Russian Space Missile Is a Blast From the Past

This week’s headlines, ranging from Eastern Europe to the International Space Station, were a throwback to decades ago when Russia flexed its muscles and baffled the West

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin, center, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, left, and his assistant  training before a trip to the International Space Station, Star City, Russia, last month.
Cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin, center, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, left, and his assistant training before a trip to the International Space Station, Star City, Russia, last month.Credit: Shamil Zhumatov / Pool / AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The news reports this week sounded like a journey back in time, a weird combination of the Cold War and the years before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Soldiers were killed in border clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet republics, following a year-long cease-fire. Russia is massing tens of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border, stoking fears of a new war. Belarus, with Russia’s encouragement, herded thousands of Middle Eastern refugees at the Polish border in an attempt to trigger a crisis that would embarrass the European Union.

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Also, Russia carried out a rare test, launching a missile to intercept satellites. By doing so, it may have endangered astronauts, some of them Americans, at the International Space Station. The United States expressed its concerns.

The last time refugees from the Middle East and Asia scurried across Eastern and Central Europe, in 2015, it was with Turkey’s encouragement. The shock waves of the onrush, alongside terrorist attacks by radical Islamists, ushered in political changes in Europe and strengthened far-right parties that cultivated racist sentiments.

Moscow’s current moves are linked to President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to dictate the foreign policy of some of his neighbors, which in the Soviet period were subordinate to every whim of the Kremlin. In the background lies Russia’s permanent angst about the ostensible hostile influence of the United States and other countries on its Western border, along with Moscow’s desire to shirk the EU sanctions imposed after Russia’s aggression against Ukraine seven years ago.

The missile launch is also indirectly related to this. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow initially denied that a test had taken place, until the Russian army admitted it. The head of Israel’s space agency, Maj. Gen. (res.) Isaac Ben-Israel, said this week in a radio interview that hundreds of large fragments of the satellite in the test will continue to orbit in space as dangerous debris.

“We think it’s very bad to turn space into a military realm,” Ben-Israel added. “If so, instead of launching a missile, it’s preferable to launch a cyberattack on ground stations that transmit orders to satellites. They don’t know how to do anything without orders from the ground, and a cyberstrike like that is within countries’ abilities, including Israel.”

Ben-Israel explained that, apart from intelligence-collecting satellites, space has been preserved as a nonmilitary region. He believes the Russian test may be an attempt to pressure the Americans to sign an agreement to create rules for this sphere.

Migrants in a camp near the Polish border in Belarus' Grodno region last week.Credit: Ramil Nasibulin / Belta / AFP

While the Russians are sending signals in Europe, some of them violent and others expressions of soft power, Russian dominance is growing in the Middle East, partly because of the diminishing interest of the United States. Israel appears to be adjusting gradually. The latest intensive attacks in Syria against Iranian targets show that for now at least, these strikes haven’t crossed a Russian red line. Following Naftali Bennett’s visit with Putin in Sochi last month, the number of reports of Israeli attacks has only risen.

Last week, Israel’s military magazine devoted a special issue to Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. In the lead article,  Northern Command chief Amir Baram and Anat Stern, a former academic instructor at the Israel National Defense College, write: “Russia is preserving its geostrategic interests via a combination of nonmilitary elements on the Syrian front such as reconciliation mechanisms and economic investments.”

In a separate article, Stern adds that “preservation of territory, expansion of spheres of influence and defense of interests globally have guided Russian foreign policy for ages. The Russian national-security concept since the mid-1980s contains economic and diplomatic components alongside recognition of the importance of the military effort, and is adjusted to the Russian strategic culture. Through its activity in Syria, Russia is projecting power and positioning itself as a mediating, balancing factor.”

Stern says that amid the success of Putin’s Syria project, Russia might consider sending forces to other regions in the future.

As in previous cases, the West is having a hard time deciphering the Russian strategy in Eastern Europe and forecasting whether the Kremlin’s moves might unleash campaigns of greater violence in Ukraine and on the Polish border. As usual, the fact that the Russian propaganda machine treats the truth like clay is complicating forecasting. Is it possible, as Benjamin Haddad from the Washington-based Atlantic Council research institute argued this week, that the West is again underestimating Russia’s ambitions?

“We see Russian troops amassing and Russian leaders openly threatening Ukraine but it makes so little sense to many of us that we dismiss a potential massive invasion. Many intelligence estimates fail because of that: not lack of fact, but impossible to reconcile with analysis,” Haddad tweeted this week.

“A classic of this is 1973 war. There were open signals that Egypt was preparing war. But it was so irrational to US and Israel (6 year after 67 rout) that all this was dismissed as rhetorical chest bumping.”

The degree of danger posed by Russia’s moves will become apparent later. In the meantime, given the difficulty of following Russia’s shifting and contradictory pronouncements, we can only read the most reliable source for analyzing the Kremlin: the fake Twitter account satirizing the Russian president. As “Darth Putin” wrote this week, “The past changes so quickly you have no idea what will happen yesterday.”

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