Part I here.

29 December 2009.  In the US, the games of the season are underway, whether it be the NCAA college football bowls or the intramural finger-pointing inside the beltway over the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner.  Parts of the US were buried under a new winter storm while other parts continued digging out from the last. Slipped in amongst those bits of news and other stories typical for the time of year was this missive, originating from Vladivostok:

Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin said Tuesday that the main obstacle to replacing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or Start, is Washington’s plan to build a missile defense system, which he said endangered the cold war-era balance of power.

“If we don’t develop a missile defense system, a danger arises for us that with an umbrella protecting our partners from offensive weapons, they will feel completely safe,” Mr. Putin told journalists during a working visit to Vladivostok. “The balance will be disrupted, and then they will do whatever they want, and aggressiveness will immediately arise both in real politics and economics.”

To preserve the balance, he said, Russia must develop new offensive weapons to counter the missile shield — or the United States must provide Russia with data on its missile defense plans in exchange for data on Russian weapons development. (NY Times, 29 Dec 2009)

To most Americans, this item registered little if any concern. To those concerned with matters of foreign policy and security planning, those few words signaled a troubling portent regarding the forthcoming sessions on negotiating a follow-on to the now expired START I Treaty (ed: The treaty expired 5 December 2009, but currently remains in force indefinitely pending agreement on a successor, since Russia and the United States failed to reach agreement on a new pact until the deadline. – SJS).  With negotiations set to resume mid-month, Putin’s comments appear to throw a wrench into expectations of progress at those talks.  How so?

Russia and the US are on very different paths insofar as their strategic systems are concerned (more so for the US, one expects, after release of the new NPR).  At present, with about 2500 deployable nuclear warheads today, Russia is carrying out a modernization program of its land- and sea-based forces, with the bulk going to sea-based forces, most notably construction of the Project 955/Dolgorukiy-class SSBN and development of the Bulava SLBM to replace the Delta III and Typhoon SSBNs.  On land, retirement of the 30 year old SS-19 is underway (current silo-based missiles were extended to a 33-year life) while a MIRVed version of the SS-27/Topol-M is believed to be ready for deployment.  Modernization of the Long Range Aviation involves upgrades to Tu-160 Blackjack’s and Tu-95ms Bear’s produced during the 1980’s.  The actual pace of modernization has been quite problematic however – the very public failures of the Bulava being the most visible.  As a result, plans have to be made to continue overhaul of the Delta IV SSBNs to enable an extension of the SS-N-18 Sineva, which the Bulava was supposed to be replacing (the Project 955 subs can only carry the Bulava).  Despite this program (or perhaps because of), Russia appears to be on a glide path to around 1500-1700 deployable warheads by 2015 (Pavel).  Under the provisions of START I all parties need to share information about new strategic offensive missiles under development.  Currently, the US only plans safety and longevity upgrades to the Minuteman ICBM and Trident SLBM, though there has been discussion of a follow-on SLBM, subject to the directives of the NPR.  Under this regime then, the Russians would be the only ones sharing information on missile development, which when viewed with a domestic lens, be construed to be a one-way condition.  Indeed, the launch of a SS-25/Topol from Kapustin Yar was the first that Russia was under no obligation to share telemetry from with the US.  One supposition then regarding Putin’s remarks might be an attempt at a quid-pro-quo where the US would be compelled to share information on its defensive missiles where Russia shares that of its offensive missiles.

While nice for domestic haymaking, that point fails on two accords — the US under the Treaty and the extension is not compelled to do so and secondly, it has already voluntarily shared much directly with Russia and Putin in particular.  In the course of a Q and A session this past October at the Atlantic Council, Lieutenant General O’Reilly, director of the Missile Defense Agency, had occasion to comment on this subject directly regarding the European site, which Russia has objected to since its unveiling under the Bush Administration:

MR. KEMPE:  Questions?  Let me throw out one of my own.  Will Russia view this ICBM capability as more or less threatening to its deterrent than the nuclear deterrent than the Bush administration’s?  On the one hand, it seems – we have heard that this doesn’t have anything to do with Russia.  But on the other hand, certainly Russia has not looked at it that way.  And I am just wondering how they will view this.

GEN. O’REILLY:  I can tell you in all the deliberations I was in that wasn’t one of the issues – criteria that was used.  However, if you want a verifiable capability, as we go back to START and others, the more readily verify and transparent it is, the better the system is as far as providing confidence and assurance to the other party.  And in the case of Russia, they would look at the size of this interceptor.  They are very good at developing missiles.  They have the capability to understand that a one-ton missile with less than a 30-kilogram payload – much less than that – they can calculate the range of that missile.  And that range of that missile, even the more advanced missile that we said at the end is nowhere near the range necessary to even get close to any of their missile fields.  So on very first principles of physics, it becomes obvious. This is a capability that if you are within a range of that missile and that is what we are developing, it is highly capable to destroy missiles of all ranges.  But there is literally a zone that if you are outside that zone, we have no capability. (Atlantic Council transcript)

Additionally, Lt. Gen. O’Reilly and his predecessor as MDA Director, LtGen Obering had occasion for discussions with Russia re. the BMD system, particularly during their cooperative tour of the Gabala radar and discussions about the use of the Armavir radar as well. (NPR and 16 June 2009 Testimony to Senate Armed Services Committee).  The more one peels back the layers on the Russian protestations, the less credible it becomes.  The BMD system supporting the missiles in Alaska and California was never intended to counter Russian ICBMs.  With the planned final version of the system having somewhere between 18-25 operational GBIs, each with a single, non-nuclear kinetic interceptor per GBI, a single SS-18 could overwhelm the system with its 10 warheads supported by up to forty penetration aids.  As for the Phase Adaptive Approach for European defense, the SM-3 Blk1A and -1B has no capability against an ICBM, nor will they be positioned near Russian ICBM fields.  Additionally, should a unit be placed in Poland as part of the next phase of development (Aegis BMD Ashore), it will still employ the SM-3 Blk-1B and still have no capability against Russian ICBMs.

So what is it that Russia, or more particularly, Putin, hope to gain by this sudden intransigence?

The new treaty will contain a provision regarding the relationship between strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms (8 July 09 Joint Understanding).  Is it instead a reflection of his (Putin’s) views that anti-Russian (nee’ -Soviet) elements are too deeply entrenched in Washington to expect to see long term changes that benefit Russia?  If so, paradoxically, then must a harder line must be taken up front to take advantage of an Administration seen to be anxious to hit the “reset” button on relations with Russia?

The answer, as is the case with most things dealing with Russia, is more complex than that.  It begins with the complicated relationship between what appears to be a hard-line Putin who steps into the public discourse when a more conciliatory Medvedev approaches points that are difficult to reconcile.  Fold in the reaction to expansion of NATO (and by extension, the US in particular) into former WTO members, US bases in former Soviet Republics and statements from legislators, analysts and policy makers, about Russia’s demographic decline (GPO for Library of Congress; counterveiling view here) or the ‘natural decline‘ of Russia’s strategic forces.  There may be an additional dynamic at work here – namely an early signal of an intent to step away from the INF Treaty.

The INF Treaty eliminated an entire category of missiles (ranged 500-5500 km) – between the US and Russia.  Unfortunately, it does not apply nor hold say over China, North Korea, Iran, India, Pakistan or other nations and as such, the just passed decade saw an aggressive expansion of MR/IRBM development and proliferation.  It is, indeed, a growth industry.  Russia would very much like to get in on the action, but because of the INF Treaty, can only offer up its Iskandar SRBM while the likes of China can shop the likes of the CSS-6 Mod 2 (550+ km) and CSS-5 (1100+ km), Iran the Shahab 3 (800 – 1200+ km) and North Korea the No Dong (800 km).  Russia’s reputation for rocket design and rugged, mobile systems would be a major force to be reckoned with in the international sales front, MTCR limits notwithstanding.

For now, the real import of Putin’s remarks probably won’t be fully evident until the talks resume in mid-January.  Hopefully, the above has provided some context to view that setting and the discussions that follow.

Next – Iran: Nuclearization or Implosion in 2010?


  1. Bill K

    What I’m not seeing here, is why don’t we just say to the Russians, “You know what, we think BMD is such a good idea, why don’t you go ahead and do the same? We’re doing this to protect ourselves from crazies – like Iran, and we won’t mind if you build your defenses as well. Who knows? Maybe some of your former friends might turn on you? But if you want to continue to limit offensive missiles, we’re game; if not, we’ll do what seems most prudent. You are not the guys we’re most worried about, so do what seems best to you. We’d like to remain on friendly terms, but our highest priority is our citizens’ safety. Now if you’ll persuade Iran & the Norks to give up their “rights” to nuclear weapons, we’ll go along with your proposal, but if not, we understand – we have a hard time gently persuading other countries too. So if you can’t, we’ll go back to plan A. Because we both believe that in the field of international relations, what matters is not a country’s intentions but its capabilities, right?”

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