Defense expert Alexander Golts, writing in the Moscow Times:
Imagine the following scenario: After the standoff between the United States and Russia has reached boiling point, the U.S. president decides to launch a nuclear first strike. Russian radar and spy satellites identify a launch of U.S. missiles directed at Russia. The Russian president gives the command for a nuclear counterstrike and simultaneously orders the destruction of U.S. missile-defense installations in Central Europe. To neutralize U.S. radar systems in the Czech Republic and missile-defense batteries in Poland, Russia launches Iskander missiles from Kaliningrad — the ones that President Dmitry Medvedev mentioned in his state-of-the-nation address on Wednesday.
Is this the script of the latest cheap Armageddon novel? Not at all. I just carried the statements and hints made by Kremlin leaders to their logical conclusion. It all started when then-President Vladimir Putin, and now Medvedev, invented the myth that the United States is attempting to create a global missile-defense system to establish military superiority over Russia. This myth is based on the notion that the United States or NATO could launch a first strike against Russia and its missile-defense system would be able to fully intercept a counterstrike of Russian missiles, thus guaranteeing complete military superiority over Russia.
The indisputable fact is that this scenario dreamed up by Kremlin strategists is complete nonsense. The proposed U.S. missile-defense system is not capable of threatening Russia’s nuclear potential. According to retired General Vladimir Dvorkin, formerly a top arms control expert with the Defense Ministry, the 10 interceptor missiles that are intended for deployment in Poland could stop only one Russian nuclear warhead. Given this 10-1 ratio and given that Russia has more than 2,000 nuclear warheads, this would mean that the United States and NATO would need to install more than 20,000 interceptors in Europe to have even the slightest chance of having a first-strike capability with little or no chance of a suffering a counterstrike. In other words, 10 interceptors in Poland against 2,000 Russian nuclear warheads means that the planned missile-defense system is useless and poses no threat whatsoever to Russia.
Thus, the U.S. president would have to be completely insane to launch a nuclear first strike against Russia. Even if Russia could retaliate with only a single missile, that missile could carry six or 10 individual nuclear warheads. And what if not one but two or even 10 missiles were successfully launched in a counterstrike? You would not be able to find a single U.S. leader who would be willing to test that theory in practice.
Since any objective defense analyst will tell you that the planned U.S. missile-defense system does not represent the slightest threat to Russia, then why is Medvedev so intent on deploying Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad that would be aimed primarily at Poland but could be intended for other NATO countries as well?
From a military point of view, the Iskander threat smacks of yet another Kremlin bluff. For one, the Russian military has been promising to start mass-producing the missiles for the last eight years. As of today, instead of the promised five Iskander-equipped brigades, the military has been able to form a single squadron consisting of only six missiles. Moreover, the Iskander has a declared range of only 280 kilometers. That range would have to be extended in order to strike radar installations in the Czech Republic. In theory, this is possible to accomplish, but this would raise serious questions about Moscow’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
If the United States and NATO take Medvedev’s Iskander threat seriously, then their logical reaction would be to beef up the proposed missile-defense system in Europe to include thousands of more interceptors. In addition, the West would have to deploy offensive missiles — its equivalent of the Iskander — in Poland and the Baltic states. At that point, an intense arms race and a new Cold War would be in full swing.
In reality, of course, Medvedev’s threat is much more bark than bite. Over the past 17 years, there have been many incidents that demonstrate the military’s incompetence and inability to counter the United States or NATO. The latest example is the Nerpa nuclear submarine accident on Saturday in which 20 people died. It took 15 long, laborious years to build this submarine. It is clear that after so much time, a lot of the vessel’s technology had become outdated. What’s more, the staff at the factory that produced the submarine has changed a few times since the project began. Nobody remains there now who has personal experience in building nuclear submarines. It is the same story with the Iskander missile.
Although Medvedev’s threat need not be treated too seriously, there are nevertheless several disturbing elements in the Kremlin’s position that could have a negative impact on U.S.-Russian relations. Without the slightest grounds, Medvedev has threatened the United States with a real Cold War. This is the first time in 20 years that the country’s president has officially announced his intention to create a direct military threat to NATO states. And if, prior to this announcement, President-elect Barrack Obama’s advisers had considered “quietly rejecting” plans to deploy missile-defense systems in Europe because they understood it was a useless — and very expensive — project, now Moscow has effectively backed Obama into a corner. Were the president to cancel those missile-defense plans now, it would look like he gave in to Moscow’s blackmail.
What is particularly amazing about Medvedev’s announcement is that it happened within hours after Obama was confirmed as president-elect. Even during the worst days of the Cold War, Soviet leaders took a time-out following U.S. presidential elections. This gave them time to analyze the new U.S. Cabinet before cursing their imperialist enemies.
What motivated Medvedev to surprise the world with his Iskander card? Most probably, he was determined to complicate and aggravate Russia’s already tense relationship with the United States as much as possible in the days following Obama’s election. After all, the siloviki were hoping that John McCain and a neocon Cabinet would come to power because they would guarantee four more years of heated anti-Russia rhetoric, expansionism and unilateralism. This, of course, would be grist for the siloviki mill, which needs the image of an aggressive U.S. enemy to carry out its ambitions political, defense and foreign policy programs.
A more dovish President Obama makes this task more difficult. By convincing Medvedev to immediately go for the jugular the day Obama was elected president, the siloviki were probably hoping that by provoking the new U.S. president with the threat of Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, this would force Obama to take a more hawkish stance toward Russia. In this way, Russia could help turn the clock back to the good old neocon days under the administration of George W. Bush.
This seems to be the best explanation of why Medvedev pulled the Iskander missile out of his holster on Wednesday. But Medvedev, of course, was not the main hero in this screenplay. It is clear that this plan was designed by a person who is much more powerful — someone who has clear plans to take Medvedev’s spot, perhaps earlier than we had expected.