It is a tradition for the Kremlin to organize a ceremonial introduction or reception of newly promoted top-rank commanders. In Russia, general-rank officers serve not only in the Armed Forces but also in the Ministry of Interior (police), the National Guard (Rosgvardya), the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the Federal Security Service (FSB—counterintelligence), state prosecutors’ offices, investigatory law enforcement bodies, jails and other so-called “power departments” (siloviki). Therefore, there is always a quite a crowd of newly promoted generals gathering in the white marble and gold St. George’s hall of the Bolshoy Kremlin palace to meet with the commander-in-chief, President Vladimir Putin.
During the latest such top brass presentation in the Kremlin (on November 6), Putin commended the FSB for apprehending terrorists and foreign spies and lauded the SVR for effectively spying, providing the Kremlin with assessments of “global and regional threats.” Additionally, the president promoted the further buildup of the Armed Forces as a key priority. Russia will deploy new hypersonic, laser and other modern weapons “no other nation possesses,” he declared. But Russia will not use its advantage in such “wonder weapons” to threaten anyone, the commander-in-chef assured. Moscow is open to promote arms control, “taking into account our new weapons that are designed to guarantee security and deter growing threats” (Kremlin.ru, November 6).
Nuclear deterrence requires a level of openness, public promotion and often strategic bluff. A policy based on threats alone cannot work if the opposition does not fully comprehend the threat. From October 15 to 17, Russian nuclear forces performed an ambitious strategic exercise, Grom (Thunder) 2019, test-launching an array of land-, sea- and air-based ballistic and cruise missiles. On October 17, Putin personally gave orders as his generals pressed buttons sending missiles flying (Interfax, October 17; see EDM, October 21, 23, 29). Similar exercises simulating a global nuclear war and testing the effectiveness of the doomsday decision-making process, communication networks and computers happen on a regular basis at least once a year. They also took place in the 1990s, when Russia had excellent relations with the West.
The main difference this time, compared to earlier years, was the unprecedented level of public relations promotion of Grom 2019, reflecting the growing importance of nuclear deterrence in Russian internal and external policies. On October 14, the Ministry of Defense organized a preliminary briefing for foreign military diplomats accredited in Moscow on the particulars of the Grom maneuvers: 12,000 military personnel involved, 213 Strategic Rocket Forces (RVSN) launchers (mobile and silo), 105 aircraft (including 5 strategic bombers), 15 warships and 5 submarines. Practically all the RVSN intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) involved in Grom 2019 mimicked going through their launch sequences. Other parts of the nuclear triad delegated only a fraction of their resources. Warships launched non-strategic (tactical) Kalibr cruise missiles. The Army (Sukhoputnye Voyska) launched shorter-range, nuclear-capable Iskander missiles. All this was previewed in detail to foreign military attachés, inducing them to send worried reports back home. The October 14 briefing described Grom 2019’s scenario: “An escalation of the situation and conflict potential on the perimeter of Russia’s borders is threatening the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Russian Federation.” The exercise was designed to test “the deployment and use of strategic forces against a threat of aggression.” According to the defense ministry’s briefers, Grom 2019 “is not aimed against any specific nation or group of nations [implying the United States and its transatlantic allies]” (Militarynews.ru, October 15).
Russian forces fired ballistic missiles from Plisetsk (Arkhangelsk Oblast) and from the Barents Sea to the warhead-receiving testing facility in Kura (Kamchatka) as well as, from east to west, from the Okhotsk Sea to a receiving facility in Chizha (Barents Sea coast). A Delta III–type ballistic missile submarine, the K-44 Ryazan, was expected to fire two R29R (NATO classification Stingray) missiles from the Okhotsk Sea, but it reportedly managed to shoot off only one (Vedomosti, October 21). The defense ministry acknowledged that only one Stingray missile was fired; yet, it insisted this was not a failed launch per se but a “cancelation because the missile was not ready.” The K-44 Ryazan returned to base in Vyelutchinsk, Kamchatka (Interfax, October 21). The Soviet-built K-44 is the last battle-ready Delta III–class nuclear submarine still operational in the Russian navy. The Delta IIIs are being replaced by new Borey-class submarines with modern Bulava ballistic missiles. However, the replacements are arriving slower than anticipated. The Stingray test-firing coinciding with Grom 2019 was intended to certify the missiles are still battle-ready, but the result seems to have been only 50 percent successful—and the additional PR promotion of the nuclear forces exercise further exposed this deficiency.
The active deployment of the new Borey-class submarine K-549 Prince Vladimir, which successfully test-fired a Bulava missile from the Barents Sea on October 29, was initially planned for 2017, but is now expected in 2020. The next Borey-class submarine, Prince Oleg, is expected to be operational by 2021, so the mothballed K-44 Ryazan will have to lumber on. It has also been reported that the Bulava missile was tested only from the Barents Sea to Kamchatka, but never the other way around—from the Okhotsk Sea to Chizha. Two Borey-class subs, the K-550 Alexander Nevsky and the K-551 Vladimir Monomakh, are presently deployed in Vyelutchinsk, Kamchatka, and they go on patrols in the Okhotsk Sea but have never fired from that destination. Defense ministry sources say the Chizha facility is not a good option for receiving incoming, test-fired Bulava warheads (Vedomosti, October 31).The new, massive, liquid-fueled, land-based Sarmat ICBM, designed to carry a multi-ton payload—which Putin has been promoting as a carrier of the new, maneuverable, hypersonic Avangard warheads—has been postponed for several years, until 2022 or possibly longer, as testing continues (Vedomosti, October 30).
The battle readiness of Russia’s nuclear deterrent is apparently not at 100 percent readiness, and Putin’s favorite superweapons are evidently still mostly partially ready prototypes at best. Additional nuclear openness designed to enhance fear projection has, in fact, exposed deficiencies in the Russian strategic triad. But on the other side of the ocean, US ballistic missiles have been tested exclusively to hit the Kwajalein Atoll, in the Pacific. A measure of strategic capability ambiguity or bluff does not devalue Russia’s or anyone else’s nuclear deterrent. And now Putin is moving on by promoting battle lasers, claiming that the Peresvet nuclear-powered, mobile, anti-missile laser station—which the Kremlin contends is already deployed—will revolutionize missile defense.