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Back to the future: new US-Russia arms race

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 16, 2004


When the US earmarked billions of dollars for a new national missile defense and broke ground in Alaska, Washington emphasized that it would be "no threat to Russia."

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Then, with the inevitability of a cold-war counterpunch, President Vladimir Putin saw fit to reassure Russians that America's shield could be defeated, with a silver bullet successfully tested in February.

"No country in the world as yet has such arms," Putin declared of the new weapon, which amounts to a space cruise missile. It will be "capable of hitting targets continents away with hypersonic speed, high precision, and the ability of wide maneuver."

Welcome back to the future of US-Russian rivalry. Analysts say that a combination of US military efforts - including missile defense, plans for new low-yield nuclear weapons, and expansion up to Russia's western doorstep - are chilling relations with Moscow and spurring a new, higher-tech arms race.

Despite American declarations of goodwill, Russian interpretations of US military shifts are tangled up with a deep history of rivalry, and a current fear of being left behind. A strategy rethink is under way in Moscow. Senior officers speak of an "asymmetrical" response to counter US strength without matching Washington's expenditures.

"I understand America's measures as a continuation of the arms race," says Viktor Baranets, military columnist for the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. "With our slim budget we are making an effort to catch up with the rich American chariot."

"They think that we're kind of crazy to be pursuing [missile defense]," says Marshall Goldman, of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard. "It is just another example in their minds of how the US is still fighting the cold war."

And missile defense is not the only issue.

Work by the US on new types of nuclear weapons helped prompt the largest Russian military exercises since the Soviet era earlier this year. Russia is especially alert to the "possible reemergence of nuclear weapons as a real military instrument," which it views as an "extremely dangerous tendency that is undermining global and regional stability," Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov wrote in the journal Russia in Global Politics. "Even a minor reduction in the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons would require Russia to revise ... the use of its units."

Mr. Ivanov also warned in March that if "anti-Russian elements" persist in any NATO "offensive military doctrine, Russia will have to adequately revise its military planning ... including its nuclear forces." In April, four Belgian F-16 fighter jets deployed to Lithuania to patrol the alliance's new shared border with Russia. The move prompted sharp criticism from Moscow of an imminent "collision."

Keeping up with GI Jones

Moscow is also trying to figure out how to at least keep up with America's growing military resources. In recent years, Russia has moved to extend the service life of its multiwarhead SS-18 and SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and purchased 30 like-new SS-19s from Ukraine. Last year, Putin said of newly deployed SS-19s: "Their combat potential, including penetrating through any missile defense, is without peer."

Though these ICBMs are a critical component of Russia's strategic nuclear forces, they don't always work. Test launches in February, intended to be the highlight of Russia's intense military exercises failed, despite the presence of Mr. Putin - smartly attired in Naval uniform - on the deck of a nearby submarine.

To the acute embarrassment of the Russian General Staff, two sub-launched missiles never left their launch tubes. A third ICBM, fired the next day, veered off course after 98 seconds of flight and self-destructed.

However, Putin's new "secret" weapon can ride atop the relatively new, three-stage SS-27 missile, known as the Topol-M. Experts say the weapon is a maneuverable warhead that can dart unpredictably at high speeds as it reenters the atmosphere, making it virtually impossible to target at that stage. It is essentially a space cruise missile, born from Soviet efforts to penetrate Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" missile shield, which was never built.

"It's hard to tell if [the breakthrough] would have been possible without [concern for US] missile defense," says Pavel Podvig at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. "Missile defense has no real military value ... but at the same time, it has very serious political value. Missile defense is not such a serious issue that it drives us back into the cold war, but it makes dismantling that system much more difficult."

Russian unease may also erode support for Washington's war on terror.

"It might lead to our relations becoming cooler instead of united in our effort to oppose common threats from terrorism," says columnist Baranets. "Should [the US and Russia] go on building more warplanes, missiles, and subs just because our brains haven't been cleaned from the cold war dirt? Or should we jointly protect ourselves from stones somebody might throw [our way]?"