Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 126

The Russian military high command has intensified its criticism of U.S. missile defense plans over the past week, with one key rocket forces commander outlining in especially explicit terms the sorts of countermeasures Moscow is contemplating. The harshness of these most recent comments–which were voiced by Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev and Strategic Missile Forces commander-in-chief Vladimir Yakovlev–appear to contrast with the more conciliatory tone taken of late by Russian President Vladimir Putin. While that dissonance may reflect some disagreement between the Kremlin and the military high command, the more likely explanation is that the two groups are engaged in a diplomatic “good cop-bad cop” sort of routine.

Sergeev’s sharpest comments came in an interview published by the Russian daily Nezavisimaya gazeta on June 22. In it, the Russian marshal, a former strategic rocket forces commander himself, outlined the sorts of objections to U.S. missile defense plans which have been voiced frequently by critics of those plans in the United States and elsewhere around the world. Among other things, Sergeev dismissed the twin notions that such so-called “rogue states” (a designation which Washington has now abandoned) as North Korea, Iraq or Iran possess the capability to begin manufacturing intercontinental ballistic missile systems or that they pose a potential missile threat to the United States. He concludes on this basis that U.S. national missile defense plans are therefore intended not to counter a threat from the rogue states, but aim instead to establish U.S. “strategic dominance” and to pursue the notion of a “fortress America.”

More to the point, perhaps, Sergeev embraces the arguments of missile defense critics who charge that current U.S. plans in this area are but the first step in the creation of, in Sergeev’s words, a “multipurpose global system which will be able to take out all types of ballistic missiles.” Not surprisingly, he quotes Russian Defense Ministry experts in insisting that this new system will in fact be directed not against the rogue states, but against the nuclear arsenals of Russia and China. He warns, as Russian and other officials have in the past, that deployment of a U.S. missile defense system will trigger an arms race that–in keeping with the post-Cold War world–will not be bilateral in nature. “Instead of ensuring its safety and doing away with the stimuli for proliferation of missiles and missile technologies,” Sergeev says, “the United States will generate a missile boom, ruin the system of treaties in the spheres of arms limitations and reduction, launch an arms race and so on (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 22).

The views of Russian strategic missile troop commander Vladimir Yakovlev, a Sergeev protege, have been featured in a welter of newspaper articles and other media reports over the past week. Some of the most significant of his remarks came during an address made to a graduation ceremony at a missile troops academy on June 21 and in comments published by the newspaper Rossiiskaya gazeta yesterday. In the first instance, Yakovlev outlined some of the specific “countermeasures” which Moscow was contemplating in the event that the United States proceeds with its missile defense plans. He made clear, first of all, that Russia would renounce conditions in the START II treaty allowing only single warhead ICBMs and would move instead to increase the number of warheads on its ICBM force.

More important, perhaps, Yakovlev warned that Russia could withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty and might thereby consider deploying medium- and short-range missiles that target Europe. Such a development, he continued, would return Europe to its Cold War-era status as a “hostage in the stand-off between the two major powers.” The missiles would also be targeted, he made clear, at U.S. forces stationed in Europe, including their command posts and infrastructure. He suggested that the costs Moscow would face in carrying out such a threat would be manageable and well within the government’s capabilities (Segodnya, June 22). Finally, in comments published yesterday, Yakovlev warned that a U.S. breach of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty could compel Russia to halt joint Russian-U.S. inspections of nuclear weapons. “Isn’t is useful for the Americans to know what’s going on here?” he asked in this context.

None of these recent threats and warnings are new. But the fact that they have been stated so explicitly and publicly by two of Russia’s most senior military officers suggests a fresh push by Moscow to make clear that Washington will pay a heavy price if it proceeds with deployment of a national missile defense system. Yakovlev’s remarks with regard to the deployment of medium- and short-range nuclear weapons in Europe is particularly significant in this regard. It will surely play upon the trepidations which many Europeans already feel with regard to U.S. missile defense plans, and will make President Vladimir Putin’s recent calls for a joint US-NATO-European theater missile defense system seem all the more attractive in many NATO capitals.

Indeed, if one Russian newspaper report is to be believed, the deepening struggle between Moscow and Washington over missile defense and related strategic arms control issues has helped to raise the political status and influence of Russia’s rocket forces within the Russian government itself. The newspaper suggests that the very public performances of Sergeev and Yakovlev over the past week could be a reflection of this political shift (Segodnya, June 27).