MOSCOW – Lithuania and Poland expressed concern on Monday about signals that Russia has deployed state-of-the-art missiles in a territory that borders the NATO countries.
The U.S. State Department also said that it has urged Russia to avoid taking any steps that could destabilize that region.
Russia's Defense Ministry gave an oblique response Monday to a report in the German daily Bild claiming that Russia has sent the Iskander short-range missiles to its westernmost Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic Sea. The ministry said the missiles had been positioned in an unspecified location in western Russia, and argued that the deployment doesn't contradict any international treaties.
While the ministry was coy about the exact location of the missiles, the Kremlin-friendly daily Izvestia, which reportedly has close links to Russian security agencies, said the missiles had been deployed more than a year ago.
Asked about the reported missile deployment, U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Washington has "shared with Russia the concerns that countries in the neighborhood have ... regarding Russia's deployment of the Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad."
"We've urged Moscow to take no steps to destabilize the region," she said. "We've made that point with them."
If true, the reports about the Iskander deployment to Kaliningrad would come as no surprise.
President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials have talked about such a move for years, casting it as a necessary counterbalance to the development of the U.S.-led NATO missile defense for Europe. Moscow sees the missile shield as a threat to its nuclear deterrent.
While the deployment of the Iskander missiles would have little impact on the military balance between Russia and NATO, it could further damage Russia's ties with the West, which already have been strained by disputes over the U.S. missile shield, Russia's human rights record and, most recently, Ukraine.
"I am worried about signals that Russia is about to modernize missile systems it has deployed in Kaliningrad," Lithuanian Defense Minister Juozas Olekas told reporters. "Further militarization of this region, bordering the Baltic states and NATO creates further anxiety, and we will be watching situation there closely."
The Polish foreign ministry said that while it did not have any official information from Russia, it was concerned about the reports.
"Deployment of Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad Region would be against the spirit of positive cooperation between Poland and Russia," Foreign Ministry spokesman Marcin Wojciechowski said.
The Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Igor Konashenkov, said only that "specific areas of the Iskander missile systems' location in the Western Military District don't violate any international agreements." The Western Military District includes most provinces in western and northwestern Russia, including the Kaliningrad region.
The Iskander missile, which has a range of up to 500 kilometers (about 300 miles), travels at hypersonic speeds that make it very difficult to intercept and is capable of hitting targets with a precision of a few meters (yards). It was first used in action in Russia's 2008 war with Georgia.
It normally carries a conventional warhead, but some Russian media reports indicated that it can also be fitted with a nuclear one.
Thanks to their high accuracy and the capability to dodge enemy's defenses, the Iskander missiles boost the Russian military capability, but they so far have been deployed in relatively small numbers. Just a few dozen have entered service with the Russian military over the past few years, according to official statements.
Izvestia quoted Viktor Zavarzin, a deputy head of the defense committee in the lower house of Russian parliament, as saying the Iskander is needed to counterbalance NATO forces in Europe, including U.S. tactical nuclear weapons.
"We aren't threatening anyone. These are defensive systems," Zavarzin said, according to the newspaper.