The New Cold War


S-400 air defense system


On the face of it, Russia is still an intimidating military power. It has one of the world’s largest armies, excellent special forces, and some remarkable modern weapons. The Shkval [Squall] torpedo, for example, is an underwater rocket that travels in a capsule of gas created by its specially designed cone. Fired from a super-silent submarine, it is one of the few weapons that could endanger an American aircraft carrier. So is the Moskit supersonic ship-launched missile. Russia’s new S-400 air defense system has twice the range of American-made Patriot missiles. The Topol-M is an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a multiple warhead. Unlike its liquid-fuelled counterparts that usually launch from vulnerable silos, it has a propulsion system based on much more stable solid fuel. Its can be kept in constant readiness, and launched from anywhere. Russia has hugely increased its military procurement budget: the latest published figures are for nearly five trillion rubles (roughly $190 billion) to be spent in the period up to 2015. The aim is to replace 45 percent of Russia’s arsenal with new equipment, with an emphasis on long-range nuclear weapons. Pride of place goes to a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, the Bulava, and to at least 50 new Topol-M land-based missiles.

Russia is certainly flexing its military muscles as never before: In the summer of 2007 it restarted the old Cold War practice of regularly buzzing Western countries’ airspace to test their reactions. Initially this was in the North Atlantic and the North Sea, where British and Norwegian pilots used to sometimes fly so close to their Soviet adversaries that they could taunt them by waving Playboy centerfolds (even the softest porn was banned in the puritanical Soviet system). In August 2007, Russia made the practice explicit, flying two lumbering Tupolev-95 bombers from their base on the Russian- Chinese border to the American military base at Guam in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. That, again, was a familiar sight in the old Cold War, when these bombers, the workhorses of the Soviet Union’s airborne nuclear deterrent, would cruise down America’s east coast. President Vladimir Putin proudly announced that Russia could now afford to keep nuclear bombers in the air at all times.

But even thriller writers find it hard to imagine the Kremlin posing a direct military threat to NATO. In overall defence budgets, the United States outspends Russia by around 25 to one. Since the end of the old Cold War, Russia’s nuclear arsenal has slipped far behind that of America’s, once its main strategic adversary. Most Russian nuclear weapons are old; many have exceeded their design life. Russia has the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, with an estimated total of 16,000 warheads, half the Soviet Union’s estimated total of 35,000 in the mid-1980s. 2 The Americans have a smaller stockpile, of 10,640. However, more of America’s weapons-around 6,390-are actually usable. As well as tactical nuclear weapons, Russia has 3,300 to 3,400 strategic nuclear warheads. But Russia also lacks modern means of delivering them from land, sea, and air. Russia has built only one of a planned eight Borei submarines, the Yuri Dolgoruky, which after ten years of intermittent work was launched in 2007 and will be handed over to the Russian navy in 2008. But, like Russia’s remaining three huge Typhoon-class nuclear subs, the Yuri Dolgoruky has no ICBMs until the Bulava missile is working properly. So far it has failed four out of its five tests. And it is far from clear if Russia’s rundown nuclear factories can manufacture it in the quantity or quality required.

The Topol-M launchers rarely venture out of their bases, just as the nuclear-armed submarines mostly stay in harbor. The early warning system is technologically backward and patchy. Conventional forces are in even worse state. The Russian navy, for example, has barely 20 seaworthy major surface ships, divided between the Black Sea, the Northern Fleet, the Baltic Sea, and the Pacific. Russia has only a single aircraft carrier, the unreliable Admiral Kuznetsov; though it plans to build more, it lacks even a shipyard capable of such a task. Russia has found it hard to refurbish the Soviet-era carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov, which it sold to India in 2004 with a promised delivery date of 2008. It is now unlikely to be ready before 2011. If Russia does return to the Mediterranean, it will be with a token naval force that lacks air cover.

Once the fear was that Russia, with a surprise attack, could win a war against NATO. Now the question is whether the United States-at least in theory-could knock out Russia’s entire nuclear arsenal in a first strike. Nobody in Washington is planning that, of course. Though Russia’s increasing nuclear weakness may make the Kremlin dangerously jittery. Russia’s remaining military might does two things. It can tip the balance in other conflicts, hot or cold, either by projecting a mainly symbolic presence, or by selling weapons. Second, it allows the Kremlin to posture: in talks about arms control agreements already concluded, in agreements that NATO wants to update, and in talks about weapons systems that have yet to be deployed. The arms sales are growing fast.

One of Putin’s first acts in power was to create a strong state arms-export company, Rosoboroneks- port. Since then, Russian arms sales have risen by more than 70 percent, making the country the world’s second-largest arms exporter after the United States. The trend is accelerating: in 2006, the order book more than doubled to $30 billion. The main beneficiaries so far have been China, followed by India. In 2006, for example, China received half of Russia’s $6 billion arms sales. But the new trend is sales to countries that detest the West. Oil-rich Venezuela has bought $3 billion-worth of Russian weapons, including 53 military helicopters and 24 advanced Sukhoi SU-30 fighter jets. It is now planning to buy five Project 636 Kilo-class diesel submarines, with an option on four more modern ones later. Russia has sold advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, and has matching strong military intelligence cooperation with the regime there. It has sold 29 short-range Tor missiles to Iran to protect the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear reactor. It is discussing sales of the more advanced S-300 air defense system and the Moskit missile; it may have helped Iran develop its own version of the Shkval-something that could be crucial in a naval confrontation with the United States in the Gulf. Russia has sold small arms and other equipment to Sudan, some of which has been used in Darfur. Before the war in Iraq it used Belarus as a backdoor means of selling air defence systems to Saddam Hussein, training Iraqi technicians to operate them. Along with other Russian defence contractors, Rosoboroneksport is as a result banned from doing business in America.

The rhetoric that accompanies such sales seems straight out of the Soviet playbook. Just days before he visited U. S. President George W. Bush in Maine in the summer of 2007, Putin played host to Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, who called for a “worldwide revolution” against American “tyranny”: His adoring remarks to Putin were redolent of the tributes paid by leaders of Soviet allies visiting Moscow during the old Cold War. 4 He then went on to visit Belarus and Iran. Such moves are an irritant to NATO and its allies, and are an ominous sign of the Kremlin’s preferences. But they do not yet come close to changing the strategic balance. America’s military planners worry about lots of things; Russian rockets are just one of them, and a long way from the top of the list. Even a huge increase in defence spending over many years would not restore Russia’s military-industrial complex to the heights reached during the Soviet era. Brilliant design is one thing: turning it into mass production is another. Nearly two decades of neglect and mismanagement mean that Russia’s arms factories lack the people and tools necessary for a world-class weapons industry, either for export or for domestic consumption. The workforce is ageing; the necessary base of subcontractors is missing, and the skills base has eroded sharply since the Soviet era. Russia’s latest prototype fighter, the supposedly “fifth generation” SU-47 Berkut [Golden Eagle], wows observers at foreign air shows-but it is just that: a single prototype. As with so many things, Russia is still living off the conscripted brilliance and perverse sacrifices of the past. Much of what counts as arms sales still involve flogging off mothballed Soviet-era equipment relabelled as new. Russia’s main selling proposition is that its weapons are rugged, reliable, and cheap, not that they are the height of technological sophistication. Customers for sophisticated weapons want reliable after-sales service, something that Russia has so far not been able to provide.

Russia is, however, stuck. It is too weak to have a truly effective independent foreign policy, but it is too disgruntled and neurotic to have a sensible and constructive one. It wants to be respected, trusted, and liked, but will not act in a way that gains respect, nurtures trust, or wins affection. It settles for being noticed-even when that comes as a result of behavior that alienates and intimidates other countries. It compensates for real weakness by showing pretend strength. Little of that-advanced weapons sales to rogue regimes aside-immediately threatens global peace and security. In that sense, the New Cold War is less scary than the old one. But Russia’s behavior is alarming, uncomfortable, and damaging- both to its own interests and to those of other countries. And the trajectory is worrying. If Russia becomes still richer and still more authoritarian, all the problems will be harder to deal with, not easier. Russia’s influence in the West will be stronger; the willingness to confront it less. The former satellite countries will be even more vulnerable; the economic levers even better positioned. In other words, if the West does not start winning the New Cold War while it can, it will find it much harder in the future. The price of a confrontation now may be economic pain and political uncertainty. But it still offers the chance of a new relationship with Russia based on realism rather sentiment, and tough-mindedness rather than wishful thinking. The price later will be higher-perhaps so high that the West will no longer be able to pay it.


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