As we noted a couple of days ago, there’s an element of hypocrisy in Russia’s claims that limited missile defenses proposed for Eastern Europe will somehow trigger a new arms race. Various Russian officials–including President Vladimir Putin–have claimed that Tuesday’s test of a modified SS-27 Topol M ICBM is a direct response to U.S. plans to install a limited number of interceptor missiles and a defensive radar in Poland and the Czech Republic, respectively. Mr. Putin, no stranger to hyperbole, claims that the missile defense deployment will turn Europe into a “powder keg.”
And, with a discipline that Joe Stalin would envy, Putin is sticking with his talking points. Speaking today in Moscow, the Russian leader said the deployment of missile defenses and other U.S. assets in Eastern Europe is triggering a “new arms race.”
“In a clear reference to the United States, he harshly criticized “imperialism” in global affairs and warned that Russia will strengthen its military potential to maintain a global strategic balance.
“It wasn’t us who initiated a new round of arms race,” Putin said when asked about Russia’s missile tests this week at a news conference after talks in the Kremlin with Greek President Karolos Papoulias.
Putin also condemned the U.S. and its NATO partners for failing to ratify an amended version of the Conventional Forces Europe (CFE) Treaty, which limits the deployment of heavy, non-nuclear weapons around the continent.
“We have signed and ratified the CFE and are fully implementing it. We have pulled out all our heavy weapons from the European part of Russia to (locations) behind the Ural Mountains and cut our military by 300,000 men,” Putin said.
“And what about our partners? They are filling Eastern Europe with new weapons. A new base in Bulgaria, another one in Romania, a (missile defense) site in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic,” he said. “What we are supposed to do? We can’t just sit back and look at that.”
From Putin’s description, you’d think that George Patton had risen from the grave, and was resurrecting his army for a march on Moscow. Fact is, the planned U.S. presence in Eastern Europe will be limited in scope. Unlike the massive, Cold War-era American bases in Germany, Britain and Italy, the installations in Eastern Europe will be much smaller in scale, providing training to limited numbers of troops on short-term rotations, or serve as a jumping-off point for operations in the Middle East. The planned basing scheme is hardly a military threat to the Russians, but it does move the NATO trip wire farther east, a move welcomed by the Poles, Czechs, Romanians, Bulgarians and others who have suffered at the hands of the Russians in the past.
Mr. Putin also fails to mention that the 1990 CFE Treaty was something of a godsend for his nation. With the collapse of communism (and a corresponding decline in the Russian economy), Moscow could no longer afford the massive conventional forces that once dominated its military machine. In that environment, cutbacks in Russian defense forces were inevitable; the CFE Treaty simply provided a convenient mechanism for both sides to reduce their conventional stockpiles, build trust and generate a little international goodwill in the aftermath of the Cold War.
We’ve also noted that the missile tested on Tuesday–the SS-27–is also a product of that era, when the Russians realized that conventional forces could no longer serve as a strategic deterrent. With the Army foundering, the Russian Navy literally rusting at the peer and tactical air forces in disrepair, Moscow began shifting most of its deterrent capabilities to its nuclear forces, and embarked on a modernization program that included the SS-27 Topol M. Over the past decades, Russian defense officials and military journals have talked openly about using strategic nuclear weapons to respond to regional conflicts. In many respects, it’s the only trump card they have left.
But you won’t hear any of that in the soundbites coming out of Moscow. And sadly, you won’t find that context and perspective in MSM reporting on the subject, either. Most reporters are content to take Vladimir Putin at his word, without asking about the “new strategy” behind that “new missile.” In fairness, I do understand their reluctance. In today’s Russia, reporters who ask tough questions about the Putin regime wind up dead.
But that’s no excuse for journalists who cover defense and security matters in the U.S. or other western countries. Tuesday’s SS-27 test represents much more than a reaction to planned BMD deployments in Eastern Europe. It’s more evidence of a revised Russian strategy that’s been evolving over the past decade, and is firmly rooted in new, long-range missile systems and the potential first-use of nuclear weapons.
Now, that’s something that could spark a new arms race.