Putin’s virtual missiles create real risks

Failed test of the Bulava missile in 2013. Picture from the Barents Observer.

Surprise is a political technique Russia’s President Vladimir Putin excels at, and he did not miss the occasion to spring big surprises during his annual address to the parliament, on 1 March. The first half of the speech contained a rich menu of economic and social promises, but Putin’s delivery was uninspired, as if he was merely going through the motions before arriving at his preferred focus—new and developing Russian missile programs. Nobody had expected him to elaborate at such length on this matter, despite the fact that nuclear and missile stockpiles have been a traditional marker of Russia’s strength, and most of this arsenal is deployed towards the Arctic theater. Putin attacked the theme with passion resembling Nikita Khrushchev’s braggadocio and presented video animations that resembled the first series in the “Star Wars” epic. The audience of about a thousand past-middle-age men and a few women, most of whom had no idea about what he was talking about, awarded the leader with a rousing ovation.

The expert community, meanwhile, is puzzled rather than surprised. Most of Putin’s pompous revelations referred to old and not particularly successful projects, like the heavy ballistic missile Sarmat, which had only one ejection test last December. Other projects Putin “revealed” are still under-developed designs, like the truck-mounted laser gun, or figments of nuclear-engineering imagination, like the extra-fast and super-quiet nuclear torpedo or the nuclear-propelled cruise missile. All these fanciful weapons systems were “invented” back in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was desperately working on asymmetric responses to US President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Even if some of them are actually deployed in the near future, it will make essentially no difference for mutual deterrence, because nothing resembling a comprehensive or foolproof anti-missile shield is going to appear in the United States anytime soon. It might, however, damage the prospect for sustaining international cooperation in the Arctic.

Such respected US expert as Steven Pifer suspects that Putin has “something of a fixation on things nuclear” and compares this trumpeting of wonder-missiles with President Donald Trump’s slogan “Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!” Putin is, after all, campaigning for re-election (the vote is March 18), though the outcome is pre-determined. In fact, Putin’s animated presentation betrays ignorance rather than interest in missile technologies. He has indeed expounded on nuclear-strategic matters quite a few times, but not recently—and never in such fanciful detail. He was arguing, in particular, for making the Arctic free from “geopolitical games“. Careful assessments of Russian missile programs are necessary, but they cannot explain what prompted Putin to go ballistic—and why now?

Missiles-R-Us

One part of the answer could be in plain sight: It was only in late February that Putin finally signed the long-postponed 2027 State Armament Program, a procurement plan for which defense industries fiercely lobbied and which the Finance Ministry desperately tried to cut. Several missile design bureaus are among the winners in this budget battle, and Putin now feels the need to justify his decision. This bureaucratic logic clashes absurdly with strategic common sense: He brags about virtual missiles able to break through the non-existent American missile defense.

Strategic weapons were the main priority in the not-that-successfully-executed 2020 State Armament Program, but the top brass prefers not to elaborate on its many shortcomings. One of the most troubling is the performance of the Bulava missile for the Borei-class submarines, which has a checkered record of tests by the Northern Fleet, but was launched only once in 2017, and once in 2016. It is increasingly obvious that the huge investment in this new generation of strategic submarines is a luxury that Russia can ill afford. Their patrols make no difference whatsoever in the theaters where real security threats need to be managed—from the Donbass war zone to the border with North Korea. In addition to the three now-operational Borei-class subs, five more keels are laid down, so more money needs to be channeled into this exorbitant program. Putin needs to find a way to harvest any political dividends he can from this investment, and making missiles into the main theme of his annual address is a reasonably safe way to score a few cheap points.

The only missile program that really matters in today’s world is the one developed by SpaceX, and many Russians were amazed by Elon Musk’s audacious stunt performed at his own expense. Roskosmos, which managed 19 space launches in 2017, is merely exploiting the Soviet technological heritage, and Putin’s strategic animation pales in comparison with the breathtaking image of a red Tesla roadster travelling in deep space.

Restoring Russia’s relevance

Putin is by no means a natural militarist, and he knows that his lieutenants and subordinates are too corrupt for Russia to be able to engage in a real arms race. He surely feels the political need to assert Russian “greatness.” This greatness has lagged and decayed under his ineffectual leadership—and only missiles are left for Putin to rely on. The emotional comment in his speech that “nobody wanted to listen to us…so listen now” contains yet another part of the answer to the “Why now?” question, though it doesn’t mean that Russia is ready to talk. Moscow has shown no inclination to resume meaningful negotiations on strategic arms control, and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov cancelled scheduled consultations on strategic stability with U.S. Under Secretary of State Thomas Shannon this week. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s remarks at the recent Conference on Disarmament in Geneva amounted to accusing the United States of preparing for a nuclear war in Europe. And Putin’s address did nothing to dispel persistent U.S. accusations that Russia is in violation of the 1988 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

It is not that Putin strives to start negotiations, but rather that he wants to arrest the decline of Russia’s relevance on the international arena. Reinforcing the delusion of “greatness” in his domestic audience is easy, but another important addressee, quite possibly, was China, which is inclined to take the “strategic partnership” with Russia for granted and was mentioned only once in Putin’s speech. Sustained joint efforts by the United States and China in managing the North Korean crisis (which Putin didn’t find opportune to mention at all) upsets Moscow, which cannot contribute meaningfully to this counter-proliferation work but resents the neglect.

Russia’s economic weakness is so profound that Russia cannot possibly engage in anything resembling a real arms race with the United States and NATO.It doesn’t take a shrewd strategic mind to conclude that Russia can only proceed with these entirely unnecessary weapon programs at the expense of addressing its more pressing economic needs and acute security challenges, including in High North. Putin’s posturing cannot meet many strict reality checks, but it is nevertheless, dangerous because it damages the norm of owning nuclear weapons responsibly.

For more, take a look at “Missiles of March: A political means of last resort for Putin” (Order from Chaos) and “Putin’s answer to Russia’s many problems: Missiles and more missiles” (Eurasia Daily Monitor).

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