Opinion: Putin Continues to Upgrade Military, Challenge New U.S. Administration

February 15, 2017 10:01 AM - Updated: February 17, 2017 9:52 AM


The spike in interest in the Russian SSC-X-8 program comes at a time of turmoil in Washington D.C., especially in the wake of the release of Michael Flynn from service as the National Security Adviser. This reflects ongoing, long-term upgrades to Russian military forces as evidenced by State Defense Orders (SDOs) over the last several years. It also reflects a shrewd political challenge to a new President and his Administration.

Two factors are salient.

First, knowledge of Russian missile upgrades emerged in open sources at least three years ago, focusing on the RS-26 Rubezh road-mobile Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) in relationship to the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Second, challenges to new U.S. presidents are the norm in international relations, not the exception. Regardless of who won in November, she or he was certain to be tested, not only by the Russians, but the Chinese, North Koreans, Israelis, Pakistanis, British, French, Germans and many, many others. When the new kid walks onto the world’s most exclusive playground – that of heads of states and governments – everybody else is watching to see how she or he performs.

Taking the first – Russian missile development . The Russians have been working on upgraded or new missiles for several years. Missiles — whether cruise missiles or ballistic missiles — provide one avenue of development for the Russians to try and overcome the technological superiority of other forces, not only in Europe, but also in Asia. The RS-26 can fly further than the INF treaty stipulates, thus exempting it from those range limitations even though it is land-based. The Russians have been working on a host of other developments as well, as anyone who attends an international arms show or reads open source reporting can attest.

Land-based versus sea- or air-launched is a distinction made in 1987 that at the time made great sense given the accuracy and payload potential differentials between land-based (potentially very large) and sea- and air-launched (size and lift constrained). It is possible to change policies, but it is very difficult to change physics. The significant evolutionary trends in development, especially in precision, to some degree obviate the efficacy of the big versus smaller debate. We know it, the Russians know it, the Chinese know it, as do the Swedes (see: RBS 15 MK III) the French and many others. In case anyone was not sure, the Kalibr cruise missile launches in 2015 should close the argument – a long range shot from ships in the Caspian to targets in Syria. The assessment of analysts differs in degree, but they all agree that the ability to hit a large percentage of targets from that far away is a new capability in both technology and employment doctrine that caught most, if not all, “experts” by surprise. Put simply, this line of argument is not as important as it was 30 years ago.

A launch of a Russian guided land attack cruise missile on Oct. 7, 2015 from the Caspian Sea. Russian Ministry of Defense Image
A launch of a Russian guided land attack cruise missile on Oct. 7, 2015 from the Caspian Sea. Russian Ministry of Defense Image

The INF bans weapons with a range between 500 to 5500 kilometers, roughly 310 – 3400 miles. It is possible that, as reports from a 2014 Brookings article The Moscow Missile Mystery indicate, the Russians have been working on this system for at least three years. If U.S. weapon systems development timelines are a reliable guide, probably a lot longer. What changes the debate is the reported deployment of the SSC-8 that transgresses the rather precise language of INF Articles V, VI and VII regarding development, testing, possession and deployment. While these weapons as described are certainly a new threat in Europe, they only become another part of a complex set of weapons with which the Russians can strike into nearly every corner of Europe, as well as the Black Sea region, the Caucasus, Central Asia and East Asia. In other words, this is not, from the Kremlin’s perspective, just about NATO and the West: it is about their entire sphere of influence and desire for a cordon sanitaire along their entire periphery.

On the second point, all new Presidents get challenges, some of them calculated, some of them more coincidental. The strategic importance of this episode to the U.S. is that a decade ago, in Putin’s Year of the Angry Bear, he denounced the fall of the Soviet Union at Munich and publicly ruminated on scrapping the INF. Putin notified everyone who would listen that Yeltsin’s Russia was gone, and a new, outward oriented Russia had assumed its place. The Guardian reported this in October 2007 We Will Dump Nuclear Treaty, Putin Warns, serving notice that nothing is off the Kremlin’s strategic chess table. What most in the U.S. do not follow is that rocket telemetry and arcs of flight are, well, just rocket science, and that China, Pakistan and India, as well as rogue North Korea, also have rocket/missile forces and programs that are not bound by the INF. President Trump and his Administration simply have to deal with the challenges that any new U.S. Presidency faces.

So why does this matter, if the Russians have been working on this for a long time, and this is the standard treatment for all new Presidents? It matters not because of the events, but because of the personalities involved. This is part of the standard rotation of leaders, and one of the hidden strengths of democracy is that leaders like Putin must face new Administrations over and over, giving us an edge in the maintaining of the initiative. The Russians may be able to operationalize and launch new weapons technology that appears to break treaties, but the U.S. and allied partners are able to muster nearly a billion people and most of the G20 against them. The Russians will continue to seek strategic narrative escalation and dominance claiming that U.S. drones and vertical launch systems in the phased adaptive approach all violate the INF. The SSC-8 is simply part of an ongoing yin and yang of traditional contested — and contextual — diplomacy.

An undated photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin Russian Presidential Press and Information Office Photo
An undated photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin Russian Presidential Press and Information Office Photo

This episode, reported in many media outlets over the last couple of days, merely underscores the importance for Washington to reassure allies and alert potential allies that every option is open for discussion. As crafty as Putin can be, in this case he may have inadvertently given the U.S. and allies a reason to work more closely together; he may have even given China’s Xi Jinping a reason to consider working with the U.S. While the national security apparatus of the U.S., in flux, flummox and transition, may have been ‘caught off the back foot,’ this challenge from Russia, long in the making but freshly apparent, may actually backfire on Putin. As sanctions continue, criticism increases, and fears mount of a resurgent, revanchist Russia, not everyone will be able – or willing – to see the larger issue from Moscow’s weltanschauung. It’s not just the Baltics and Warsaw who will worry. If Russia cannot be trusted to adhere to a treaty – admittedly somewhat dated – here, where else might they renege on carefully crafted deals and understandings?

Coming up as a recurring topic as it did this week, it actually does the Trump Administration a favor. It reminds them that while there are certainly irritants in the arena of international affairs, they are not equal. Financial market collapse, a global pandemic, challenges for leadership of the international system the United States has led since 1945, attacks on the unity and cohesion of NATO by a nation will revanchist tendencies and nuclear weapons – these are all Tier 1 national security interests. This is not to say that there are not other challenges, worries and cancers as well, but as George Orwell noted in Animal Farm, “some animals are more equal than others.” The challenge of strategy is rank-ordering those concerns and interests, and then constructing a method by which to preserve what you have, obtain what you need, and pursue what you want.

Putin’s Russia is nowhere near as powerful as Europe, the U.S. or NATO, but they have played a weaker hand extraordinarily well. Russia, spending perhaps one-tenth of the U.S. on defense, and losing far more to industrial inefficiencies, may gain short-term benefit in their near abroad, but at a cost to other long-term goals of stability, peace and prosperity. While we are certainly far from a second Cold War, we have entered into a “Rough Peace” that may well prove far tougher for a uni-dimensional economy than Putin thought. At the same time, foreign interlocutors must understand that Russia sees the world from a different vantage point – neither good nor bad – but certainly different. Time to focus on what really matters this year, this term and for the next decade and beyond. This isn’t about the weapon system itself; it is about the sustained maintenance of leadership and diplomacy engaging the Russians and others in the continued dance of the possible.

Donald Thieme

Donald Thieme

Donald Thieme retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2015 and now works in the War Gaming Division of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College. He is an Olmsted Scholar and Foreign Area Officer for Eastern Europe, and has spent more than 14 years either deployed or stationed overseas. His views are his own and not those of the Naval War College, U.S. Department of the Navy or the U.S. Defense Department.

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