by Jeremy Bransten
Speaking at a meeting of senior defense officials and military commanders in Moscow Nov. 17, Putin said that Russia is preparing a new breed of nuclear missiles whose capabilities will surpass anything that currently exists.
"We will continue to persist in consistently building up the armed forces, in general, including its nuclear component. We are not only doing research and successful testing of new nuclear-missile-systems technologies. I am sure that, in the near future, these weapons will appear -- systems that other nuclear powers do not and will not possess," Putin said.
Putin gave no further details. But his claim has raised speculation about why he chose to make such an announcement at this time and what exactly he had in mind.
Moscow-based defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer believes the principal aim of Putin's speech was to reassure the Russian public as well as the military rank-and-file that the country's "great-power" status remains intact. He said that Putin believes there is a need for such reassurances, given the Russian military debacle in Chechnya and repeated terrorist strikes against the country, such as the recent attack on a school in the southern town of Beslan.
"The quality of our forces, including nuclear forces, is getting increasingly questionable. And that's why it's important for Putin and the Defense Ministry to talk about 'great achievements' and tell the Russian public that we are still a great country that everyone in the world should really consider," Felgenhauer said.
Stephen Blank, a professor at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, agreed with that assessment. But Blank also pointed out that Russia does not need more or better ballistic missiles as the United States is no longer an enemy and missiles will not protect Russia from the threats it now faces -- namely, terrorism.
But Felgenhauer noted that Russia has sought ways to even the military score with the United States ever since Washington announced three years ago that it was pulling out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to develop a missile defense shield.
In that sense, Felgenhauer sees Putin's speech as a way to signal that Moscow has resumed the offensive-weapons research it began in the 1980s after former President Ronald Reagan first announced U.S. plans for missile defense.
"What Putin was talking about are the scientific and research leftovers of the Soviet effort in the 1980s to build what was known at the time as an 'asymmetric response' to Ronald Reagan's 'Star Wars' Strategic Defense Initiative. These are different kinds of ways of making strategic intercontinental nuclear warheads less susceptible to antiballistic-missile defenses," Felgenhauer said.
A key part of Russia's strategy to counter a U.S. missile defense shield could be to outfit its missiles with new, maneuverable warheads. Putin mentioned this in February, and Felgenhauer believes this is what the Russian president had in mind.
"[This is] the so-called maneuverable warhead, which is put on top of pre-existing intercontinental ballistic missiles but when the warhead reenters the atmosphere before impact, it makes different kinds of maneuvers which makes it hard to knock it down with an antiballistic missile. So Putin was basically talking about such things," he said.
Felgenhauer added that it may be true that Russia is so far the only country to develop such technology. But, he pointed out, this is mainly because the United States has not felt the need to develop maneuverable warheads simply because no other country is building a modern missile-defense system.
Speaking in Washington yesterday, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli indicated that the United States does not see the latest Russian military development as a threat. "We do not perceive Russia's nuclear sustainment and modernization activities as threatening, and what they are doing is fully consistent with our mutual obligations under the Moscow Treaty," Ereli said.
The 2002 Moscow Treaty calls on Russia and the United States to cut their active strategic nuclear arsenals by about two-thirds, to some 2,000 warheads each, by 2012. But the treaty allows each country to stockpile the warheads, rather than destroy them, for possible future recommissioning.
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