Geopolitical Diary: Russia's Vulnerable Strategic Position
By: Stratfor.comFebruary 9, 2007
Russian Deputy Prime Minster and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov addressed the Duma on Wednesday. During his speech, he called the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union—which banned short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic and ground-launched cruise missiles—a mistake. Ivanov first raised the midrange missile issue in August 2006 when he visited Alaska with then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. During the trip, Ivanov reminded Rumsfeld that a Russian withdrawal from the INF would not be unprecedented since the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002.

Another such treaty, the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (known as START 1) is set to expire in 2009. The Russians have been calling for a replacement for some time. Realizing that they are not going to get one—given the shift from the Cold War dynamic and the atrophy of Russian forces, the United States has no interest in a new treaty limiting its nuclear forces—Moscow has attempted to paint Washington as the bad guy.

START 1 placed specific limitations on the size and type of nuclear forces the two nations were allowed to possess. These limitations have helped Russia hold onto the hope of obtaining numerical parity with the United States for years. Its nuclear forces have nevertheless crumbled and are only now beginning to recover: The fielding of Russia's newest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the SS-27 Topol-M, is proceeding, but at an excruciatingly slow pace. The development of the new sub-launched Bulava also is extremely behind schedule, and Russia no longer is able to maintain a constantly patrolling sea-based deterrent. In the midst of this deterioration, START 1 has helped Moscow keep its dreams of parity alive. Therefore, from the Russian perspective, a new START agreement that further reduces the number of deployable weapons would be ideal.

But from the U.S. perspective, the reduction in Russia's deployable weapons was effectively carried out by the Soviet Union's demise. Despite Moscow's sincerest efforts, Washington has watched it repeatedly fail to rebuild its strategic forces into something that could compete with the U.S. strategic deterrent. The United States is no longer threatened by Russia in the way it once was. As such, it does not feel at all compelled to enter into a new treaty that would limit its future strategic options. And it is greatly looking forward to 2009, when the United States will be able to grow or shrink its nuclear arsenal as it sees fit—with no treaty constraints.

Furthermore, if Russia were ever again to realistically attempt parity, the U.S. could expand its forces faster and essentially out-spend the Russians, just as it did to the Soviet Union. Or, if it ever appeared that Russia was getting too close to its goal, the U.S. could propose a new treaty while it still had the upper hand.

Russia has had to come to terms with the fact that it cannot achieve parity with the United States. Its one real strategic option is to threaten nuclear war with its neighbors and enemies. Re-embracing midrange weapons, while it would not achieve parity, would drastically expand Russia's strategic options.

Midrange missiles have always made more sense for Russia than for the United States. Russia is literally surrounded by them—in Iran, Pakistan, India, China and North Korea. With Russia's massive, indefensible land border, they are useful. Whereas, with no one but Canada and Central America in range, the United States slowly has abandoned such systems.

But given START 1's looming expiration date, Ivanov's statements make sense. A new generation of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) is well within the grasp of Russian engineers and industry. While the Russians have a long and storied history of trouble with—and often complete failure of—solid-fueled submarine-launched ballistic missiles, they mastered solid-propellant land-based systems some time ago. The SS-18 was the last great liquid-fueled ICBM. The SS-24, -25 and -27 have all used solid fuel. It would not be a stretch for Russia to re-develop and re-deploy road-mobile IRBMs. (Of course, the country really only needs to crank out new copies of older proven systems that are perfectly useable but prohibited under the INF.) They also are much cheaper and could serve as a new tool with which to directly threaten Europe.

The Russian grand strategy has always been to divide and conquer. With this new ability to threaten the Europeans in a much more tangible way, Moscow could re-assert a certain degree of influence over its crumbling periphery and potentially drive a wedge between the United States and the Europeans. This is an especially relevant consideration as Russia watches the talks about a potential U.S. ballistic missile defense base in the Czech Republic and Poland progress at an uncomfortable rate.

A limited U.S. missile defense system is not a real threat to Russia. A Russian barrage of intercontinental missiles would travel over the North Pole and would completely overwhelm the current defenses. But this is not to say it makes Russia particularly comfortable.

A Europe-based U.S. ballistic missile defense base might ultimately be the last straw for Russia and the INF. Ivanov believes it is a capability Russia should never have agreed to go without, and now he seems set on correcting this "mistake."

Stratfor is a private intelligence company delivering in-depth analysis, assessments and forecasts on global geopolitical, economic, security and public policy issues. A variety of subscription-based access, free intelligence reports and confidential consulting are available for individuals and corporations.

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