Trying to calm Russian concerns

By Dale R. Herspring

One of the most difficult things about dealing with the Russians is that they tend to see everything as a zero-sum game.  Furthermore, in many ways they are still captive to mind set of the Cold War.  By that, I mean everything we do militarily is seen as aimed at them.  While some of our actions are aimed at Moscow, it is clear to me that they over exaggerate the importance of Russia in our strategic planning.  Many of my Russian contacts would be surprised at how little importance Washington assigns to the Kremlin in its strategic planning.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, the Pentagon has plenty of plans on the shelves for dealing with Russia in an emergency, but it is increasingly difficult to find Russian specialists in the U.S. military.  This is most evident in looking at civilian defense contractors.  It is difficult to find much work involving the Russian military – certainly interest is no where the way it was in the eighties.

As an example of Russian thinking, take the American military system called “Prompt Global Strike (PGS).”  First, however, a few words about this system.  Its purpose is to develop a system that can deliver a precision conventional weapon strikes anywhere in the world within an hour.  We already have that capability when it comes to nuclear missiles.  Using nuclear weapons is always a last resort.  No one wants to start a nuclear war.  But, there can be occasions when the use of force is warranted.  For example, use two or three conventional weapons to make a point; force a belligerent to back down. 

There are some major draw-backs to the use of such a system.  For example, the Bush administration dropped the idea, fearing that the Russians would think it involved nuclear weapons and respond accordingly.  However, the Obama administration is continuing to work on developing such a system.  To make matters more difficult, today we would also have to worry about China misreading such a launch as well.

Back to the Russians.  They are fully aware that the Pentagon has not given up on the PGS.  It should be noted that Russians always “worst case” such threats to use Washington jargon.  I also need to note that “worst casing” a situation is not uniquely Russian.  Once political authorities have given a “go ahead” to a weapons system every military in world (including ours) will try to develop a weapon that will neutralize the other guy’s weapon under the most difficult situation.

The Russian military is also – almost psychotically – working on something to neutralize our air defense missiles.  The reasoning is simple.  In accordance with our arms control agreements, both sides agreed not to develop defensive weapons.  This leaves us mutually vulnerable.  Or to use the more technical expression – “Mutual Assured Destruction.”  Both sides are defenseless against an attack.  The minute we receive information that the Russians have launched its missiles, we launch ours immediately.  Or vice-versa.

We have changed our view on air defense weapons.  Why?  We are concerned about the Iranians.  There are many in Washington who fear the possibility of an Iranian nuclear strike either at the US or Europe.  The only way to prevent that is with air defense missiles.  The Russians, however see these missiles as aimed at them.

This is why Putin has told the military to direct its attention toward developing weapons to counter our efforts in both areas.  For example, on December 16, Russian Defense Minister, Sergey Shoigu ordered the military to focus its attention on counter the U.S. air defense and PGS threats.  “It is necessary to resolve the following issues, the General Staff should take into account the threats and challenges related to ‘Prompt Global Strike’ and missile defense while working out a new defense plan.”  He went on to order senior officers to prioritize the production of long range missiles. 

Another senior official, the man in charge of defense production, told the State Duma that the PGS is “the most important new strategy being developed by the United States today.”  He further warned “They may experiment with conventional weapons on strategic delivery platforms, but they must bear in mind, that if we are attacked, in certain circumstances we will of course respond with nuclear weapons.”

The problem facing Putin and his generals is that the country’s defense production facilities are in abysmal shape.  The average factory worker is about 60 years old.  The Russians are doing everything they can to bring in younger workers.  Then there is the state of

Russian equipment.  Most of it is from the 1980s.  The Russians just finished a battle between the generals and the civilian military industry.  The generals are well aware that the defense industry is antiquated and that the quality is poor.  So they began turning their eyes toward equipment produced in the West; the most notable case being the two Mistral landing ships purchased from France.  But entreaties by the domestic producers led Putin to tell the generals to use Russian material.

The Russians would be better off to focus on conventional weapons for the present, given the greater likelihood that they might be needed in the near future.  However, the Russian military is convinced that just about everything we do is aimed at them.  Try selling that idea in the Pentagon, and I suspect you would be either laughed at or dismissed as out of your mind. 

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired American diplomat and Navy captain.

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