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Kremlin tactics challenge Obama

By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC News, Moscow

A Russian soldier standing on the launcher of a tactical near Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea (July 2004)
Kaliningrad has strategic importance for Moscow

The Kremlin is good at stage management and the timing of President Dmitry Medvedev's excoriation of US foreign policy was no coincidence.

He could have made the speech on any day in November.

Instead he chose 5 November, the day after the US presidential election.

The message from the Kremlin is also clear: if the US wants good relations with Moscow then the new administration had better start by junking George Bush's foreign policy.

Much of this has been heard before. But it is the first time since the end of the Cold War that we have heard a Russian president openly and clearly threaten to deploy ballistic missiles to Europe.

So is he serious - and how worried should Europe and America be?

The answer to the first question is maybe, although he is not likely to act anytime soon.

Rhetoric

According to military analysts in Moscow, Russia's whole stock of Iskander missiles - the type Mr Medvedev is proposing sending to Kaliningrad - are currently deployed near the Georgian border.

Russia is unlikely to move those so it will need to manufacture new ones and that will be time consuming and expensive.

For now, Mr Medvedev's threat seems largely rhetorical.

It is part tough-guy act by the newish Russian president for his domestic audience - and they lapped it up.

But it is also part of an attempt to get the new US administration to take Russia's concerns seriously.

Adviser to President Medvedev on the missile plan

And Russia is concerned. Under George W Bush, America has been rapidly expanding into Moscow's old back yard.

Once-friendly regimes in Kiev and Tbilisi are now run by paid-up members of the US club.

Nato's borders are just 400 miles from the Moscow ring road.

Missile defence

Last, but not least, is missile defence.

Rightly or wrongly, Russia's military experts seem to genuinely believe that the proposed shield is aimed at them, and will seriously undermine Russia's own nuclear deterrent.

By threatening to put its own missiles into Kaliningrad, Russia is aiming to kill two birds with one stone.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in the Kremlin in Moscow (5 November, 2008)
An Iskander missile system will be deployed in the Kaliningrad region to neutralise if necessary the anti-ballistic missile system in Europe
Dmitry Medvedev, Russian President

First, it may hope to make the new Obama administration think hard about the political costs of the missile shield.

Second, and just as important, Moscow is attempting to drive a wedge between Europe and America.

The proposed missile shield may be American, but it will be based on Polish soil, and it is Poland that would be the target of Russia's missiles.

Public opinion in Poland is already overwhelmingly against the system.

In this struggle of wills, Moscow likes to portray itself as the victim. It is all America's fault, we are told: if only Washington would treat Russia with greater respect everything would be OK.

Russia's invasion of Georgia has made that refrain sound a good deal more hollow.

Nearly 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is still a country deep in what I like to call "post imperial funk".

Oil money and the rise to power of the "Siloviki" (former members of the KGB) has added cash and swagger to the mix.

Russia's leaders are not resolved to a loss of prestige, and are determined to regain at least some of its former glory.

All of which makes Russia a very tricky prospect for America's new president.

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SEE ALSO
Profile: Dmitry Medvedev
07 May 08 |  Europe

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