Last night, Donald Trump argued that Vladimir Putin had “outsmarted” both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the Middle East — and it looks like they may be doing so again in Europe. Last month, the Russian military began moving missile systems capable of launching nuclear warheads into Kaliningrad, their last outpost in Europe, but claimed it was just for training. Today, they conducted live run-throughs on the Iskander-M launchers just 60 miles from Estonia:
The Russian military has conducted drills involving state-of-the art missiles near the nation’s western border, amid tensions in relations with the West.
The Defense Ministry said Thursday that the drills involved Iskander-M missiles. The war games were held at a shooting range near the city of Luga, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of the border with Estonia.
According to the military, the exercise featured the deployment of missiles and preparations for firing them, but didn’t involve actual launches.
Iskander has a range of up to 500 kilometers (310 miles) and high precision, allowing it to target facilities in several NATO member nations neighboring Russia. It can be fitted with a conventional or a nuclear warhead.
It didn’t take long for Russia to start playing with its weapons systems. They arrived in Kaliningrad less than two weeks ago, alarming the Estonians and sending up warnings about new Russian aggression in Europe:
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.”
Gee, you know what might have helped counter this threat? A more robust missile-defense system in Poland and Czechia. The Bush administration had negotiated those installations, but seven years ago, Obama reneged on it — on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, no less. At the time, Republicans warned that Obama was sending a signal of weakness to Russia and our allies:
The decision drew immediate Republican criticism. “Scrapping the U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic does little more than empower Russia and Iran at the expense of our allies in Europe,” said Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader. “It shows a willful determination to continue ignoring the threat posed by some of the most dangerous regimes in the world.”
Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued that the decision would allow the US to “provide a better missile defense capability,” but neither Poland nor Czechia were fooled. The Czechs canceled their participation in European missile defense two years later, complaining that “the current administration doesn’t take the Czech Republic seriously.”
Nor is the current test the only provocation. A Russian military flight intruded into Estonian airspace without request and refused to respond:
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.
Thanks in part to this aggression — and how Putin played on the sentiments of ethnic Russians in Ukraine to justify his military action there — the three Baltic states now plan to triple their defense budgets:
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia intends to triple their annual spending on weapons and military equipment to $670 million by 2018, due to fears for Russia, because of the annexation of the Crimea region in Ukraine, says a report by IHS Markit, according to Reuters.
According to the report, by 2020, the global combined defense budgets of the three Baltic republics will reach an estimated $2.1 billion, more than double the amount since the countries have joined NATO in 2004, making this the fastest rise of any region in the world.
‘We have seen a political confrontation between Russia and the West over the last two and a half years which escalated to military assertiveness, and we do not see that this will end soon,’ said Alex Kokcharov, Principal Analyst of the country risk division IHS Markit, a firm known for research and analysis. ‘This confrontation will likely include elements of military intimidation, worrying Russia’s neighbors,’ said Kokcharov.
Lest anyone miss the point, the Estonian prime minister made it clear — his country is on the front lines of a new version of the Cold War. Taavi Rõivas also told Estonian media that Russia has already begun a propaganda effort to stoke ethnic tensions and possibly provide Putin a pretext for military incursions:
Estonia’s Prime Minister Taavi Rõivas said that neighboring Russia is using different means of war, “both conventional and hybrid” ones to advance” its interests, according to a report by the Estonian Public Broadcaster.
“Intervention with cyber means in a presidential election, the funding of extremist parties in Europe and their indoctrination in Crimea, the undermining of an independent air crash investigation, propaganda and the spreading of lies all fit under that description,” he said.
All of this amounts to a situation that can be described as a “new cold war,” the prime minister said.
So far, this situation hasn’t exactly caught fire in the US media. Perhaps it’s time to start paying attention.