As reported last Thursday, Russia’s military is currently conducting its "biggest display of military power since the end of the Cold War", called Zapad-2017. The drill involves anywhere between 12,700 and 100,000 troops (depending on whether one believes Russia or NATO), 10 ships, 70 planes and helicopters, 680 equipment units, 250 tanks, and multiple launch rocket systems and mortars.
And, as of today, the drill also includes Russia's Iskander-M theater ballistic system, which on Monday carried out a successful test-launch of its missile at maximum range, the Russian defense ministry said adding that the test-launch was performed at the Kapustin Yar range in Russia’s southern Astrakhan Region.
"The increased capacity missile covered 480 kilometers and successfully hit its target at the Makat range [in Kazakhstan],” the ministry said.
The Iskander-M tactical missile system, which can also carry nuclear warheads, was first introduced to the Russian military in 2007 and is aimed at targeting missile systems, rocket launchers, long-range artillery, command posts, as well as aircraft and helicopters at a distance of several hundred kilometers. The system, designated SS-26 Stone by NATO, can fire two types of missiles – the quasi-ballistic 9M723 and the cruise 9M728. Both types can maneuver quickly on their flight path, complicating interception by enemy anti-missile weaponry.
NATO has been especially nervous about the deployment of the ballistic missile ever since November 2008, when then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev made a stark warning to NATO: "Russia will deploy Iskander missile systems in its enclave in Kaliningrad to neutralize, if necessary, the anti-ballistic missile system in Europe." According to an unconfirmed 2013 Bild report, Russia had stationed "a double-digit number of SS-26 Stone, aka Iskander, tactical, nuclear-capable short-range missiles near the Polish border in a dramatic escalation to merely verbal threats issued as recently as a year ago."
Several years later, in November 2016, Moscow officially deployed S-400 surface-to-air missiles and nuclear-capable Iskander systems in the exclave of Kaliningrad "in retaliation for NATO deployments", confirming previous media reports of Russian intentions to once again blanket central Europe with potential nuclear ICBM coverage.
Meanwhile, Russia continues to assure NATO that the joint Russia-Belarus drills are “nothing out of the ordinary” according to Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy chief of the Russian Federal Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said last week.
"We are working out cooperation with our Belarusian allies in the regular mode as no army can exist without training, mobilization and battle readiness checks,” Dzhabarov said, as cited by Parlamentskaya Gazeta. “Americans constantly conduct exercises in the Japanese and East China Seas, but they don’t attack North Korea or China,” he added.
According to RT, he also pointed out that NATO states are increasingly building up military presence close to Russian borders which “raises awareness” in Russia.
Of course, Moscow maintains that the drills are “purely defensive,” saying that the scenarios focus on extremist groups penetrating Belarus and Russia’s Kaliningrad region. In July, Belarusian Defense Minister Andrey Ravkov, pointed out that international organizations, such as the UN and NATO, along with dozens of foreign observers, were invited to the drills since there is “nothing to conceal.”
We doubt that will comfort NATO, especially after news of the launch and the following satellite photos showing recent tests of the nuclear-capable Iskander make tomorrow's newspapers.