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Russia’s New ICBM: An Arms Race Cloaked by a Bear’s Diplomacy

Russia’s recent announcement that it is building a next-generation ICBM is squarely designed to address the perceived threats from the US and NATO to build a missile defense system in Europe. While the justification for this new ICBM exudes platitudes of defensive posturing, the Russian reality is that a new ICBM is the logical next step in its modernization strategy under President Vladimir Putin. Moscow’s excuse that it feels threatened by NATOs limited and non-operational missile defense system is just that – an excuse. The real intentions of Putin and Russian leaders is to leverage fear of supposed American influence along its borders to curry favor with communist hardliners and to instill a nationalist fervor supporting increased military spending outlays in the years ahead.

According to an April 2012 report by SIPRI, an independent international institute in Sweden, which has tracked military expenditures since 1967, Russia has increased defense and military spending by more than 147 percent from 2000 to 2011. The report states, “Russia has increased military spending by 16 percent in real terms since 2008, including a 9.3 percent increase in 2011,” adding, “Russia is now the third largest military spender worldwide, overtaking the UK and France.”

In other words, Russia spent close to $72 billion on arms in 2011, which bested the UK who spent nearly $63 billion and France, which spent a little more than $62 billion. Russian military spending and future expenditures doesn’t appear to be slowing anytime soon either.

A draft Russian budget shows a 53 percent increase in spending for national defense until 2014. Additionally, Russia intends to replace and modernize 70 percent of its equipment and arms with cutting-edge weapons by 2020.

Military spending has focused on long-range bombers, stealth fighters, ships and the creation of new military bases. Modernizing Russian nuclear deterrence with a next-generation ICBM is a logical next step. In December of 2011, Lt. General Sergei Karakayev, the head of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces told the Russian state-owned news agency, RIA Novosti, that a new liquid-propellant based ICBM would be constructed with the purposeful intent of integrating, “enhanced capability to breach a hypothetical US missile defense system.”

On September 3, Lt. General Karakayev followed his remarks and announced that a replacement for the R-36M2 Voyevoda, commonly referred to by NATO as the SS-18 Satan, was going to be replaced. Lt. Gen. Karakayev told Russian-media simply, “Construction of the missile is ongoing,” explaining further, “It is to be completed by 2018.” The next-generation Russian ICBM will have improved, “payload-launch weight ratio” and is expected to have a “launch mass of around 100 tons.” Lt. Gen. Karakayev comments came only a few days after President Putin gave a speech to his Security Council in which Putin harkened backed to the old days of Josef Stalin’s rule in Russia. Putin stated on August 31: “We should carry out the same powerful, all-embracing leap forward in modernization of the defense industry as the one carried out in the 1930s.”

The new Russian effort to countermine the perceived strategic force limitations posed by a US-NATO missile defense system is by developing a new “heavy,” next-generation ICBM is expected to be operational by the end of the decade.

The claim of defensive posturing by Russia enables it to obfuscate the reality that it is already engaging in reconstitution of its military-industrial complex in order to support a renewed arms race under the guise of nationalism. Russia continues to use the minuscule threat of a non-operational missile defense system that is focused on protecting NATO allies from a ballistic and nuclear missile attack by rogue nations such as Iran in order to justify its increasing and expanding military expenditures.

While Russia has repeatedly claimed that Iran does not have the missile technology to effectively target European states nor the nuclear program necessarily, the International Atomic Energy Agency released a report two weeks ago, which accused Tehran of doubling the number of its uranium enrichment centrifuges as well as attempting to cover its “extensive activities” and progress. It seems patently clear that Russia continues to cloud the discussion by claiming and protecting Iran as well as other rogue nations in order to substantiate its wishful victimization proposition that missile defense systems in Europe are a grave threat.

In many regards, the Russian tactic is little more than a sleight of hand maneuver to dilute and complicate the real operating reality by asserting alternate threat scenarios. The reality is that Russia, under President Putin, has recognized the benefit of aggressive military modernization. It has served to enhance its negotiating position in world affairs, particularly with the West. In fact, the more forceful Russia becomes and as its assertiveness regains the substantive backing of a follow-through military capacity, the more conciliatory tone Western leaders appear to offer.

Russia’s development and public remarks committed to the operational deployment of a next-generation ICBM with the purposeful intent of being able to thwart any missile defense systems is not intended to only be a threat, it is a purposeful reminder that Russia desires to reemerge as the power it once was during the days of the Soviet Union. Its continued allocation of national resources towards military modernization is a demonstration of Russia’s commitment to the cause and the desire to secure a strategic national priority moving forward.

By providing cover for an arms race, Russia is using the construction of its new ICBM and its overall modernization effort to pressure the US and NATO allies to discontinue efforts to build missile defense.