The cornerstone of Russian President Vladimir Putin's worldview is that his country is a great power and it must constantly assert its power and significance or it will lose its place in the world. That belief animates his statement that the collapse of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." Putin's world is full of enemies and adversaries that are daily working to undermine Russia's international role and status, and he is struggling to defeat them.

Earlier this month, Putin used his annual address to his country to assert that the military was developing "invincible" weapons that could overcome U.S. missile defenses. Putin, like other Russian officials, worries that those defense systems either can or someday will be able to neutralize the Russian nuclear deterrent, exposing the country to blackmail or marginalization. (Chinese officialdom shares these concerns.) He touted a very long range nuclear-tipped torpedo, a new intercontinental ballistic missile, a nuclear-armed cruise missile and a variety of "hypersonic" systems, all of which defeat defenses by flying too low, too fast or on unpredictable flight paths.

The United States insists that its antimissile systems do not target Russian (or Chinese) systems. The number of interceptors deployed in both homeland and theater systems is too small to defend against any but the smallest arsenals. An adversary with a large number of missiles could quickly overwhelm either system: There are 44 ground-based interceptors to defend against 1,500 Russian warheads. And missile defense has a low success rate, even in the most favorable of test conditions.