed concern about signals that Russia has deployed state-of-the-art missiles in a territory that borders the NATO countries.

The U.S. State Department also said that it has urged Russia to avoid taking any steps that could destabilize that region.

Russia’s Defense Ministry gave an oblique response Monday to a report in the German daily Bild claiming that Russia has sent the Iskander short-range missiles to its westernmost Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic Sea. The ministry said the missiles had been positioned in an unspecified location in western Russia, and argued that the deployment does not contradict any international treaties.

While the ministry was coy about the exact location of the missiles, the Kremlin-friendly daily Izvestia, which reportedly has close links to Russian security agencies, said the missiles were deployed more than a year ago.

Asked about the reported missile deployment, U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Washington has “shared with Russia the concerns that countries in the neighborhood have . . . regarding Russia’s deployment of the Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad.”

“We’ve urged Moscow to take no steps to destabilize the region,” she added. “We’ve made that point with them.”

If true, the reports about the Iskander deployment to Kaliningrad would come as no surprise.

President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials have talked about such a move for years, casting it as a necessary counterbalance to the development of the U.S.-led NATO missile defense for Europe. Moscow sees the missile shield as a threat to its nuclear deterrent.

While the deployment of the Iskander missiles will have little impact on the military balance between Russia and NATO, it could further damage Russia’s ties with the West, which already have been strained by disputes over the U.S. missile shield, Russia’s human rights record and, most recently, Ukraine.

“I am worried about signals that Russia is about to modernize missile systems it has deployed in Kaliningrad,” Lithuanian Defense Minister Juozas Olekas told reporters. “Further militarization of this region, bordering the Baltic states and NATO, creates further anxiety, and we will be watching situation there closely.”

Poland’s Foreign Ministry said that while it does not have any official information from Russia, it is concerned about the reports.

“Deployment of Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad region would be against the spirit of positive cooperation between Poland and Russia,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Marcin Wojciechowski said.

Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, said only that “specific areas of the Iskander missile systems’ location in the Western Military District don’t violate any international agreements.” The Western Military District includes most provinces in western and northwestern Russia, including the Kaliningrad region.

The Iskander missile, which has a range of up to 500 km, travels at hypersonic speeds that make it very difficult to intercept and is capable of hitting targets with a precision of a few meters. It was first used in action in Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia.

It normally carries a conventional warhead, but some Russian media reports indicated that it can also be fitted with a nuclear one.

Thanks to their high accuracy and the ability to dodge the enemy’s defenses, the Iskander missiles boost the Russian military capability, but so far they have been deployed in relatively small numbers. Just a few dozen have entered service with the Russian military over the past few years, according to official statements.

Izvestia quoted Viktor Zavarzin, a deputy head of the defense committee in the lower house of the Russian parliament, as saying the Iskander is needed to counterbalance NATO forces in Europe, including U.S. tactical nuclear weapons.

“We aren’t threatening anyone. These are defensive systems,” Zavarzin said, according to the newspaper.