Gates at the Pentagon briefing (AFP)
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said Washington needs to maintain "a valid nuclear deterrent" to counter a renewed effort by Russia to bolster its own arsenal.
Gates told reporters on June 9 that the Russians, as they look to the future, are focused on "strengthening their nuclear capacity." He added that Moscow's view "underscores the importance of our sustaining a valid nuclear deterrent."
Russia has attempted to transform its Soviet-era military into a more modern, professional, and mobile force. But Gates said difficulties in reforming its conventional forces has led Moscow to conclude that it would be more efficient to invest its energy in boosting its nuclear capacity.
Speaking to soldiers and officers on May 15, newly inaugurated Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pledged to increase funding to the country's nuclear forces so Russia will "be ready to withstand existing threats."
Aleksandr Golts, a Moscow-based defense expert, tells RFE/RL, however, that the renewed stress on nuclear weapons by Washington and Moscow does not signal a return of a Cold War-style arms race.
"This is rather a show of power," Golts says. "During the actual Cold War, everyone believed that the opponent might carry out a nuclear strike. It was for real. Nobody believes that today. Why is Russia talking about strengthening its nuclear potential? Because it's the only sphere in which Russia is on a par with the United States."
During the May 9 Victory Day commemorations marking the 63rd anniversary of the end of World War II, the Russian military paraded intercontinental ballistic missiles across Red Square in a demonstration of military might reminiscent of the Soviet era.
Penetrating Missile Defense
In his May 15 speech, among the threats Medvedev cited was a U.S. plan to build a missile-defense system in Europe. Washington says the proposed system, which would be based in Poland and the Czech Republic, is aimed at "rogue states" like Iran. But Moscow insists it threatens Russia's security.
The dispute has plunged relations between Moscow and Washington to what many observers consider the lowest point since the end of the Cold War.
Golts says Russia and the United States have signed arms-control agreements to reduce their respective nuclear arsenals by 2012. But despite the reductions, Russia has been moving to modernize its existing nuclear forces so they can penetrate a missile-defense system.
"We're talking about a qualitative improvement," Golts says. "We currently have the Topol-M missile complex. This is a new missile, developed in the late 1980s. This missile system is said to be able to defeat antimissile defense systems. There is only one country in the world that is creating an antimissile defense system, and that's the United States."
Gates is visiting U.S. Air Force bases this week after a sweeping shake-up of the force due to mismanagement of the nuclear arsenal.
Russian officials have yet to react publicly to the comments by Gates.