A preliminary deal was struck July 8 between the United States and the Czech Republic on a ballistic missile defense installation. With either a deal with Poland or a shift to Lithuania on the horizon, STRATFOR considers Russia's possible military response, however unlikely such a response might be.
Russia has long opposed U.S. efforts to deploy ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems in Central Europe. But with an initial deal signed July 8 between Washington and the Czech Republic — and a deal with either Poland or Lithuania on the horizon — STRATFOR thought it time to examine Moscow's military options. Thus far, there have been two consistent military threats from the Kremlin regarding U.S. BMD in Central Europe. First has been the threat to place short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea and within easy reach of the proposed U.S. BMD site in Poland. Second has been the threat to "retarget" portions of the Kremlin's nuclear arsenal at the two sites in particular. The Kaliningrad SRBM threat is premised on the long-delayed Iskander SRBM program (known to NATO as the SS-26 "Stone"). The Kremlin's ability to place at risk the proposed Polish site at an old airbase in Redzikowo depends on its ability to field this particular system. In another instance of how the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has come back to haunt Moscow, the deal effectively eviscerated the Russian military's ballistic missile reach well beyond just the limitations of the treaty itself. When the INF had done its work, Russia's only operationally deployed SRBM was the SS-21 "Scarab," which has a maximum range of 75 miles (even though the INF ceiling for SRBMs is much higher — some 310 miles). (click image to enlarge) The current status of the Iskander program is unclear. The Russians now claim that the first army unit — a missile brigade in the northern Caucasus military district — has been equipped with the 250-mile range Iskander-M (also known as the "Tender"), though there has been some speculation that it was actually equipped with the Iskander-E ("E" for "export"), which has a 175-mile range and other modifications consistent with the international voluntary Missile Technology Control Regime. Either would be sufficient to place the proposed Polish BMD site at risk. There does not appear to be a nuclear warhead design for the Iskander, but the new missile is considered to be particularly accurate and may be highly maneuverable in the terminal stage, capable of making intercept difficult. But because of the evisceration of Russia's medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missile arsenal, it has no capability to threaten the proposed X-band radar site in the Czech Republic at Misov in that manner — even if the Iskander-M were deployed to Belarus, a close Russian ally. Hence, the second threat: to retarget portions of the Russian nuclear arsenal. In one sense, this is a fairly empty gesture. In today's modern nuclear arsenals, even if targeting data are not "preloaded" in the delivery systems, they can be quickly uploaded electronically. It would be no surprise for the Kremlin to add the Czech site and wherever the second site ends up being to its target database — but it is another thing entirely to go around Europe advertising the fact. (Also, given the long minimum-ranges of intercontinental ballistic missiles, Russia would be limited to aircraft-delivered weapons and missiles stationed a long way from Europe.) Ultimately, even if Russia did deploy missiles to Kaliningrad or advertise European BMD sites as targets of its nuclear arsenal, Moscow is unlikely to ever take military action against them. Poland and the Czech Republic (and Lithuania, for that matter) are members of both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. Russia obviously is unhappy with the collapse of its strategic buffer in Central Europe and the stationing of U.S. troops in the region. But it has little justification to act in an overt military manner to anything currently happening in that part of the world. And while NATO and the European Union might ultimately see the deployment of Russian SRBMs that could threaten only Poland and the Baltic states, both organizations have existed for nearly two decades after emerging from the shadows of a sizable nuclear arsenal. If Russia actually followed through on its threat to point nuclear missiles at a target some 50 miles from Prague, it would draw the ire not only of the Czech Republic and Poland but of all EU and NATO members. It is a threat that neither organization would ignore. Rather than a military response to such affronts, Russia under Vladimir Putin has consistently favored other means. Its most effective moves have been economic — for example, energy exports to Europe — and the use of its intelligence services to pull strings behind the scenes. We look to these sectors for Moscow's real response.