02/19/2007 04:53 PM

Just Like Old Times

A New Arms Race Between US and Russia?

By Siegesmund von Ilsemann, , Georg Mascolo and

The specter of a new military rivalry between Moscow and Washington has been looming since Vladimir Putin delivered a speech highly critical of the United States at the Munich Security Conference earlier this month. Is it the birth of a new arms race between the former arch-enemies?

Western guests who visited the Kremlin in Moscow in the spring of 1989 -- prime ministers, cabinet ministers and journalist alike -- were presented with an unusual gift: A steel ring the size of a small plate with a metal fragment attached to it, the whole thing secured to a heavy brass base.

The inscription on the base, "January 14, 1989 - SS-20 - Kapustin Jar," identified the date and location of the Soviets' destruction of their first intermediate-range SS-20 missile. A photograph on the base of the souvenir depicts the powerful explosion, which left little more than the finger-long fragments embedded into the commemorative ring.

Russian President Vladimir Putin managed to lower the temperature with his remarks in Munich.

Russian President Vladimir Putin managed to lower the temperature with his remarks in Munich.

Though perhaps not to everyone's taste, the souvenir was politically significant as a symbol of a shift in US-Soviet relations which hardly anyone had expected. On Aug. 28, 1988, the Americans and Russians launched an effort to destroy 2,611 nuclear warheads -- the Pershing and SS-20 missiles that had kept Europeans terrified for years. The first jointly monitored arms reduction treaty had finally come into effect.

The explosions seemed to melt the ice of the Cold War. Suddenly Moscow's supreme military commander was inspecting the weapons of Russia's arch-enemy and diplomats were exchanging previously classified information about their military forces. The Berlin Wall came down just over a year later. US President George Bush, Sr. called it the dawning of a "new world order," when the last Soviet czar, then-President Mikhail Gorbachev, announced the end of his empire.

But now the dream of friendly coexistence seems to have gone up in smoke once again. At the Munich Conference on Security Policy last weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the US against new attempts to secure global dominance. Putin sharply criticized what he called the US's "virtually unrestrained use of military force" and its "disdain of fundamental principles of international law." The United States, he said, has "overstepped its national borders in every way."

The Russian president was especially harsh in his criticism of the current state of arms control, which had seemed like a guarantee of peace for decades. Russia, according to Putin, has lived up to its arms reduction commitments, whereas the West has blocked the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) and, in clear violation of existing agreements, is positioning its armies close to Russia's borders.

Putin complained to the assembled politicians that "new high-tech weapons," the "militarization of outer space," and Washington's plans to establish the front lines of its new anti-missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic threaten the security of his country. "Who needs the next step of what would be, in this case, an inevitable arms race?" he asked rhetorically.

Was Putin's attack merely a verbal show of strength for the benefit of fellow Russians at home? Was it an effort to enlist the support of those countries that are facing increasing doubts over Western policies? Or was it truly an expression of the openness Putin had promised upon his arrival in Munich?

Whatever the explanation, with the American superpower backed into a corner in its war on terror, speeches like Putin's can easily create a dangerous dynamic, confirming old fears and reviving a thirst for revenge. On the other hand, is the web of treaties that the superpowers once hammered out in a series of tough negotiations capable of stopping today's global arms race?

Talks over limiting strategic nuclear weapons launched a major shift in policy in the late 1960s. Nowadays the two major nuclear powers possess only a third of the 70,000 warheads with which they once could have destroyed the world many times over. Washington and Moscow have abided by their mutual commitments to reduce their strategic nuclear weapons to 2,200 operational warheads each by 2012. Nevertheless, the treaty remains a farce, because the two parties are free to decide whether to dispose of excess nuclear warheads -- or simply put them into storage.

Bush's plans for a new missile defence system in Eastern Europe have raised Russian hackles.

Bush's plans for a new missile defence system in Eastern Europe have raised Russian hackles.

The US Senate never ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was signed by 161 countries. Although Washington has adhered to the terms of the treaty, its military planners are urging the administration to retain the option of resuming underground tests for the purpose of building new nuclear weapons. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty has been obsolete since 2001, when the Bush administration withdrew from the agreement. And the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed in 1987, now seems outdated in a world in which every country but the United States and Russia is free to establish such systems. Even the conventional equilibrium in Europe, which was painstakingly maintained until 1990, is out of balance now that Moscow's former allies have joined NATO in droves.

Undisputed leader

As the system of treaty-based arms control disintegrates, US military dominance is growing. Indeed, the Western superpower has already positioned itself as the virtually undisputed world leader when it comes to weapons technology.

US tanks are already capable of destroying many Russian tanks from ranges at which their Russian counterparts are not even capable of striking their adversaries, while the US's Stealth bomber, currently matchless in the world, is virtually invisible to radar systems.

Similarly, US troops are capable of observing and attacking their enemies while escaping detection themselves using remote-controlled cameras mounted on drones. And the crews of American attack submarines can locate virtually any other ship in the world's oceans using advanced sensors, without exposing themselves to danger.

How the planned US missile defense system works.

How the planned US missile defense system works.

But Washington has achieved its greatest gains precisely in an area once considered successfully defused as a result of arms control efforts. American long-range missiles are now so precise that experts believe that a US first strike could destroy Moscow's nuclear capability. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, US experts Keir Lieber and Daryl Press described the end of the strategy of "mutually assured destruction," which has preserved the balance of power and prevented nuclear war since the 1960s.

In contrast, Russia's fleet of missile submarines has been reduced to a mere nine vessels. The country now only has bombers stationed at two airbases, and the absence of an early warning system leaves the Russian aircraft almost completely vulnerable to a surprise attack. The same applies to the mobile launchers for Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles, which now hardly ever leave their hangars -- hangars which the Americans have in their sights.

Lieutenant General Sergey Chemezov, the head of Rosoboronexport, the Russian state defense export agency, paints a dramatic picture of the dismal state of the country's weapons industry. The majority of weapons manufacturers, says Chemezov, a close confidante of President Putin, are in a "difficult situation," with 75 percent of their production facilities obsolete. According to one study, one-third of Russia's arms manufacturers are "virtually bankrupt."

Part 2: "Washington is losing touch with reality"

Although the Russian defense budget has almost quadrupled to its current level of $31 billion in the last six years, Russia uses its military spending "very ineffectively" when it comes to upgrading its equipment, says arms expert Ruslan Puchov. According to a study by GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency, about one-third of the country's military budget ends up lining the pockets of high-ranking officers.

US military spending is in a different league altogether. Since taking office in January 2001, US President George W. Bush has almost doubled the Pentagon budget -- to a planned level of $620 billion for the coming financial year, a figure that includes war costs. "This is the highest military spending since the height of the Korean War," says Steven Kosiak, an expert at the independent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. Even the new US defense secretary, Robert Gates, calls his agency's budget "breathtaking."

Russia's plans for how to catch up in the new arms race.

Russia's plans for how to catch up in the new arms race.

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov complains that the US defense budget is "25 times as large as Russia's." To at least partially close this gap, he presented an ambitious modernization program to the lower house of the Russian parliament last week. Under the plan, Russia would build 50 new strategic bombers, eight nuclear submarines, dozens of new missile silos, more than 50 mobile Topol-M missiles and four military satellites by 2015.

The land-based Topol-M missiles and the Bulava ("cudgel") submarine-mounted missiles are currently the most advanced missiles in Russia's arsenal. However, a number of tests of the Bulava, the country's supposed miracle weapon, failed last year. And only about 50 of the 200 Topol missiles which Russia had planned to build are operational to date.

It seems highly unlikely that Moscow could someday catch up with the United States technologically. Instead, the purpose of the planned modernization effort is to polish the image of the Russian state and its decrepit military, not just domestically but also among allies in the Middle East and the Third World. The message Putin and his military planners clearly want to convey is that America's rival is back in business.

This explains the enthusiastic response to Putin's appearance in Munich among Russian politicians loyal to the Kremlin. Leonid Ivashov, the vice president of the Russian Academy of Geopolitical Affairs, calls Putin's speech at Munich's Bayerischer Hof hotel a "turning point internationally, comparable to Churchill's 1946 Fulton speech, which launched the Cold War." The difference, says Ivashov, is that Putin's aim was the opposite of Churchill's, namely to condemn the unilateral approach in world politics.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a member of the opposition in Russia's parliament, the Duma, disagrees. He believes that Moscow simply lacks the financial means to effectively challenge the Americans. "Russia's gross domestic product is only one-thirteenth of that of the United States," says Ryzhkov, who interprets Putin's speech as an effort to woo Russian voters leading up to December's parliamentary elections.

Political motives notwithstanding, two military concerns are especially high on Moscow's agenda: the growing proliferation of intermediate-range missiles worldwide and America's new missile defense system. While both the Russians and the Americans, under the terms of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, are barred from deploying intermediate-range missiles, North Korea, China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Israel all produce such weapons today. These countries' intermediate-range missiles may not be capable of reaching Central or Western Europe, and certainly not the United States -- "but they can reach us," says Ivanov.

To counter the threat, the Russians revived an old proposal in Munich, namely to join forces with the Americans in building a missile defense system. What was the purpose, they asked, of Washington now unilaterally establishing such a system in Eastern Europe?

The Americans plan to expand their global missile defense system by adding up to 10 ground-based interceptors in Poland and an early warning system in the Czech Republic. Bush has assured Putin that the purpose of the missile shield is to defend against "irresponsible states" and the "growing threat from the Middle East" -- and that it is not directed against the Russians.

But the Russians, convinced that the missiles based in Poland could shoot down their missiles in the event of a conflict, are vigorously opposed to the US's "encircling" strategy. "We cannot accept Poland's and the Czech Republic's statements on this issue," Russian Defense Minister Ivanov told DER SPIEGEL in an interview in Munich. The Czech foreign minister, Karl Schwarzenberg, vigorously rejects Russia's objections.

Washington's actions show signs that the US is "partially losing touch with reality," writes Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung: No one in the West had enough imagination to realize Putin might actually interpret the missile shield on his borders as a provocation.

In Washington, on the other hand, Putin's Munich speech is more likely to bolster the arguments of those who have long warned against a new threat coming from Russia. Sources say that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has never trusted Putin, a former KGB agent, and influential Senator John McCain has been calling for a tougher stance on Russia for years. Indeed, when the Russian president launched into his verbal attacks at the Munich conference, McCain, who was seated only a few meters away from Putin, became visibly enraged.

From the standpoint of the White House, the self-confident Russian's list of sins is gradually becoming intolerably long, not because of fears of a direct Russian military threat but because Moscow is seeking allies among the US's enemies. Russia's delivery of advanced surface-to-air missile defense systems to Iran is seen as an especially serious offence.

And hardliners in Washington see themselves vindicated by Putin's offer this week to help the Saudi royal family develop a nuclear program -- proof, they say, that a new conflict between the former arch-rivals is unavoidable.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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