Russia's reaction to the decision to deploy a U.S. Patriot missile battery in Poland, close to the border with Russia's Kaliningrad exclave, has been -- to say the least -- a bit strange.
Initially, Russian military officials threatened to beef up their defenses in Kaliningrad in response to the January 21 Polish announcement that in April they would house the Patriot missile base, manned by 100 U.S. troops, in the town of Morag -- just 60 kilometers from the border.
Then, inexplicably, the Russian Defense Ministry walked back
the threat, saying they had no such plans to increase their forces.
General Anatoly Kornukov
, the commander of Russia's Air Force, later told Interfax that the Patriot missiles pose no threat to Russia:
For the U.S., this step is an attempt to save face and prestige in the eyes of the Polish leadership following the decision not to deploy American interceptor missiles in Poland. I don't think they will supply Poland with the modernized systems used by the US army. Most likely, they will give old, dilapidated Patriots which will sit there but won't be able to solve anything. I think that we need not worry about that.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
then weighed in at a press conference on January 22, saying he found the decision incomprehensible and that Moscow was still evaluating the matter:
There must be reasons why these batteries will be deployed where they will be deployed. By the way, I don't have complete information about this, but if the reports are true, then we have to ask why must they do something that creates the impression that Poland is being fortified against Russia. This is what I don't understand. As for the rest, I repeat, of course we expect to be given an explanation, and then we will analyze the situation.
Now let me get this straight. Poland is planning to deploy a Patriot missile base manned by 100 U.S. troops 60 kilometers from the Russian border in a few months and the reaction from Moscow is -- they are analyzing the situation?!?
This. Does. Not. Compute.
Russia has gone ballistic (no pun intended) over much less in the past.
So what's going on? I spoke to Moscow-based defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer to get his insight and here is what he had to say:
The decision has not been made by the leadership about how to react. The knee-jerk reaction was that we are going to increase our forces. That came from the Navy in Kaliningrad, which is in charge of the entire military in that region...The defense ministry said no no no -- no decision has been made yet. A political decision has not been made yet about how to react, but the reaction is going to be negative, that's for sure.
Felgenhauer says that Moscow is looking at the issue in the context of NATO's emerging strategy to defend its Eastern members from a potential Russian attack. There have been growing concerns, particularly in Poland and the Baltic states, that NATO's eastern borders remain largely unprotected and the alliance is planning to address those concerns as it drafts a new strategic concept:
As I understand this is only the first move. NATO is working on plans to defend the Baltics. They didn't have any plans to defend the Baltic states from a Russian invasion. Now NATO is working on feasible plans to defend the Baltics.
So we can assume that we haven't heard the last from Moscow on the issue.
Meanwhile, Anatoly Isaikin
, the head of Russia's state arms trader Rosoboronexport, today refused to rule out that Moscow would sell S-300 anti-aircraft hardware to Iran. After being asked repeatedly about the potential sale at a press conference in Moscow today, here is what Isaikin had to say:
I just don't quite understand why supplies of the S-300 system to Iran trouble you so much. This is purely a weapon of defense, not attack. This weapon cannot pose any threat to any neighbors, close or distant.
The S-300, according to analysts, could help Iran thwart any attempt by Israel or the United States to bomb its nuclear facilities from the air.
Now I am not saying this is necessarily related to the Patriot missiles in Poland, but the symmetry is hard to ignore.
-- Brian Whitmore