The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) defense ministers gathered in Brussels, on February 12, to discuss how the Alliance should respond to Russia’s rapidly expanding non-strategic, long-range, dual-use (nuclear or conventional warhead) missile capabilities. According to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the development and deployment of the Russian land-based long-range cruise missile 9M720 (known in the West as SSC-8), which led to the demise of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in August 2019, is one of the challenges the West now faces. He noted, however, that there are also other dual-use missiles that potentially threaten all European countries and cities. NATO will adapt to the growing threat, but does not yet have any specific plans on how to do so (Militarynews.ru, February 11).
Meanwhile, in Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu addressed the non-strategic missile issue at a gathering of Russia’s military top brass: “Since 2012, the number of deployed long-range, precision-guided cruise missiles in the Russian Armed Forces increased 30 fold, and the number of long-range cruise missile–carrying platforms has increased 12 fold.” Shoigu added, “The pace of deployment of long-range land-, sea- and air-based precision-guided weapons is accelerating.” According to the defense ministry head, Russia’s present-day long-range precision-guided missile force is much more flexible than it was in 2012: “The time needed for cruise missile re-targeting procedures [sostavleniye polyetnogo zadanya] has decreased from one and a half months to three hours.” Apparently, Russia has shortened its long-range cruise missile course programing procedure by acquiring enhanced Western satellite mapping competences. He additionally boasted, in less specific terms, about other achievements: the deployment of artificial intelligence (AI) weapons, battle lasers, robots and drones (Militarynews.ru, February 11).
Shoigu, who was appointed defense minister in November 2012, is the longest-serving genuine politician at the top executive echelons of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And he has worked in government since 1991—long before Putin, who in 1991 was still a disgruntled KGB lieutenant colonel. The vast majority of Putin’s cohorts are typical apparatchiki, who shun any publicity or attention to their work. Shoigu is different, always willing to pursue media publicity and PR. But on February 11, while glorifying his ministry’s achievements in remarks to the organizational-mobilization gathering of the Russian top brass, Shoigu may have seriously misspoken. In a speech delivered at the Academy of the General Staff (Russia’s top military school), Shoigu expounded on the rapid deployment of land-based, long-range, precision-guided weapons (Militarynews.ru, February 11). This boasting was made in the presence of Russian press agencies, however, which ended up undermining Putin, who has for weeks been insisting that Moscow would not be the first to field such missiles despite the demise of the INF. Moscow has all along adamantly denied it ever violated the INF Treaty; and when it was finally scrapped last year, Putin announced that Russia would deploy heretofore-treaty-prohibited missiles only after the United States deployed them first. The Russian president sent letters to world leaders calling for a “moratorium” on INF missile deployment and received a positive response from his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron. Yet, eventually, NATO member states jointly decided that an INF “moratorium” would only give Russia a military advantage since it has already secretly armed its Armed Forces with such weapons (Interfax, November 29, 2019).
The defense minister’s bluster appeared to pierce the veil of Kremlin propaganda. It has now become exceedingly difficult for Putin to continue claiming that his conditioned “moratorium” on deploying previously banned intermediate-range missiles was anything more than a deceptive, Cold War–style Russian “peace initiative” aimed at Western public opinion. In another recent incident undermining Putin’s assurances to foreign governments, an Iskander ballistic missile test-fired from the Kapustin Yar missile test ground (Astrakhan region) apparently veered off course and fell in neighboring Kazakhstan, some 650 kilometers from its launch position. In other words, the Iskander missile flew much further than its official 500-kilometer maximum range, designed to comply with the INF Treaty limitations (Lenta.ru, January 14).
Of course, Shoigu touted the “30-fold” expansion in the number of deployed long-range cruise missiles without disclosing the actual figures. In 2012, Russia began its long-range cruise missile expansion from a relatively small quantity of Soviet-made nuclear-tipped Kh-55 airborne missiles and a handful of Gratit submarine-based nuclear-tipped missiles. The production and deployment of conventional airborne long-range Kh-555 cruise missiles and super-long-range Kh-101 missiles, as well as sea-based Kalibr long-range cruise missiles, began more or less from scratch. So the actual figure of deployed long-range cruise missiles of different sorts (a state secret in Russia) may not be as staggeringly high as it sounds. The US may have more long-range cruise missiles, including thousands of sea-based Tomahawks, but those are all conventionally armed since the nuclear-tipped Tomahawks were entirely scrapped during former President Barack Obama’s second term. All Russian long-range cruise and shorter-range Iskander ballistic missiles are dual-use. No one outside the Russian military command knows what percentage of this rapidly expanding arsenal of non-strategic missiles not covered by any treaty or transparency/verification measures is nuclear capable versus conventional. That reality frustrates NATO nuclear planners, who believe the ambiguity increases instability and aggravates the threat of accidental conflict (Militarynews.ru, February 12).
In addition to its rapidly expanding long-range cruise missile arsenal, Russia is beginning to deploy different hypersonic weapons, like the airborne Kinzal, designed to breach missile-defense systems. But since the North Atlantic Alliance lacks any credible missile defenses in Europe capable of defeating a massive Russian missile attack, Moscow’s deployment of advanced hypersonic systems does not change much in the overall deterrence calculation, according to NATO planners. Alliance members agreed they will not try to match Russia’s non-strategic missile expansion “missile-for-missile,” nor will they deploy any nuclear-tipped missiles on European soil—suggesting that NATO consensus is leading to inaction (Militarynews.ru, February 11).
The Pentagon has begun deploying a small number of low-yield W76-2 warheads on Trident II (D5) submarine-launched missiles and plans to produce up to 50 such warheads. When deployed, these will be counted as strategic and covered by the New START treaty; but effectively they will play the role of NATO’s only non-strategic nuclear deterrence system (Militarynews.ru, February 6). At present, the West seems to lack the political will to do much about the rapidly escalating problem and lacks any deployment-ready offensive or defensive weapons systems capable of providing a counterbalance. The possibility of negotiating with Russia is, of course, always on the table—an option the Alliance duly plans to pursue. But negotiating with Moscow from a position of weakness is traditionally a tricky business.