Moscow's Challenge to Obama

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Sergey Ponomarev / AP

Shop assistants watch Russian President Dmitry Medvedev making the address to the nation at a Moscow shop

In his maiden address to the Russian Parliament, President Dmitri Medvedev blamed the United States for Moscow's war with Georgia and for the world financial crisis. Washington, Medvedev said, was threatening Russia's security with the creation of a missile defense system and new NATO military bases around Russia's western and southern flanks. "We have gotten the clear impression that they are testing our strength," Medvedev said in his speech, which was made on the day U.S. voters elected Barack Obama president, and which at times recalled Soviet era rhetoric. (See pictures of the world reacting to Obama's win.)

In response, Medvedev said that Moscow had canceled the long planned dismantling of the Kozelsk ICBM Division and would deploy short-range Iskander missiles and electronic jamming systems in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. (See pictures of Moscow.)

The Russian president's words were presumably timed to remind America's newly-elected president that Moscow still matters. But Medvedev's threats are not quite as tough as they might sound. The Kozelsk Division consists of 46 missiles built in 1979. The weapons have now been in service three times longer than planned and the harsh truth is that Russia is struggling to build the next generation long-range missiles.

The shorter-range Iskander is brand-new. Its range is some 175 miles (280 km), and can be increased to reach targets not just in Poland, but in the Czech Republic as well. This precision weapon can easily avoid enemy radars and carries a payload of 480 kg. Russia will fit its Iskander arsenal with cluster, blast-fragmentation, penetration, and possibly even, thermobaric warheads. A tactical nuclear warhead could also be an option, though Medvedev pointedly refrained from mentioning that.

Production of Iskanders is planned for 2009. But the turmoil in global markets has hit Russia particularly hard. The main stock index is down roughly four times compared to a year ago, while prices for gas and oil — Russia's real weapons these past few years — have dived as well. Foreign currency and gold reserves shrank from nearly $600 billion in August to $485 billion last week, further undercutting Russia's clout. As the economy shrinks, as seems likely, the Iskander could end up looking like a costly extravagance. Under the circumstances, production of the missile might be delayed.

Russia's European neighbors sense that Moscow is less confident than it was even three months ago. "In the event that the situation gets bad, the balance of power is already well known," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said after Medvedev's speech. "So we should consider the announcement as a new political step, not a military one."

As things grow worse at home expect Medvedev and his patron, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, to ramp up the rhetoric in an effort to stir nationalism and nostalgia for Russia's lost empire. But ignore the words and take note instead of what Russia's leaders do. Speech made, Medvedev sent a message of congratulations to U.S. President-elect Barack Obama this week. "I hope for a constructive dialogue with you based on trust and consideration of each other's interests," the message ended. The Russian leader knows that even when he talks tough the likelihood that he can back that talk with action are fading fast.

Click here for Russia celebrating Victory Day.

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