Russia’s Potemkin Missiles

Moscow’s posturing telegraphs weakness rather than strength.

Russia’s Potemkin Missiles
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his 14th address to his country’s Federal Assembly. Halfway through his speech, Putin launched into a fierce condemnation of the United States’ withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty as well as its nuclear development and expansion in ways which he claimed undermine Russia’s strategic parity and security. Putin told his audience that Russia tried to persuade Washington not to destroy the ABM framework, but to no avail — “no one heard us,” he raged.

Then, he upped the ante: “[A]nd what did Russia do except protest and warn?” chided Putin. “How did Russia respond to this provocation?” He then asked an assistant to play a video presentation of a new generation of advanced weapons — from the hypersonic “Kinzhal” air-launched missile to the liquid-fueled superheavy thermonuclear RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The video was a hodgepodge of animations of missiles circumventing anti-air defenses in the Atlantic Ocean en route to the United States, an ejector test of a rocket exiting its silo, and what appeared to be different missiles in atmospheric flight shot in a way to make the audience believe it was looking at one missile in mid-flight. Putin concluded that “[the U.S. and its allies] need to take account of a new reality and understand… [this]…is not a bluff.” Or is it?

Putin’s ominous presentation — aimed as much at a Russian electorate bereft of positive economic news as at Western audiences — brings to mind the late Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev’s boasts at the height of the Cold War that ICBMs were rolling off Soviet assembly lines “like sausages” and that his country would swallow U.S. forces in West Berlin in one gulp. All of this as Khrushchev’s own general staff and senior advisers knew that the feared missile gap between the United States and the Soviet Union was a myth, that the Soviets had fallen behind in the nuclear arms race, and that their leader’s bellicose rhetoric was hot air — bombast to compensate for Potemkin missiles. It also bears recalling how the Soviet Union responded to U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s strategic defense initiative — as relayed in an interview by the late Russian physicist, politician, and democracy activist Boris Nemtsov  with a plan to first launch an ICBM to detonate at an altitude sufficient to cripple U.S. targeting satellites with radioactive fallout and then send a second missile against the U.S. mainland.

Putin’s address was in line with historical tradition — what Russia lacks in actual deterrence, it compensates for with optical illusions. Some of the footage in Putin’s presentation was a decade old. Other clips made preliminary tests of systems –whose futures are uncertain and which have been in on and off development for years — appear like deployed weapons primed for launch.

Ironically, Russia’s nuclear posture — including its massive war games and missile tests in the Baltic Sea within the economic zones of U.S. allies (forcing the occasional closure of airspace) — telegraphs weakness rather than strength. Russian VTB Bank Chairman Andrei Kostin, recently sanctioned by the United States, warned earlier this year that additional U.S. sanctions on Russian institutions would constitute a declaration of war. Herman Gref, chief of Sberbank and close ally of Putin, said last year that excluding Russian banks from the SWIFT messaging network would “make the Cold War look like child’s play.” Making nuclear threats in the face of economic isolation, targeted sanctions on corrupt actors and institutions, and marginalization of Russian investment in Western countries means playing the brinkmanship card of last resort. Russia’s share of world gross domestic product (based on purchasing power parity) fell to 3.16 percent last year — less than the share in the year 2000, two years after its national debt default. Total capital outflow from Russia soared to $31.3 billion last year — a 160 percent increase from the prior year — and Putin’s regime confronts strategic logjams in Ukraine, Syria, and Central Asia with no grand bargain with the West to secure its position on offer.

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While the Pentagon appeared to call Putin’s bluff by publicly claiming that it knew about the Russian weapons under development, U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) that “we don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon [hypersonic missiles] against us, so our response would be our deterrent force, which would be the triad and the nuclear capabilities that we have to respond to such a threat.” The implication here is that the United States — should Putin’s phantom missiles ever be deployed or new ICBM projects completed — might not be able to stop a first strike, but retains a reliable second-strike capability.

What is happening with Russia can also apply to other U.S. rivals, notably Iran and North Korea, and their missile programs and strategies. The geopolitics of why these countries are pursuing nuclear deterrents — to preserve their regimes, extract concessions from their neighbors, gain international prestige, or to appease domestic opinion — aside, as well as the extremely limited likelihood of any interstate use of nuclear weapons, it is important for the United States not to fall behind in investment, research, and development of reliable countermeasures. Of these, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system — with 44 ground-based interceptors installed and successfully destroying ICBM-class target last year — is among the most promising. It is not a foolproof response to a potential attack on the United States, but nothing is ever foolproof. Commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command General Lori Robinson told SASC that she was “100 confident” in her ability to defend the country from missile attack.

The United States cannot allow itself to be exposed in such a way that the country would have to live with absorbing a first strike with the knowledge that its commanders have the ability to retaliate — this narrows the room for diplomatic maneuver. In a global game of bluff and counterbluff, the United States’ adversaries must not have any reason to doubt its strength and resolve.

Boris Ryvkin is a corporate attorney, freelance author, and former National Security Advisor to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX).