Moscow Sends the West Friendly Signals While Relations with Georgia Worsen

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 19

Is Russia's rumored decision to delay deploying the SS-26 Iskander missile (above) in Kaliningrad an olive branch to the U.S. or a technical necessity?

On January 28 Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed official in the Russian Defense Ministry that plans to deploy Iskander SS-26 missiles in the Kaliningrad region, which borders NATO member nations Poland and Lithuania, have been halted. Last November President Dmitry Medvedev threatened to station the SS-26s in Kaliningrad in response to U.S. plans to deploy missile defense (MD) interceptors in Poland and MD radar in the Czech Republic. The row over the MD shield in Europe has helped drag down relations between Moscow and Washington to their lowest level since the end of the Cold War, but Russian officials have recently been sending signals that a positive shift in relations is possible with the new Barak Obama administration in the United States. Obama spoke to Medvedev by telephone on January 26, and the two are reported to have agreed to stop the "drift" in their bilateral relations. According to Interfax, "the implementation of plans to deploy the SS-26 in Kaliningrad has been halted in connection with the fact that the new U.S. administration is not rushing through plans to deploy [a missile defense system] in Poland and the Czech Republic" (Interfax, January 28).

Kurt Volker, the U.S. envoy to NATO, was quoted as saying that the decision to halt the deployment "if true, would of course be a very positive step" (Reuters, January 28). The Russian Defense Ministry, however, did not officially confirm the report. Officials told journalists that they did not know about any "deployment suspension," since nothing had been done yet "to install Iskander missiles" on Russia’s western borders (RIA-Novosti, January 28).

Last November it was reported that five army rocket brigades would be armed with the SS-26 "in the western direction" (RIA-Novosti, November 7). The 152nd army missile brigade armed with shorter-range Tochka-U missiles is at present deployed in the Kaliningrad region, and it may be the first to be rearmed with Iskanders (Kommersant, November 6). It has been reported that the Iskanders may also be deployed in Belarus (RIA-Novosti, November 12).

The Russian military boasts that the Iskander-M has a range of up to 500 km, is highly accurate, and cannot be shot down by any missile defenses. At present several SS-26s are deployed in the North Caucasus, and a number were used against targets in Georgia last August; but some of the missiles apparently missed their targets and hit residential areas. The SS-26 does not seem to have lived up to expectations on accuracy and is still in the process of being tested and developed. In essence, there are no Iskanders to deploy in Kaliningrad, so there is nothing yet to "halt." The threat to deploy Iskanders in "the western direction" does not make much military sense in any case (see EDM, November 13). Medvedev has announced that he is ready to drop Iskander deployment in Kaliningrad if the U.S. revokes MD plans for Poland and the Czech Republic in return (, November 13).

Such a mutual suspension is possible, since neither the SS-26 nor the U.S. GBI interceptors are fully tested and ready for effective deployment. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday that Obama and Medvedev might have their first meeting on the sidelines of the G20 group of countries on April 2 in London (RIA-Novosti, January 27). It is possible that some breakthrough on missile defense will be announced.

In another signal that Moscow wants to mend relations with Washington, Medvedev announced during a visit to Uzbekistan the intention to give more support to the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan on the condition that the cooperation is "equal" (Interfax, January 23). As these signs of a possible Russo-American detente have been circulating, Russia’s relations with neighboring Georgia have been deteriorating. This week Alexander Glukhov, a conscript sergeant serving with the Russian occupation forces in the Akhalgori region of South Ossetia, apparently deserted his army unit because of the appalling conditions and asked for asylum in Georgia. Conditions in the Russian army are indeed appalling; according to official Defense Ministry data, 231 servicemen committed suicide in 2008 (Nezavisimoye voennoye obozrenye, January 23).

Desertions of low-ranking soldiers and sergeants, both conscript and contract, are commonplace in Russia. In South Ossetia, according to human-rights reports, conditions are especially bad. The troops are surviving the winter in tents and without adequate supplies, because the only road to Russia, through the Roki Tunnel, is constantly blocked by snow (Kommersant, January 28). Still, the Defense Ministry insists that Glukhov was "kidnapped by Georgian security services" and his immediate return has been demanded (RIA-Novosti, January 27).

This week the Russian Navy announced that it would build a base in the coastal town of Ochamchire in Abkhazia near the ceasefire line with Georgia (RIA-Novosti, January 26). Ochamchire is a shallow water port and not good for permanently stationing major Black Sea Fleet battle ships, but it could be a strategically important forward supply base in case of another war with Georgia. Black Sea battle ships sent from the main naval base in Sevastopol, Crimea, to blockade Georgia might have problems returning regularly to base for supplies because of Ukrainian objections, which would make a supply base in Ochamchire very handy.

It seems that Russia is building up a case and capabilities for a possible new armed conflict to finally overrun Georgia. At the same time, Moscow is seeking a tacit understanding from Washington to allow it a free hand in the Caucasus in exchange for detente on other contentious issues.