Russia Flexes its Atomic Muscles

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Russia Flexes its Atomic Muscles

Angered by U.S. plans to deploy missile defenses, Moscow puts on display its fearsome nuclear arsenal.

With the U.S. and Russia deadlocked over a plan by NATO to deploy a European missile defense system, Moscow showed the world what it meant by “technical response” last week by holding what has been described as the most comprehensive test of its strategic nuclear arsenal since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

According to Russian media, President Vladimir Putin, whom critics have accused of overplaying the nuclear threat from the West to boost his political fortunes domestically, oversaw the entire series of tests, which were conducted mostly on Oct. 19. All three components of Moscow’s nuclear “triad” — strategic bombers, land and sea-launched long-range nuclear missiles — as well as communications and command-and-control systems featuring “new algorithms,” were tested.

The tests included the launch of an RS-12M Topol Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) from Plesetsk in northern Russia — the world’s first operational ICBM base, built in the 1950s — and an R-29R from a submerged submarine operating in the Sea of Okhotsk. Both missiles traveled a distance of more than 6,000km before hitting their targets. Meanwhile, two long-range bombers, a Tupolev Tu-95 “Bear” and a Tu-160 “Blackjack,” each fired two nuclear-capable cruise missiles at a test range in Komi, northwestern Russia. All the missiles involved were fitted with dummy warheads.

In a statement, the Kremlin said the strategic nuclear forces exercise was “conducted on such a scale for the first time in the modern history of Russia.”

According to Russian media reports in January, the Russian military is scheduled to conduct 11 ICBM trials in 2012, including seven launches for experimental programs and four to extend the service life of existing missiles “with a view to piercing missile defense systems.” Among the new missiles tested is the road-mobile multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle-ed, or MIRVed, Yars RS-24 ICBM, which entered service in summer 2011. Russia also successfully tested a new medium-weight ICBM in May that is reportedly capable of defeating anti-missile defense systems, which Moscow said was directly aimed at the NATO-led missile defense initiative.

While the Russian military has conducted such tests, albeit on a much smaller scale, for years, Friday’s much-publicized tests sent a clear signal to Washington and its NATO allies amid fears in Moscow that a planned European missile defense shield, which the West claims is targeted at Iran, will undermine its nuclear deterrent. Although Russia and NATO agreed to cooperate on missile defense during a summit in Lisbon, Portugal, in 2010, Moscow has balked at Washington’s refusal to provide legally binding guarantees that the missile shield will not be targeted at Russia’s deterrent forces. For similar reasons, Putin has also been reluctant to move ahead with the cuts proposed in the 2010 New START treaty.

Since 2008, Moscow has also threatened to deploy Iskander-M road-mobile tactical ballistic missile systems in the western Kaliningrad exclave, which borders Poland and Lithuania, should NATO and Russia fail to reach an agreement on the missile defense system. In July, Moscow allocated USD1.2 billion to modernize the Iskander, which entered service with the Russian military in 2006. With a range of approximately 400km, the missile can be equipped with both conventional and nuclear warheads.

With Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently accusing U.S. President Barack Obama of being a weak negotiator on the defense shield issue, there is little doubt that last week’s “triad” exercise, which made every effort to show a Putin clearly in charge of his country’s nuclear arsenal, was meant to exert pressure on the two contenders to the White House. Romney has openly stated that he regards Russia as an enemy, a position that, were he elected in November, would ostensibly translate into a renewed commitment to the missile defense program and validate Putin’s push for a more modern missile arsenal (in the process giving him the means to bolster his support at home).

Conversely, Moscow’s saber rattling could convince opponents of the missile defense program that there exists a direct link between the program and Moscow’s renewed interest in a more muscular nuclear force. This, in turn, could translate into further pressure on a re-elected Obama to extend the guarantees sought by Moscow, and thus ensure that Russia retains its nuclear deterrent.

Either way, Putin comes out the winner.