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.
U.S. strategic doctrine has embraced missile defense, but that is not its key feature. While President George W. Bush withdrew from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty to permit the development of missile defense systems to counter the threat of “rogue nations” like Iraq, Iran or North Korea, it has always relied on the threat of massive retaliation — mutual assured destruction — to deter adversaries like Russia and China.
Russian strategists, like their Chinese counterparts, do not accept U.S. assurances of the limited purpose of its defense systems. They also worry that restrained U.S. intentions only reflect technological limitations: If it can achieve a technological breakthrough, they fear that the U.S. will quickly move to exploit any advantage.
Those suspicions are likely to assume new weight in coming weeks when the U.S. Department of Defense releases its Ballistic Missile Defense Review, another in the security policy reviews that guide policy. (Other documents in this series include the National Security Strategy, the Defense Posture Review and the Nuclear Posture Review.) Given the return of “great power competition” as the guiding theme of U.S. security policy, the new document is expected to call for new thinking about ways to counter Russia and China in regional theaters like Asia and Europe. In other words, the escalation of threats to allies like Japan is driving a reassessment of U.S. thinking about missile defense.
U.S. defense officials noted that they have known about Putin’s new weapons, and continue to insist that they rely on deterrence, not defense, in strategic relations with Russia. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert noted that Putin’s new weapons were shown in animation — “cheesy” she said — a reminder that they were still in the development stage. She added that Putin faces an election March 18 and “We think he was playing to the audience.”
The domestic context is important. Putin is ever eager to remind voters that he has returned Russia to great power status and he will safeguard that position. As he noted during his speech, “Now they need to take account of a new reality and understand that everything I have said today is not a bluff.” Even if the boasts are just posturing, they should be worrisome, however.
Putin is ratcheting up tensions between Moscow and Washington. The U.S. Nuclear Posture Review referred to Russian and Chinese nuclear modernization as a reason to upgrade its own arsenal (a trend that U.S. President Barack Obama began). There is now the very real danger of a return to a nuclear arms race, with all the attendant costs and consequences.
This occurs when arms control negotiations do not exist and existing arms control treaties are under threat. Washington accuses Russia of violating the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and neither side appears interested in extending the New START treaty that limits strategic forces and expires in three years. Both sides seem intent on nurturing grievances and doing their utmost to make adversaries more insecure. That is a recipe for instability and all its attendant dangers. It is tempting to dismiss chest thumping as a sign of insecurity, but it carries real risks for all when there are nuclear arsenals involved.