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Monday, 20 May, 2002, 09:58 GMT 10:58 UK
Russia's anxieties over missile defence


After a long struggle to force the United States to drop its plans for a missile shield, Russia is now biting the bullet and recognising that Washington will go ahead with the plan whether Moscow likes it or not.

President Putin's best hope now is to get a slice of the action.

We are going to do everything possible to counter these threats [from the US] when they take shape

Sergei Ivanov, Russian Defence Minister
This was a carrot held out by President George W Bush as long ago as May 2001, and one that Vladimir Putin has been trying to grasp for at least as long, in case attempts to scupper the project turned out to be unsuccessful.

From the Kremlin's point of view there is a world of difference between a missile defence programme that includes Russia - on some level, as a partner - and one which is pursued with the aim of sidelining it as a nuclear power.

This difference is both psychological and financial - though it remains to be seen whether Russia or any other country will really get lucrative contracts out of missile defence, as the lion's share of the funding will inevitably be channelled to US contractors.

For Mr Putin, international prestige and the health of the Russian economy are paramount.

The zero-sum scenario

But there are other Russian leaders who measure their relationship with the US in terms of a zero-sum model, whereby a step forward for the US is automatically a step backward for Russia.

From this perspective missile defence is deeply worrying.

"We are going to do everything possible to counter these threats when they take shape," said Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov in March.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
President Putin wants to work with the US
He added that missile defence would not become a reality until at least 2015 or 2020, and that the Russian army would undergo a thorough modernisation by then.

Even Mr Putin makes clear that his reluctant acceptance of the US missile defence plans is based on the understanding that they do not threaten the Russian nuclear deterrent.

The fear in Russia is that the limited shield now envisaged is just the first stage of a system that may one day make the principle of deterrence - or mutually assured destruction - meaningless.

Sweet pill

The deals that have recently been agreed between the US and Russia have two key sweeteners for Moscow.

One is the agreement by Washington - in the form of a treaty obligation - to reduce its own nuclear arsenal by two thirds.

This will coincide with reductions that Russia is forced to make anyway, for financial reasons.

Russia will enter the second decade of the 21 Century with a nuclear arsenal equal to that of France, Britain or China, much smaller that that of the United States

Russian parliamentarian
The second is the scrapping of restrictions in the unimplemented Start -II arms reduction treaty that prevented Russia putting multiple warheads on its missiles.

If Russia re-arms missiles with multiple warheads, its ability to penetrate a missile shield will be much increased.

There is no doubt that Russia will also continue to develop other possible "asymmetrical" responses to undermine missile defence, such as the use of decoy missiles, and plane-launched cruise missiles that would fly underneath the "Star Wars" shield.

Influence anxiety

Another of Russia's long-held objections to missile defence is that it could trigger a new arms race.

China, whose small nuclear deterrent could be seriously undermined by missile defence, may well build up its strategic nuclear forces.

Who knows, India and Pakistan could follow suit.

Chinese missile on a truck
China could build more mobile missiles
And all this at a time when the Russian nuclear arsenal is in rapid decline.

It has been estimated that over the next 10 or 12 years nearly all Russian nuclear missiles will come to the end of their natural life, and will have to be destroyed.

New missiles are being deployed, but not in large numbers.

At the current rate, the country will have only 100 or 120 of the new Topol missile systems by 2010.

"Russia will enter the second decade of the 21 Century with a nuclear arsenal equal to that of France, Britain or China, much smaller that that of the United States," wrote one Russian parliamentarian recently.

"We can assume that in the near future China may surpass Russia greatly," he added.

For Moscow the ideal solution - which it tried to engineer - would have been to halt the ambitious US plans for space-based missile defence, and to emerge as a major partner in the development of a smaller land- or sea-based system, known as theatre missile defence.

It may still succeed in working with Nato or the US on theatre missile defence - a field in which it has some technical expertise to offer.

But its contribution to a "Star Wars" system is bound to be minimal - and the military consequences could, for Russia, be very damaging.

US Missile Defence

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