This week Russian President Vladimir Putin once again expressed the Kremlin’s utter rejection of U.S. plans to base missile defense units in Europe. Speaking at a joint press conference with visiting Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates, Putin announced, “We are against turning Europe into a ‘powder keg’ by filling it with new weapons.” That same day the Russian military successfully tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile, the RS-24, and a modernized tactical missile, the Iskander-M. Both missiles were declared to have attained the capability “to penetrate any missile defenses” (Interfax, RIA-Novosti, May 29).
At first glance, all this activity seemed to reenact a Cold War nuclear arms race with threatening public rhetoric, backed up by launches of ballistic missiles. In reality, the picture is more complex. Moscow is indeed deeply disturbed by Washington’s plans to deploy missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. But the RS-24 and Iskander-M tests have little connection with those plans.
The RS-24 was announced to be a “new prototype ICBM that was developed using the technologies of the Topol-M (SS-27) ICBM.” The RS-24 was fired from a mobile launcher at the Plesetsk space launch center north of Moscow. It carried multiple warheads that successfully hit targets in Kamchatka. According to the official announcement, the RS-24 will replace Russia’s aging liquid-fuel SS-18 and SS-19 ICBMs, and Russia will have Topol-M ICBMs with a single warhead and RS-24 ICBMs with multiple warheads (Interfax, RIA-Novosti, May 29).
Recently the chief of the Strategic Rocket Force, General Nikolai Solovtsov, told journalists that by the end of 2007 Russia will have 54 Topol-M ICBMs, another 100 Topol-M ICBMs will be procured by 2015, and most of the new missiles will carry multiple warheads. At the same time, up to 442 presently deployed SS-18, SS-19 and SS-25 ICBMs will be dismantled by 2015 (Vedomosti, May 8).
Until the START arms control treaty of 1991 expires in December 2009, Russia is forbidden to deploy or test Topol-M ICBMs with multiple warheads. But to wait so long would be too costly, so to overcome the legal barrier a loophole was found — to re-brand the multiple warhead Topol-M as a “new missile.” Russian military and defense industry sources confirm that the RS-24 is, in fact, a modernization of the SS-27 (www.gazeta.ru, May 29).
It seems possible to interpret the testing of the RS-24 as a violation of the START regime. But I was assured by the Russian Defense Ministry press service that the testing was discussed in advance and cleared with Washington. Indeed, there was no serious negative response from Washington about the testing of the modernized Topol-M (RS-24) or the modernized Iskander-M.
This narrative makes sense. For some time President George W. Bush’s administration has been treating START-1 as a relic of the Cold War that leads to squabbles between Moscow and Washington on minor issues. Washington has been signaling the Kremlin to put aside strict verification procedures. In 2002, Bush and Putin signed an arms control treaty that says that by 2012 both sides will have from 1,700 to 2,200 strategic nuclear weapons. This new treaty did not have any verification or control protocols. Instead, it was agreed that START verification procedures will be sufficient until 2009, and meanwhile Russia and the United States will come up with some type of verification follow-up.
However, negotiations failed, since the Bush administration believes transparency may be voluntary or none at all. Speaking at a security conference in Munich last February Putin said, “The stagnation in the area of disarmament threatens to destabilize international relations” (www.kremlin.ru, February 10). This call for a resumption of serious arms control negotiations led nowhere.
Now the Russian military have de facto partially abandoned START with Washington apparently complaisant. This could imply that the launch of the RS-24 is not the onset of a new Cold War, but a specific act of partnership — jointly dismantling arms control. In the past, such shifts were not always a manifestation of the Cold War — sometimes the military-industrial complexes of East and West acted together to promote their mutual interests.
The rift between Bush and Putin today may not be as big as some assume, but their collusion to dismantle arms control treaties may eventually lead to the total collapse of all nuclear and conventional control agreements. Last week First Deputy Premier Sergei Ivanov, currently considered to be Putin’s heir apparent, said at a press conference I attended (Interfax, May 23) that the U.S. explanation that its missile defense is aimed at rogue states is rubbish. Still, Ivanov implied that there will be no arms race and that Russia will not increase substantially its defense spending. Ivanov added that Moscow’s announced intention to abandon the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces 1987 Treaty, which eliminated all U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles with a 500-5,500 kilometer range, and the Conventional Forces in Europe 1990 treaty, “are not connected with U.S. plans to deploy MD in Europe and was expressed before U.S. MD plans were announced.”
This announcement may have been planned to lessen the tension over missile defense deployments. At the same time, it implies that even if Moscow and the West somehow resolve the current missile defense tensions, INF and CFE may be abandoned anyway. It seems it is possible to have either strict arms control or none at all.