Putin and Medvedev Threaten a Renewed Arms Race

By Ariel Cohen

In his annual address Tuesday to both houses of parliament, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev warned that a new arms race would erupt if Moscow and the West cannot agree on a joint European missile defense program. Medvedev gave the following ultimatum: “Either we reach agreement on missile defense and create a full joint cooperation mechanism, or, if we don’t go into a constructive agreement, a new phase of the arms race will begin. And we will have to make a decision on deploying new means of attack.”

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reiterated the threat of a renewed arms race in an interview with Larry King on Wednesday. He threatened a renewed arms race if the Senate does not ratify New START. This challenge comes in the midst of Moscow denying reports that it moved its nuclear weapons closer to NATO borders because of the threat it perceives from U.S. and NATO missile defense plans.

Threats—and bluff—are bad policy. Russia today has severe difficulties to build enough nuclear systems to meet the ceiling of New START, and in the future its military–industrial capacity may further deteriorate. Moreover, these threats demonstrate the shallowness of President Obama’s “reset” policies. If a new strategic partnership was near, the Kremlin wouldn’t resort to Cold War rhetoric.

An arms race would be counterproductive for Moscow, since the U.S., with its almost $14 trillion economy, has the economic power and capacity to build more modern nuclear weapons and ballistic missile defenses than Russia does. Russian GDP is $1.2–1.8 trillion, depending on the price of oil that day. In addition, an arms race would create insecurity throughout the world, bringing more challenges to Russia as its neighbors in Asia, the Middle East, and the West would be likely to respond in kind.

However, Medvedev declared that his government will combine space, anti-air and anti-missile forces in order to strengthen its security and indicated that Russia takes future nuclear confrontations seriously. Moscow’s main concern with regards to U.S. missile defense is that it would offset Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent. This concern is unwarranted. In fact, missile defenses would serve to stabilize relations in the region.

The Heritage Foundation conducted a gaming exercise to evaluate the effects that missile defenses had on arms control. This exercise produced two critical conclusions: First, having the option to field missile defenses gave the U.S. broader options for pursuing an arms control policy to limit or reduce nuclear arms. Second, pursuing arms control through a “protect and defend” strategy—in other words, fielding missile defenses and maintaining a smaller, modernized, credible nuclear deterrent—appears to be the best option for pursuing arms control and nonproliferation policy while limiting the potential for conflict.

In a deja-vu moment from the Cold War, the Putin–Medvedev’s ultimatum serves as warning to U.S. Senators to ratify New START—or else. It is also a hook to lure NATO into a missile defense relationship, which would enable Russia to control NATO defenses and thus dilute the security of the alliance. While cooperation on missile defenses between Russia and the West may have an upside, it should not provide Russia a veto power on development, deployment, and use of missile defense systems.

Missile defense has also been a major concern among U.S. Senators. New START may ultimately limit U.S. missile defenses on the European continent. Russia has already been successful in pressing the U.S. to cancel plans for missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. Building on this success, Moscow has sought to limit missile defense through New START and the NATO cooperation agreement. However, because of Russian fears that New START may not be ratified by the Senate, it appears likely that the leadership in Moscow is searching for alternative ways to curb U.S. missile defenses—e.g., through NATO.

The alliance should not be pressured into cooperating just for the sake of cooperation. Instead, NATO must get missile defense right. Moscow should understand that NATO has an inherent right to self-defense and that such a defense is not a threat to Russia. Both the alliance and Russia face similar threats from Iran and North Korea. Working together on missile defense to ensure security will be vital to thwarting these threats. However, cooperation should not come at the expense of NATO security. Both sides’ deployments should be complimentary. While exchanging information and undertaking computer exercises is a good way to start, Moscow should not be able to decide which threats to NATO members to address (and which not to) or exercise veto on NATO missile defense deployments.
The Heritage Foundation