Russia's recent decision to supply Belarus with Iskander missile systems comes in response to the deployment of a US antimissile system in the Czech Republic and Poland.
Russian media quoted official sources as saying that the Western missile shield is a plot to undermine Moscow's nuclear deterrence. Washington has claimed that the shield is aimed not at Russia, but at states such as Iran that are seeking to develop nuclear weapons that could one day strike the West.
European analysts said the creation of a launch pad in Belarus would allow Russia to place "tactical and psychological" pressure on neighboring Poland, where public support for the proposed deployment of the US antimissile system is low. Analysts have said that Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes to turn Europeans against the project by making it clear that they - rather than the Americans - would suffer the consequences of any nuclear confrontation.
However, military expert Pavel Felgengauer wrote in the Russian daily Novaya Gazeta that he suspected there is much more to the Iskander deployment than the desire to pressure the Europeans.
According to Felgengauer, the deployment represents a threat not only to European countries but also to Israel, because the missiles could be sold to Iran and Syria.
Minsk has announced that a missile brigade equipped with Iskanders will be deployed close to the Russian border. The US missile defense sites in the Czech Republic and Poland are beyond the reach of these missiles, Felgengauer wrote.
He noted that the so-called "export" model of the Iskander E, which is to be deployed in Belarus, has a reduced range of 280 kilometers. It will, therefore, stay clear of Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty limitations and will not be subject to international controls that limit the export of any ballistic missile with a range of over 300 km. These missiles can also be upgraded to give them a wider target range.
Three years ago, Felgengauer said, former prime minister Ariel Sharon managed to block Iskander E sales to Syria by personally asking Putin to cancel the deal.
According to Western experts, the Iskander missile can easily overcome air defense systems. It is almost impossible to prevent their launch because of the system's mobility and its advanced targeting abilities. Even a small supply of such missiles would drastically change the balance of power in regional conflicts.
Felgengauer said the military correspondent of the Russian daily Kommersant, Ivan Safronov, who died mysteriously in March 2007, received a confirmation from official sources of the delivery of modern Russian armaments, including Iskander E missiles, to the Middle East by way of Belarus.
Belarus remains one the main partners of Iran in arms exports. The nation sells Russian arms to other buyers on a commission basis. Belarus's military industry was involved in the development of the Iranian Shahab 3 and Shahab 4 ballistic missiles.