terça-feira, 18 de outubro de 2016

Kaliningrad and the sudden deterioration of the Russia-West relations

(Russian military vehicle with Iskander-M missile on board: movel system could carry nuclear warhead, and adaptations extend it´s reach.)

On last day 7, Friday, the Iskandr-M missile system arrived on Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia´s territory sandwiched between Poland and Lethonia on the Baltic Sea cost. The first information came from Estonian government and was taken to the public on the same day by ERR news portal. Soon the information spread and caused reaction in Europe, mainly in Poland and the Baltic countries.

(Kaliningrad´s territory: Russia´s advanced post in Eastern Europe sorrounded by European Union and NATO members.)

(Iskander-M missile range: with adaptations, this system in Kaliningrad could reach Berlin and Copenhaguen, in addition to cover almost whole of Poland and southern Sweden.)

The missiles were on board a civilian vessel called Ambal that left the small town of Ust-Luga, near to Saint Petersburg, bound to Kaliningrad. According to an expert heard by The Guardian, the Iskander-M missiles, known as SS-26 by NATO, are highly sophisticated and there is no similar weapon in the world. They can reach the missiles defense system installed by the US in Poland, the three Baltic countries, change directon in the flight and can carry as much common explosives as nuclear warheads. Another expert heard by Observer, John Schindler, says the system is offensive an can have it´s range expanded to 700 km and reach Berlin. This range also covers parts of southern Sweden and the Dannish capital Copenhagen.

The transport of Iskander-Ms by a civil vessel and the installation in an region sorrounded by European Union and NATO member countries suggest, within the context of a rapid deterioration in relationship between Russia and the West since the war in Ukraine, that this military movement aims to destabilize the Eastern Europe security. So says the expert quoted in Observer:

 There’s a reason that the Kremlin promised to not ship this missile system to Kaliningrad back in 2009, in exchange for President Obama’s scuppering of missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic. Activating an Iskander-M unit in Kaliningrad, west of the Baltic republics, is rightly seen as destabilizing by NATO’s whole eastern flank which, despite security promises by the White House, remains vulnerable to Russian attack. For Warsaw and several other NATO capitals, this move resembles a Baltic version of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The reference to 2009 is concern the Obama administration´s decision, in September, to eliminate the European BMD (European Ballistic Missile Defense), created by the George W, Bush government and known as anti-missile shield, and replaces it with the PAA (Progressive Adaptative Aproach), a new system that would act responsively and, at least officialy, would be aimed against Iran engaged in developing nuclear weapons. Then Russian president Dmitri Medvedev called the move "a responsable move" and said he was willing to talk. So many Russian as American analysts considered the Obama´s attitude a victory of Russian diplomacy. His critics accused him of giving in to pressure without getting anything in return, while his supporters said Moscow didn´t want a fight immediately and it was up to Americans wait and watch what would be the new Russian attitudes.

Judging by Schindler´s criticism, Moscow took advantage of the Obama government´s mistake to allocate Iskander-M missiles in Kaliningrad. In the current situation, an American and/or NATO reaction, as a new anti-missile shield, for example, could be dangerous.

(Cartoon quips dismantle of the W. Bush´s anti-missile shield project to Europe by Obama. He appears smiling to the Russian president Medvedev as someone which prefers to please the enemy instead protect Europeans.)

Russia, in turn, downplayed the missiles issue. The country´s press (Sputnik, Russia Today and Russia Insider) highlighted the words of the Russian Ministry Defense spokesman, Igor Konashenkov, who declared that Iskander-Ms were deliberately exposed to the American satellites during transport, that their displacement to Kaliningrad was part of military drills and that American intelligence has already detected the movement. The latter information came from an anonymous source to Reuters: the displacement of Iskander-Ms to the province "could be innocuous", since in 2014 Russia placed a similar missile system in the region. The Russian government´s message was clear: Moscow didn´t have anything to hide and it´s military activities were routine.

Neighbouring countries to Kaliningrad reacted to the missiles deployment with concern and complaints: Poland considered the Russian atitude highly troubling, the Estonian government, through it´s Minister of Defence, said Russia plans to dominante the Baltic Sea, and Lithuania promised a protest to Moscow.

(Russian military aircraft Na-72 - one of the Antonov models - for transporting of heavy loads that invaded the Estonia´s airspace on October 6th.)

The neighbours´ reaction is justified. The invasions of the airspace of the Baltic countries by Russian planes are common. On day 6, one day before the news about the missiles, the Russian SU-27 aircraft broke into Finnish airspace over Gulf of Finland waters near the city of Parvoo. The invasion occured at 4:43 pm, local time, and lasted one minute. Another raid happened a little later, at 9:33 pm. In the day after, at 6:23 pm, four hours after the disclosure of the firts news about the missiles in Kaliningrad, the aircraft An-72 of the Russial Aerial Force broke into the Estonian airspace in the region of Vaindloo island for almost one minute and a half. On the Russian side the response to the facts was simple: Moscow denied the airspaces violations. Their aircrafts would be on the planned route and over international waters.

The transport of the missiles to Kaliningrad has relationship to two issues that are also interrelated.

The firts is the Eastern European security. In may this year was ready an anti-missile shield in Bulgaria, and in 2018 will be implemented the same shield in Poland. But both are sponsored by the US. In June a report of the British newspaper Express quoted Kremlin own sources that said Russia would install Iskander-Ms in Kaliningrad permanently. This plan was contemplated since at least 2008, but the expectation was that missiles were installed not before 2018 (another sources claim the plan was only for 2019). Experts said that the creation of the anti-missile shield in Romania would be what Moscow needed to justify it´s atitude, which would be realized before expected this October 7th. The sponsorship of these shields by the Americans was received by Russia as a provocation.

(View of Kaliningrad, the capital of the eponymous province: the region has German achtecture, Orthodox churches and more than 85% of the population is of the Russian ethnicity. Under Putin government the province became again the Russia´s military and cultural showcase in Europe.)

This event is another stage of the Putin government´s new policy for the region. Besides the large reduction of men in relation to Soviet times, when Kaliningrad had up to 200 thousand people of the armed forces and the entry of citizens was restricted, in 2010 there were only ten thousand men among 950 thousand inhabitans. The province, that was anexed by the USSR in 1945 and that was inhabitated exclusively by Soviet citizens after the withdrawl of the German population, became again in recent years an important and strategic Russia´s advanced post in Europe. Kalinigrand has experienced an improvement in it´s life standard with the creation of a special economic zone, and investiments were made in the modernization of the regional military structure in order to cope with NATO´s power. The government has also sponsored cultural events such as the Russian World People´s Council meeting held in April 2015 with Russian intellectuals and Orthodox Church members.

In the end of June 2016 a deep change took place in Kaliningrad´s military hierarchy by the Russian Minister of Defence, Sergey Shoygu. More than fifty high ranking men and Baltic Fleet members were dismissed, according to the ministry for breaking the rules stablished by the organization. The Minister justified the drastic action claiming the "unstable political and military situation" on the Western borders of Russia. It´s a clear reference to the deterioration of the relations between Moscow and the West since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine.

(Russians and Americans differ on strategy to be adopted in the civil war in Syria, one of the reasons for the deep worsening of relations between two countries. In Picture, vicinity of the Aleppo´s main square, in Syria. Part of the city is razed.)

The second issue is broader and more serious: the significant deterioration in relations between Russia and the US in the last two weeks. In the list of events is the accusation by the Americans that Russia tried to interfere in the US elections hacking the Democratic National Committee in August, creating a crisis in the party, and now would be behind the continuous release of the personal e-mails of John Podesta, Chairman of the Hillary Clinton campaing, by the Wikieaks on October 7th; the preparation by the CIA to counter the Kremlin in the virtual war (news that seems exagerated, as well noted analyst Anton Shekovtsov in his profile on Facebook, because the publicity given to the information); the disruption of two cooperations agreements in nuclear issue between Washington and Moscow by the Russians; the cancellation of the Putin´s visit to France scheduled for October 19th beacuse of the accusation by Paris that Moscow would be commiting war crimes in Syria and divergences between the Russian and American strategies in the conflict; the orientation and mass training by the Russian population for a possible nuclear war; and the Putin´s call to senior officials and their families to return to the country. This last point in particular generated a series of analysis and rumors on the Western side that Russia would be preparing for a big war, including a "nuclear war" or a "World War III", terms that appeared in various medias after many years. The Putin´s call would be informal, and there´s no information that the same call would be for Russians abroad. Morenover, the Russian president is making a major internal political reform reallocating government officials, secret service, high-ranking secretaries and provinces governors. The call may be related to this reform.

Kaliningrad is part of a sudden deterioration of the Russia-EUA/Europe relations, and this situation suggests that the placement of the Iskander-M missiles in the province doesn´t be only for military drills, but also for permanent installation. Despite the deeply worrying signs (could still add the sorrounding of Ukraine in August), the situation doesn´t necessarily indicates a global war in short term. With the approach of the US elections, the Kremlin stepped on the gas to make pressure in results and it´s playing all the cards to react to what it´s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, called "russophobic hysteria" of the West.

I´ll be back to the general framework described in the end of this text at an opportune time. The situation in worrying, and Kaliningrad is only a chapter of a much broader and deeper crisis.

* Published in Portuguese on October 16th 2016.

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