Patrick Wintour [The Guardian] * 7 October, 2016
Reports of Iskander-M missiles being moved to outpost between Poland and Lithuania fuels fears that Russia is seeking to expand control of Baltic Sea
Estonian officials have said that Russia appears to be moving powerful, nuclear capable missiles into Kaliningrad, a Russian outpost province sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania along the Baltic coast.
The Iskander-M missiles, which have a range of over 500km, are reportedly being transported by ship from the St Petersburg area. It had previously been reported that the Russians might seek to place the Iskander-M missiles in Kaliningrad but not until 2018-19.
If confirmed, the move would be seen by western governments as another sign that Russia is seeking to establish facts on the ground, from eastern Europe to the Middle East, before a new US president takes office in January.
Estonian officials said they were monitoring the ship and its contents. The ship, called the Ambal, was due to dock on Friday; reports of the cargo came from Estonian government sources.
An Estonian defence expert said: “This weapon is highly sophisticated and there is no comparable weapon in western armoury. It can carry nuclear weapons, change direction mid-flight and fly distances of up to 500km. As such it is capable of threatening Poland, including the US missile defence installations there. You would not change the date of the delivery of a system such as this on a whim. The intention is to make a strong strategic point.”
The Russians already have a missile brigade on Kaliningrad, but the OTR-21 Tochka short-range missile is less sophisticated, and not capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
The Iskander-M, the Persian name for Alexander the Great, is a ballistic rocket system designed to destroy strategic targets, and its stationing is arguably in breach of the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty.
Marko Mihkelson, the chairman of the Estonian parliament’s national defence committee, told Estonian news agency ERR on Friday that since the transportation of the system was now taking place with the help of a civilian vessel, he had reason to think that Russia was trying to take the missiles to Kaliningrad in secret.
Mihkelson added that what was going on was part of a broader security situation, and that it was Russia’s intent to provoke western governments and increase pressure on them. On Monday Russia cancelled its weapon-grade plutonium disposal agreement with the US.
“In any case, what is called for now is to remain calm, and to treat these incidents as attempted blackmail,” Mihkelson said. “Russia is simply showing its desire to reinforce its position at the entrance to the Baltic Sea.”
The chief of staff of the Estonian defence forces, Lt Gen Riho Terras, said Russia’s recent actions show the country’s wish to expand its control of the Baltic Sea.
“In the long term Russia’s wish is to bring the Baltic Sea and the passages leading to it more and more under its control, and to control it much like it does the Black Sea,” Terras said to ERR on Friday.
The Estonian prime minister Taavi Rõivas said: “References to Iskander missile system being transported by the Baltic Sea to Kaliningrad are certainly alarming and show yet again Russia’s attempts to pressure the west by using different tools.
“This week alone Russia announced that it unilaterally suspended the plutonium disposal agreement, with demands such as the removal of all economic sanctions and compensation for the damage they have caused.
“Russia’s continuous aggressive actions only reaffirm the necessity for Nato’s increased military presence in the Baltic States and Poland.
“I can assure you that Estonia is closely following the developments in the Baltic Sea region.”
On Thursday, a Russian military An-72 aircraft penetrated Estonian airspace over the island of Vaindloo without permission and spent about minute and a half in the country’s airspace.
The aircraft transponder was switched on, but no flight plan was submitted and the aircraft did not respond to radio contact with the Estonian air movement service.
The Estonian foreign ministry on Friday summoned the Russian ambassador to Estonia to hand him a protest note.
Finland said two similar planes had passed over its territory as it prepared to sign a defence pact with the US.