Putin and Medvedev Raise the Prospect of a New Arms Race

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 215

(RIA Novosti)

This week’s annual national address by President, Dmitry Medvedev, to a joint session of parliament sitting in the Kremlin together with the entire senior ruling elite, amazed the press in Moscow, being mostly about the problems of childcare and education (EDM, December 1). The official government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta announced that the elite were baffled, since the speech avoided seriously address political or economic problems and “did not seem to be electioneering.” Apparently, Medvedev has other priorities (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, December 1). Political pundits expected more from Medvedev: evidently the president is not sure if he will be allowed to run in 2012 for re-election by the all-powerful Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, and Medvedev “did not have the will or resources to turn the address into an election manifesto” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 1).

Russia is not a democracy and Western-style electioneering does not promote a public career. The plight of rulers is decided by the attitude of the top elite: who they collectively believe to be the “alpha dog” and pay homage to –traditionally prevails. The vote rigging and TV propaganda are run by the same elite. Medvedev seems to have squandered a prime opportunity to rally the support of the top elite to secure his smooth re-election: the next national address will be in one year –just months before the presidential election when the result will be all but set. Maybe, Medvedev in fact already does know he will be a one term president and his time in the Kremlin is running out.

Medvedev’s address did not arouse enthusiasm. The Russian top elite does not care much about the children of the lower classes and their education, since the offspring of the super rich and powerful attend expensive Western boarding schools (mostly in Britain) and go to prestigious Western universities. Medvedev did receive an ovation when he moved away from childcare and reaffirmed the decision to spend some 20 trillion rubles ($634.4 billion) till 2020 to rearm the military and threatened a resumed arms race with the deployment of new offensive weapons if a planned US-NATO ballistic missile defense (BMD) system is built in Europe without Moscow’s consent (www.kremlin.ru, November 30).

In the address, Medvedev repeated his statement made last month in Lisbon during the NATO summit that the development of BMD in which Russia is not an equal partner may lead to a regrettable arms race. In Lisbon, Medvedev offered that Russia and NATO build a joint BMD in Europe in which Russia will defend one sector and shoot down possible incoming missiles over its territory or “sector,” while the US may shoot down those coming from any other direction (www.kremlin.ru, November 20). It turned out Medvedev was Putin’s mouthpiece. Putin told CNN’s Larry King on December 1 that if the West “rejects our offer” to exchange information and have joint BMD control, and the US “deploys missiles and radars near our territory,” Russia will deploy new attack missiles to counter the threat. Putin announced that there is no Iranian nuclear or missile threat and the planned BMD is aimed at Russia (www.premier.gov.ru, December 2).

A secret US diplomatic memorandum published by WikiLeaks describes the assessment of North Korean and Iranian missile threats by US and Russian extended interagency delegations in Moscow on December 22, 2009 in the framework of the Joint Threat Assessment (JTA) process, as agreed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev in the 2009 US-Russia Summit Joint Statement on BMD issues. Russian officials agreed that Iran and North Korea are developing missile programs and attempting to acquire Russian missile technologies. But Moscow refuses to acknowledge there is any current missile threat to Russia or the US from either Iran or North Korea: arguing their missiles are very primitive, too short range and developed primarily for possible regional use. Russian officials dismiss as erroneous US reports about the existence of the North Korean BM-25 missile allegedly based on a Russian design known as the R-27 –a one stage liquid fuel missile with a 3,000 kilometer range and a 650 kilogram payload that was once deployed on the now scrapped Yankee-1 nuclear submarines. US officials maintained Pyongyang sold Tehran 19 BM-25’s. The Russian delegation pointed out there is no evidence that such a missile was ever flight-tested and hiding such a test is impossible. Moscow challenged Washington to produce a single photograph of the BM-25 in these locations (http://cablegate.wikileaks.org/).

Moscow is indeed developing its own advanced BMD. In his address, Medvedev announced that a special joint air-space defense strategic command will be created to manage antiaircraft and BM defenses together with the rocket attack early warning system and air control. A new S-500 system is being developed by Almaz-Antei Corporation aimed at shooting down enemy missiles, warheads, aircraft and hitting targets in space (RIA Novosti, November 30). An Almaz-Antei official told Jamestown the S-500 interceptor will be nuclear tipped “not to bother to distinguish real incoming warheads from dummies, but to destroy the entire cloud in one nuclear blast.”

It is impossible to imagine that Russia would indeed choose to shoot down an Iranian missile headed to Europe by a nuclear blast in its own airspace within the framework of Medvedev’s proposal of a “sectoral” BMD system, or that Europeans will easily accept such a defense. The Russian pledge to defend Europe against BM attack seems to have been given on the assumption that it will never be fulfilled – since there is no Iranian missile threat anyway. Medvedev’s proposal for a joint BMD is aimed to prevent the deployment of US interceptors that may be deployed on Russia’s border, since the Russian military is sure they also will be eventually nuclear-tipped and aimed at Russian strategic targets to deliver a treacherous surprise attack and not to destroy the non-existent Iranian BM’s.

Putin spoke angrily during his interview on CNN about the new START treaty stuck in the US Senate, US BMD plans and about the WikiLeaks disclosures. Putin told Larry King not the elite, but the people rule Russia through due elections and that WikiLeaks may have been created to leak sensitive information by the US to later use it “for political purposes.” The US-Russian reset seems to be on the verge of running into a wall of prejudice and mutual conspiracy theory.