The Russian President Vladimir Putin’s address to an expanded meeting of the Defence Ministry Board in Moscow on December 18 stands out as a tour d’horizon of the global strategic balance. The speech must be seen against the backdrop of the free fall in US-Russia relations, build-up of NATO infrastructure on Russia’s western borders and, in particular, the Trump administration’s statements about the US withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987.
Broadly, Putin’s message is in three directions:
The modernization of Russian armed forces has been most successful and the combat readiness of Russian military is at an all-time high level;
Russia has developed new hypersonic weapons of immense destructive power, which are going into serial production for deployment with the strategic nuclear forces to which the US simply has no answer;
Russia is determined to ensure that any US attempts to tilt the strategic balance in its favor will be effectively countered.
Putin disclosed that the share of modern arms in Russia’s “nuclear triad” (air, navy and ground forces) is already at an impressive level of 82 percent. He implied that all in all, the US is punching above its weight: “These weapons (unique state-of-the-art weapons such as the Avangard missile system, Sarmat missile, Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missile, Peresvet combat laser weapons, etc.) will multiply the potential of our army and navy, thus reliably and absolutely ensuring Russia’s security for decades ahead. These weapons are consolidating the balance of forces and, thus, international stability. I hope our new systems will provide food for thought to those who are used to militaristic and aggressive rhetoric.”
The main thrust of Putin’s speech was on the US plans to withdraw from the INF Treaty. He warmed, “Such a step will have the most negative consequences and will noticeably weaken regional and global security. In fact, in the long term, it may result in the degradation and even collapse of the entire architecture of arms control and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction… In the event the United States breaks the treaty – I have already mentioned this publicly and I believe it is important to state it once again directly for this audience – we will be forced to take additional measures to strengthen our security.”
Putin starkly forewarned that Russia’s newly developed Kinzhal hypersonic missiles (at a speed in excess of Mach 10 with an intermediate range of 2000 kilometers) which are presently deployed on Mig-31 aircraft can as well be modified “and put… on the ground, if need be.”
In geopolitical terms, Putin drew the bottom line that Moscow will not blink and Russian military prowess is indomitable. Quite obviously, the stern Russian warning comes at a time when the US is pushing the European allies to impose more sanctions against Russia and is threatening to increase its military presence in the Black Sea following the Kerch Strait incident last month. Tensions are rising over Ukraine, which lies historically in the First Circle of Russian national defence. Russia has reportedly deployed Sukhoi Su-27 and SU-30 fighter jets to the Belbek air base in Crimea. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Monday, presumably on the basis of intelligence inputs available with Moscow, that Ukraine may stage provocative moves militarily on the border of Crimea later this month and that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have amassed around 12,000 troops and a great amount of equipment on the contact line with the insurgent region of Donbass.
Lavrov disclosed that instructors from the US, Britain and other countries are actively helping the Ukrainian build-up, while a US drone is constantly flying over the region. (Xinhua) With a near-certainty that the chances of pro-American Petro Poroshenko winning a renewed mandate in the March presidential elections being virtually zero, a casus belli would suit the US to prepare the ground for Ukraine’s post-haste induction into the NATO and the EU. Putin only briefly touched on Ukraine, saying the conflict in the southeastern region “continued unabated.”
Significantly, in his address on Wednesday, Putin made a pointed reference to China while commending the Vostok-2018 military exercises. He said the maneuvers contributed to the “substantial upgrades” in the level of operational and combat training of Russian armed forces and in displaying their ability to “promptly move forces and equipment” over 7000 kms “and to quickly reinforce units in major strategic areas wherever necessary.” Putin then added that it was “important” to note that units from China “also acted under the general plan, in single formation with our troops.” He came close to taking note of what western analysts call the “functional military alliance” between Russia and China.
Russia’s defence budget of $46 billion compares with the Pentagon’s $725 billion budget. What emerges is that instead of getting drawn into a debilitating arms race that will be a strain on resources, Russia will focus on developing the strategic capability to inflict such colossal losses and destruction on the West, including the US, which will deter the latter from launching militaristic adventures targeting Russia. Thus, Putin gave topmost priority to “further strengthen the combat potential of the strategic nuclear forces.” He stressed the importance of quickly transitioning to weapons with enhanced capabilities that overcome US’ missile defence systems and, in particular, the production and supply of the Avangard global range missile systems to the armed forces.
The commander of Russia’s Strategic Missile Force Commander Colonel-General Sergei Karakayev said in an interview with Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper on Monday that the first Avangard hypersonic missile systems will enter combat duty in 2019 at the Dombarovsky missile division based in the Orenburg Region in the south Urals. According to a TASS report, the Avangard is a strategic intercontinental ballistic missile system equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle capable of flying at hypersonic speed in the dense layers of the atmosphere, maneuvering by its flight path and its altitude and breaching any anti-missile defense.
(This article also appeared in India Punchline.)