There was nothing particularly disturbing about the failed launch of the experimental Bulava (SS-NX-30) strategic missile from the Dmitry Donskoi submarine on the evening of September 7. Failures happen, and they are quite useful for identifying problems that should be addressed before the missile is approved for deployment and mass production. Two previous tests, in September 2005 and December 2005, were entirely successful, so from a technical point of view, Yuri Solomonov, head of the Moscow Institute of Heat Engineering design bureau, should not be that worried. Technicalities regarding the guidance system, however, are of only secondary importance in this project, since the as-yet-non-existent Bulava is already a big political issue (Kommersant; Lenta.ru, September 8).
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly portrayed this missile as tangible proof of the modernization of the Russian armed forces. In all fairness, it should be pointed out that the decision to cancel the alternative Bark missile, developed by the Makeyev design bureau in Miass, was taken in 1998 after four unsuccessful tests. The main rationale was saving money, as Bulava was supposed to be a cheap modification of the Topol-M land-based strategic missile that could be produced at the same Votkinsk plant. As often happens in military production, the promised economy has turned into major over-spending as the costs of the “adaptation” for underwater launch exceeded expectations, while the new submarine Yuri Dolgoruky, launched in 1996, had to undergo reconstruction before being completed (Moskovsky komsomolets, April 27). Money, however, is not the problem now that the Kremlin can pump any amount of “petro-rubles” into the military-industrial complex.
The real problem is that Bulava (which means “mace”) constitutes a central element of a new policy that could be called “virtual deterrence” as it aims at enhancing Russia’s international status mostly by means of PR campaigns and strategic bluff. This policy has a pronounced anti-U.S. character, emphasized by the stream of statements about the uniquely maneuverable warheads that could penetrate any missile-defense system. Simultaneously, Moscow seeks to convince the United States to start a new round of high-profile arms control negotiations. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov tried to sell this idea to U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld a few weeks ago, and for lack of better arguments dropped a hint that Russia might withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that had marked a breakthrough in Gorbachev’s New Political Thinking back in 1988 (Ezhednevny zhurnal, August 30).
This complicated strategic-diplomatic dance with Washington, perhaps suits Putin’s perceptions of how a “great power” should behave, but the performance has become increasingly awkward as his lead stumbles and slips with every step. The fire on the nuclear submarine Daniil Moskovsky revealed massive problems with maintenance of the strategic forces (Lenta.ru; see EDM, September 8). The launch of the old Sineva (SS-N-23) missile by the Ekaterinburg from under the Arctic ice on September 9 was successful, and Pavel Podvig, one of the top experts on Russian strategic forces, reminds on his blog that the Delta IV submarines could remain in service for another ten years until the unfortunate Yuri Dolgoruky and two other submarines of this series would enter into service (russianforces.org). Nevertheless, the naval leg of the Russian nuclear triad remains so vulnerable to accidents that it makes very little sense to enter into any disarmament talks; mismanagement and disrepair all but guarantee self-cuts.
Another, quite unexpected stumble happened recently when the joint U.S.-Russian military exercises, named Torgau-2006, were postponed indefinitely. They should have marked a high point in bilateral cooperation later this month (Kommersant; Washington Post, September 6). The setback was explained away by legal technicalities, but in fact the Kremlin had miscalculated the political fallout. The was plenty of “enemy-at-the-gates” commentary and undisguised gloating in the mainstream media when a few hundred protesters blocked the U.S.-Ukrainian exercises in the Crimea last June (Ezhednevny zhurnal, September 7). The Communist Party promised to stage far noisier protests in Nizhny Novgorod where some 250 U.S. troops were to conduct joint peacekeeping training with Russian forces. The Communists are only a marginal political force, but their leader, Gennady Zyuganov, seeks to tap into the anti-U.S. sentiments fanned by official propaganda and actually caught Putin in a trap set by his own self-assertive rhetoric.
It has turned out that the very useful political technique of appealing to “patriotic” feelings makes it quite difficult to maintain even symbolic security cooperation with an adversary that is accused of cherishing so many evil intentions, from blocking Russia’s entry into the WTO to encouraging Georgia’s desperate run toward joining NATO. In a somewhat similar way, the exploitation of nationalistic sentiments has brought such undesirable results as the ugly anti-Caucasian pogrom in Kodopoga, Karelia (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 7). The authorities find themselves hard pressed to explain whether they really mean what they say and to deliver on promises made as a figure of speech.
As far as military matters are concerned, it is becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile grand plans such as the recently approved Armaments Program for 2007-2015, estimated at $185 billion, with the fact that the Russian Army is able to buy only 15-30 tanks a year, while India has purchased more than 300 Russian tanks without greatly straining its defense budget (Polit.ru, May 12). Putin is rushing his “pet programs” like Bulava as if strategic confrontation with the United States is already on track, while the last elements of military cooperation are being dismantled or discontinued. Just a year ago, the value of such cooperation was vividly demonstrated when a British rescue team saved the Russian mini-sub Priz trapped in old radar antennas near Kamchatka. Now the enlarged military pride of the “great energy power” demands confident swinging of the nuclear “mace,” even if only virtual.