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Ask The Expert: Putin's Missile Statement Shows 'Who's In Charge In Russia'

A recent test-launch of Russia's Bulava missile

A recent test-launch of Russia's Bulava missile

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said today that Russia must develop new offensive weapons systems to counter U.S. missile-defense initiatives.

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Andrei Shary spoke with military analyst and journalist Aleksandr Golts about what the statement could mean.

RFE/RL: What kind of weapons systems are we talking about?

Aleksandr Golts:
First of all, the new Bulava missile and the so-called RS-24 -- which is practically the same as the Topol-M, but with multiple-warhead capability. When we talk about offensive strategic systems in Russia, we are speaking only about nuclear weapons.

RFE/RL: The Bulava is undergoing testing and, as has been reported, not very successfully. Does this mean we aren't talking about the medium-term future?

There has been talk about the development of a new heavy missile for the Russian strategic forces. But when the commander of the strategic forces says that there will be such a missile by 2016, it's hard to imagine that since no one has been discussing this before. Apparently there are grandiose plans, but what will come of them, no one knows.

RFE/RL: But this is a good card to play in the negotiations on a new strategic arms limitations treaty with the Americans?

Actually, it is rather strange. The Americans have a serious advantage in terms of delivery systems. They know perfectly well the potential of Russian industry. It is more or less clear that this edge, this military advantage of the United States will be maintained into the relatively far future.

It's not a secret that Russia's nuclear force is somewhat older than America's and that, for safety reasons, we will have to remove a significant number of missiles from active duty.

A Political Game

RFE/RL: Vladimir Putin seems to view this point about offensive weapons systems as a sort of response to U.S. plans to create a comprehensive missile-defense system. Is this the old story of sword and shield?

It is a purely political story. The American strategic missile-defense system cannot now or in the foreseeable future threaten Russia's nuclear potential. At present, the Americans have deployed about 50 missile interceptors that could -- and many experts doubt this -- potentially intercept five to 10 warheads. Russia will have more than 1,500 nuclear warheads.

So we are talking about a political game. Russia is interested in dragging out the strategic-arms talks. As long as the talks are proceeding, Russia can demonstrate that it has risen from its knees and that it is the only serious opponent of the United States.

Incidentally, Putin has left no doubt that he is a firm believer in the need for a nuclear deterrent against the United States. He thinks that as soon as the strategic balance is tipped, the Americans will begin to act aggressively, including in the economic sphere. It is a reference to the so-called concept of expanded deterrence, which supposes that nuclear parity allows Russia to resolve matters in other, completely unrelated spheres.

A game is being played, and Russia is insistent on a direct connection between missile defense and offensive strategic weapons. Russian generals also insist that the START-1 agreement was clearly unfair to Russia.

American offensive systems are not developing, but we are creating new missiles. We know perfectly well how America's Trident and Minuteman missiles fly. The Americans can't give us anything new in this regard. At the same time, the Americans are very interested in how the RS-24 and the Bulava fly. In exchange, Russia -- via Putin -- is demanding the telemetry of U.S. missile-defense systems.

I think the most important thing we can take from the prime minister's words is that he seriously intends to complicate the START talks. As we know perfectly well, both sides have agreed not to make any statements about the talks. No matter how difficult things have gotten since they began in October, both sides have stuck to this. And now, when the talks have apparently reached the final phase, the prime minister of the Russian Federation makes this sensational leak.

RFE/RL: Why?

I think that Putin is showing who is in charge in Russia.

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