To the vast majority of Americans, including the foreign policy establishment, the question posed in the title may seem something of a joke. After all, absolute military superiority over Russia and other potential rivals for global influence has been the objective of US military policy for the last twenty-five years or more, at vast budgetary expense. One instrument for its achievement has been the roll-out of a system known as the global missile defense, which in effect encircles Russia and China, posing the threat of massive simultaneous missile strikes that could overwhelm any defenses. To intelligence specialists at the Pentagon, who likely have been watching, as I have done, what the Kremlin disseminated earlier today in Russian only versions so far, the question of Moscow turning the tables is entirely serious and shocking.
When Vladimir Putin first publicly described Russia’s latest state-of-the-art weapons systems in development and deployment one year ago, during his 1 March 2018 Address to the bicameral legislature, he said these systems would ensure the re-establishment of full strategic parity with the United States. Western media sniggered. US politicians, with a very few exceptions, chose to ignore what they considered to be just domestic electioneering during a presidential campaign that Putin was expected to win handily. It was all a bluff, they said.
In his annual Address this past Wednesday, 22 February, President Putin expanded on those developments in armaments, reported which systems were now entering active service. He made it clear one of them is the planned Russian response to a likely consequence of US withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty: the stationing by the U.S. of nuclear armed cruise missiles like the Tomahawk on land and directed against Russia, all of which would reduce the warning time of incoming attack in Moscow to just 10 – 12 minutes and constitute an existential risk.
Putin, being Putin, did not spell out the threats implicit in the prospective deployment of the new Russian weapons systems. He remained always polite and open to discussion in his speech. But as we saw earlier today, he entrusted the task of dotting i’s to a member of his close entourage, Dmitry Kiselyov who is the chief administrator of all news programs on Russian state television while also serving as the anchor of the widely watched News of the Week, a summary newscast shown on two federal channels on Sunday evenings. To expand the circulation still more beyond the News of the Week audience, the segment dealing with Putin’s Address and the new arms systems was released as a separate 10 minute video on youtube.com early in the afternoon.
And a summary of the information in the television broadcast was distributed still earlier today by the associated news agency, RIA Novosti.
The central point of the television broadcast was summarized in one paragraph by RIA Novosti and bears repeating here. It makes reference to the threat of shortened warning times of incoming American missiles and to the Russian “mirror like” response. Putin claimed that Russia now has the means to respond immediately and with full confidence of success. Such counter measures would be directed not only at countries hosting the American missiles but at the “decision making centers” authorizing use of these missiles, meaning in the United States.
With more than a dollop of sarcasm, Putin had said in his speech that the Americans surely can still count. He urged them to consider the speed and the range of the new missile system that will be arrayed against them before taking any decision on deploying land-based Tomahawks and similar t in Europe.
We were told today that the Russian missile system that Putin had in mind as his counter measure is the Zircon, a hypersonic missile capable of traveling at 11,000 km/hour and having a range of 1,000 km. It can be installed in submarines that already carry the Kalibr cruise missile which was used to great effect in the Syrian campaign.
Kiselyov’s people now did the calculations for us on what the Zircon will mean for US security. I quote from RIA Novosti:
“If we [Russians], without violating anything or disturbing anyone, should simply locate in the oceans our submarines equipped with launchers of the Zircon missiles – each carrying 40 pieces, – then in the operational zone of the Russian hypersonic weapons we find the very centers of decision making about which Putin spoke. Our vessels are situated beyond the boundaries of the exclusive economic zone of the USA which extends 200 miles from the coast. Two hundred miles is 370 kilometers. We can calmly position ourselves at 400 km from the coast. All these centers of decision making are also not so far from the coast. Let’s say they are an additional 400 km. Thus, a total of 800 km. The Zircon flies with a speed of 11,000 km/h. Thus to cover the 800 km the Zircon spends a bit less than five minutes. This is a problem that third grade school children can solve. There you have it, the flight time.”
And which decision-making centers in the United States will the Russians be targeting? On the East Coast, they are the Pentagon, Camp David and Fort Ritchie in Maryland. On the West Coast: McClellan Air Force base in California and Jim Creek [Naval Radio Station] in the state of Washington. What Kiselyov was talking about might be called a “decapitating strike” or a “first strike capability” against all of US strategic command and control over its nuclear forces that would leave the US unable to respond in a coordinated manner.
After setting out these facts, Dmitry Kiselyov turned over the reporting to a journalist team who described in some detail the other major new weapons systems that Vladimir Putin first mentioned one year ago and spoke of in passing on the 22nd, bringing us up to date on the state of their testing and or introduction in the active armed forces. However, there is no need for us to deal with them, because they reflect the vast potential for attack on the United States that the Russians would enjoy following the decapitating strike of the Zircon systems. Or perhaps it would be better to say that these duplicative systems operate in parallel with Zircon since several are fully capable of penetrating and evading US anti missile systems on their own.
There was however, one especially noteworthy point from their report, a statement by Minister of Defense Shoigu underlining the high efficiency of the Russian arms development, which, he said, costs hundreds of times less than the systems being developed by the US for use against Russia. Plus the minute or so of additional video which they took from Putin’s speech closing out the discussion of weapons and foreign policy. The Russian President remarked that he was ready at all times to negotiate with the United States over arms limitation whenever the States are ready to do so on an equitable basis. And he continues to seek full-bodied, mutually beneficial and friendly relations with America.
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How can we characterize this Russian broadcast? Is it a threat, pure and simple? Or is there something else that the Kremlin has in mind?
One might say that the intention was to warn the US to come to its senses and reconsider its withdrawal from the INF Treaty. Failing that, it is a warning not even to think about stationing cruise missiles in Europe, lest the Russians proceed with the Zircon deployment.
However, it is also possible to see the Kremlin announcement as presaging Russia’s taking absolute strategic military superiority over the United States, i.e., appropriating to itself what it accuses the United States of having tried to achieve vis-à-vis Russia with encirclement and the move of NATO to Russian borders.
In this connection, it is worth paying attention to one other broadcast on Russian television this past week, on Thursday, 23 February, that is the day after Putin’s speech. This was a lengthy interview with Yakov Kedmi, an Israeli political scientist and intelligence expert speaking by video link from Tel Aviv to Russia’s most authoritative political talk show, Evening with Vladimir Solovyov. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMRhiqVhZ78
Kedmi is a frequent guest on the Solovyov show, both in person and on video link. He is a colorful personality with unusual insights into military and foreign policy of Russia and in the Middle East. A former Soviet citizen, a Jewish “refusenik” who was long denied emigration rights but finally did leave for Israel, he made a career in one of the Israeli intelligence agencies and was declared persona non grata in Russia. Then about five or six years ago his right to travel to Russia was restored and he has been making appearances on Russian television ever since.
In his analysis of Putin’s speech and of the new security posture of Russia, Kedmi argued that thanks to its latest weapons systems the country is well positioned to establish absolute strategic superiority over the United States. To respond to the challenge of these weapons in kind, the US will have to make enormous new investments that it will not be able to afford unless it cuts back on its global network of military bases.
Perhaps Kedmi’s most interesting and relevant observation is on the novelty of the Russian response to the whole challenge of American encirclement. He noted that for the past 200 or more years the United States considered itself secure from enemies given the protection of the oceans. However, in the new Russian military threat, the oceans will now become the most vulnerable point in American defenses, from which the decapitating strike can come.
Now the ball is in the American court. Much will depend on how Washington responds to the Russian challenge and whether the Russian red lines over installation of cruise missiles in Europe are crossed.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019