Russia on Combat Alert over NATO Missile Defense

We're hearing the howls of a wounded bear.

Russian President Dimitry Medvedev announced today that he would “immediately put the missile attack early warning radar station in Kaliningrad on combat alert” and take other aggressive steps to counter NATO’s missile defense system.

In an official statement reprinted on NATOSource, Medvedev claims this step was taken after NATO and the United States rebuffed repeated gestures from Moscow to cooperate. He asserts, “Rather than showing themselves willing to hear and understand our concerns over the European missile defence system at this stage, they simply repeat that these plans are not directed against Russia and that there is no point for us to be concerned. That is the position of the executive authorities, but legislators in some countries openly state, the whole system is against Russia.”

Seeing that NATO was going forward regardless of Russia’s concerns, Medvedev announced several steps:

First, I am instructing the Defence Ministry to immediately put the missile attack early warning radar station in Kaliningrad on combat alert.

Second, protective cover of Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons will be reinforced as a priority measure under the programme to develop our air and space defences.

Third, the new strategic ballistic missiles commissioned by the Strategic Missile Forces and the Navy will be equipped with advanced missile defence penetration systems and new highly-effective warheads.

Fourth, I have instructed the Armed Forces to draw up measures for disabling missile defence system data and guidance systems if need be. These measures will be adequate, effective, and low-cost.

Fifth, if the above measures prove insufficient, the Russian Federation will deploy modern offensive weapon systems in the west and south of the country, ensuring our ability to take out any part of the US missile defence system in Europe. One step in this process will be to deploy Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad Region.

Other measures to counter the European missile defence system will be drawn up and implemented as necessary.


If the situation continues to develop not to Russia’s favour, we reserve the right to discontinue further disarmament and arms control measures.

Medvedev’s statement repeatedly expressed that this process is reversible but that “if we are asked to ‘cooperate’ or in fact act against our own interests it will be difficult to establish common ground. In such a case we would be forced to take a different response. We will decide our actions in accordance with the actual developments in events at each stage of the missile defence programme’s implementation.”

Barry Pavel,  Director-Designate of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council and former Senior Director for Defense Policy and Strategy on the National Security Council staff, declared on Twitter upon seeing the announcement that “NATO should ignore this.” Later, he added, “This is about Russian domestic politics.”

Tomas Valasek of the Centre for European Reform tells Financial Times that , “Mr. Medvedev seems to be taking the debate on missile defence into the strategic realm of US-Russia arms control,” adding, “Here, the prize is to get a follow-on deal to the Obama-Medvedev agreement of 2008. The chances of success here are already low and these comments may push them lower.”

Thus far, Pavel’s analysis seems to be shared by the White House and NATO. Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen says that he has “taken note” of Medvedev’s statement and termed his actions “very disappointing.” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor declared, “We continue to believe that cooperation with Russia on missile defense can enhance the security of the United States, our allies in Europe and Russia, and we will continue to work with Russia to define the parameters of possible cooperation. However, in pursuing this cooperation, we will not in any way limit or change our deployment plans in Europe.”

I share my colleague’s sense that Medvedev is playing to a domestic audience and that the United States and its NATO allies should not make policy decisions based on temper tantrums from Moscow. But that doesn’t mean that the Russians aren’t genuinely concerned about the changing balance of power represented by this missile plan. Indeed, our constant dismissal of their concerns only rubs their noses in the fact that we now view them more as a nuisance than a serious power.

Medvedev’s statement comes on the heels of Tuesday’s announcement that the United States was ending cooperation with Russia under the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, after Moscow had long since fallen out of compliance. Asked directly yesterday whether this would impact ongoing efforts to work with Russia on missile defense, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declared, “we don’t see a direct connection between the two: missile defense is missile defense, conventional arms control is conventional arms control.”

But this is rather an obtuse position. Indeed, linkage—the explicit tying together of various bilateral concerns to encourage cooperation on issues the United States cared about—was a cornerstone of American policy during the period of détente with the Soviets. Surely, the Russians see all matters of the security relationship with the United States and its NATO allies as intermingled.

NATO can talk until it’s blue in the face about how its missile defense program is aimed at unspecified rogue states (a not-so-secret code for “Iran”) but the Russians naturally see a missile defense system based in countries within what they consider their sphere of interest a threat. After all, missiles are about all Moscow has to cling to as evidence that they’re still a great power. For that matter, as FT notes, the fourth phase of NATO’s Phased Adaptive Approach goes beyond the short- and medium-range missiles that would ostensibly be acquired by Iran to “deploy an interceptor capable of shooting down ICBMs, which form the bulk of Russia’s nuclear deterrent.”

So, I think we should take Medvedev seriously when he declares, “We will not agree to take part in a program that in a short while, in some 6 to 8 years’ time could weaken our nuclear deterrent capability. The European missile defense program is already underway and work on it is, regrettably, moving rapidly in Poland, Turkey, Romania, and Spain. We find ourselves facing a fait accompli.” Those sound very much like the howls of a wounded bear.

Photo credit: ft************* to buy additional rights. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, flanked by his predecessor Vladimir Putin and senior army officers, watches a Victory Day parade in Moscow. Mr Medvedev's first big outing as president saw him presiding over the first display of tanks and missiles on Red Square since the end of the Soviet era. Mr Medvedev sat next to Mr Putin for much of the ceremony, and state television lingered on a side view showing the two men's profiles." href="">AFP/FT.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    Not unlike the tribal warfare that passes for politics and governing in the USofA. Meaningless posturing for domestic consumption.

  2. Is putting a radar station on combat alert really that aggressive? What are they going to do? Spin the antenna around in a more threatening manner?

  3. Racehorse says:

    The “missile attack warning system” – a string with beer cans attached that is set to make noise when triggered.
    What’s the deal with the guy wearing the oversized hat and 500 medals?

  4. Franklin says:

    Well, for one he’s got a powerful laser tucked under that hat. And second, I’m pretty sure that passes for a bulletproof vest.

  5. waltm says:

    Wounded bears can be dangerous. Be interesting to see what concessions Medvedev/Putin get.

  6. ponce says:

    Here, the prize is to get a follow-on deal to the Obama-Medvedev agreement of 2008.

    Obama was signing deals with Russia as a Senator?

    And the wingnuts said he had no experience in international relations.

  7. steve says:

    This may be aimed at a domestic audience, but it has real underlying issues. If the missile defense system works, it means that Russia could not retaliate against Europe, or attacks from inside Europe. This is a real problem. The logical Russian solution is to mass its missiles on the European border hoping to overwhelm the missile defense.


  8. Racehorse says:

    The Russian response: turn the radar up. I guess next is to let the dogs out and then blow a whistle.
    Look at the Laurel and Hardy military guys in the photo: they strike real fear those two! If that is their military brain trust, their defense system is a joke.
    It’s official: Russia’s days as a superpower are over: put a fork in ’em.

  9. ponce says:

    Look at the Laurel and Hardy military guys in the photo: they strike real fear those two!

    Um, all Russia has to do is shut off its pipelines to Europe and Europe will look like the Gaza Strip in a matter of days.

    Seeing as NATO has been humbled every year for the past 10 years in Afghanistan by a few thousand poorly armed goat herders, the foreign policy “experts” tweeting their insightful “Don’t worry, be happy” when it comes to threats from the largest country in the world sound like idiots.

    Thank goodness they’re just harmlessly suckling at the wingnut welfare teat at “think” tanks instead of holding positions with any real power.

  10. Ron Beasley says:

    @Racehorse: I bet he got all those medals in Afghanistan!

  11. peter shapiro says:

    The American people want to get Closer to ALL the Russian people…we want to exchange all culture and interests between our 2 country’s… Why do the politicans seem intent on making us feel like false enemies…. We want to share our common interests peacefully and feel free travel to each others countries as friends… Mr. Putin, Mr. Obama take down that WALL !! …. for the good of THE PEOPLE… do not push us apart !!

  12. Lawrence says:

    Even though the relationship between Russia and the West has relaxed and Russia no longer sees NATO as a threat, when the West has the ability to build a missile defense system, they would do it. It’s all because they can! That’s my guess. And of course the system is aimed at Russian missiles, not Iranian missiles. Of that we should be sure, in agreement with Russians’ view of the matter.