Putin’s Show of Strength Triggers Fear of Fresh Nuclear Arms Race
Vladimir Putin has sparked fears of a new arms race between Russia and the United States by deploying a nuclear ballistic strike force system that officials made clear could penetrate U.S. anti-missile defenses.
On Christmas Eve, the Russian army activated a new fleet of Topol-M missiles that can fit a nuclear warhead and travel 6,000 miles, changing trajectory to foil any enemy interception device.
The accompanying hawkish rhetoric of the Russian military commanders and the frenetic response of the U.S. navy have stoked concern that the former Cold War adversaries have quietly resumed the arms race.
General Nikolai Solovtsov, commander of the Russian missile forces, has mobilized a new battalion for the Topol-M missiles, which have a capacity for a one megaton impact — 75 times the power of the 1945 Hiroshima bomb.
General Solovtsov, a critic of U.S. anti-missile defense technology, said the Topol-M missile “is capable of piercing any missile defense system” and is immune to electromagnetic blasts used by current U.S. anti-missile systems.
While Russia disbanded two missile divisions last year, it has now formed more than 20 new units — in the fastest increase of nuclear spending since the run-up to the Cuban missile crisis.
Last month, the U.S. navy carried out its most ambitious and successful test of an anti-missile interceptor, which can be launched from an Aegis class cruiser in the Pacific Ocean. A warhead from an incoming rocket was destroyed 100 miles above sea level — the first time an anti-missile defense has succeeded, in tests, when launched from a ship.
Duncan Lamont, a British defense analyst and editor of Jane’s Strategic Weapons Systems, said the new Topol missiles could evade the “ballistic missile defenses currently being fielded in Alaska and California”.
The roll-out of the Topol-M and the hawkish accompanying language mark the fastest expansion of nuclear missiles since the SS-18 and Pershing II technologies were rolled out a generation ago.
Since the last U.S.-Russia arms control treaty was signed in 1993 in Moscow, Russia has struggled to fund technology to replace its ageing defense system. The budget dried up as the Russian economy suffered.
But now the economy is flush with new oil wealth, the nuclear missile program has been revived and was last month allocated a 1 billion pound budget increase from the Kremlin. This has boosted Putin’s popularity.
Japan, growing anxious about a nuclear missile strike from North Korea, signed up to the American missile defense program last week and allocated 14 million pounds for joint research.
The Ukrainian government, elected last year in a part-protest against Moscow’s influence, has asked to come back under the former Soviet military umbrella and be protected by the Topol-M stationed in the Volga river.
In September, Russia successfully tested a Bulava missile, a submarine-launched equivalent of the Topol-M. Launched from the White Sea, it hit its target 30 minutes later on Kamchatka, in the opposite, Far Eastern side of Russia.
The escalation in missile defense will pose difficult questions for Tony Blair, the prime minister, who must soon decide whether to renew Britain’s trident nuclear deterrent. The case for not doing so is largely based on the pacification of post-Soviet Russia.
Relations with Putin have been increasingly strained, as western leaders have criticized his heavy-handed style, his imprisonment of political opponents and slow pace towards democratizing the country.
The European Union has condemned Putin’s decision to sell anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, whose new president last month spoke of his desire to “wipe Israel off the map”. Iran says it wants to buy Russian nuclear energy next.
Russia takes over the year-long G8 presidency from Britain in January. Putin has made his theme security of energy supply — which marries concern over Iraq with the Kremlin’s concerns about its control of Caspian oil reserves.