While Russian President Vladimir Putin made public appearances throughout the third week of November, he has little to show for his efforts. He addressed the annual congress of Russian businessmen, but rather than telling them anything new, he simply gauged the business community’s readiness to pretend that the Yukos affair had never happened (Kommersant, November 16; Gazeta.ru, November 17). He invited the entire United Russia parliamentary faction to his residence and had a long meeting with the heads of three state-controlled TV channels to explain his rationale for discontinuing regional elections — and again said nothing new (Izvestiya, Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 19). He orchestrated a final push in the Ukrainian presidential elections, but most of his heavy ammunition had already been spent in the first round of these elections — and failed to secure a victory for the Kremlin’s preferred candidate (Moskovskie novosti, November 19; Polit.ru, November 16).
In fact, the only statement by Putin that captured international attention was made at a meeting of senior defense personnel, and its resonance was mostly due to its slightly mysterious character. While Defense Minister Ivanov was both critical of the level of combat readiness and specific about the acquisition plans for new weapon systems, the Commander-in-Chief was reassuring and vague, (Kommersant, Vip.lenta.ru, November 18). Surprisingly, Putin mentioned “testing the most up-to-date nuclear missile systems” and spoke of “developments of the kind that other nuclear powers do not have and will not have” (The Guardian, November 18). What did he really mean?
Experts pointed to a new maneuverable warhead for the Topol-M inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) and to the new sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) Bulava (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 19). The first missile, in fact, is old news and inescapably transparent due to ever-vigilant satellite monitoring. The second system is more a problem than an achievement: development of the new SLBM is lagging far behind schedule. The first strategic submarine of a new generation (Borey-class Yuri Dolgoruky) was started back in 1996 and was supposed to be ready in 2000. However, it will not be able to enter service for at least two more years because the missile is still not ready (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, October 1). A prototype Bulava was successfully tested in September, but the distance between prototype and mass production of missiles cannot be shorted by applying political will (Lenta.ru, September 23; Izvestiya, November 16).
There are two direct and worrisome consequences of this delay. First, in the next two or three years the naval leg of the Russian strategic triad will have to rely entirely on missiles that are past their expiration date and prone to misfiring. Second, the new generation of strategic submarines will not come soon enough to replace the aging Delta-IV and Typhoons, so by the end of this decade most of Russia’s strategic naval forces would be beyond their retirement age. It is not entirely clear to what degree Putin is aware of this irreversible trend, but the growing concerns in the West can hardly be lifted by statements resembling Khrushchev’s promises to mass produce missiles like sausages.
An element of strategic bluff was certainly present in Putin’s five-minute long statement, but he could also mean one area where Russia indeed has a technological edge: super-sonic anti-ship cruise missiles (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, October 22). These technologies were prioritized in the 1980s when the Soviet naval command was obsessed with the threat of U.S. aircraft carriers, and they have been perfected nowadays as a potential source of export revenue. The plain fact is that there is no defense against these low-flying and fast-maneuvering ship-killers. Were Iran to deploy a few batteries of these missiles along its southern sea border, it would become too risky for the U.S. Navy to deploy an aircraft carrier group into the Persian Gulf. These missiles are quite deadly with conventional warheads, but if China would equip them with nuclear ones, the balance of naval power in the Pacific would turn against the United States. It could be significant, in this context, that Putin used the words “missiles” and “nuclear” but did not mention “strategic,” since this weapons system falls into the sub-strategic category — and there is no treaty limiting tactical nuclear weapons.
At the same time, it should be remembered that Putin was addressing first and foremost his generals, men who are worried about the Army’s shrinking ranks due to demographics, but unwilling to abandon the draft; dreaming about past glory but disheartened with the vast technologic superiority of the present-day U.S. military. Putin probably does not want to confirm what they already know: the proposed increases in the military budget, burdensome as they are, would not signify even a small step towards a first-class army. The generals are not exactly enthusiastic about combating terrorism, so he gives them what they want to hear: a nuclear pep talk.