The nuclear agreement recently reached between Iran and the international community appeared to provide an additional argument in support of the Russian president’s position. Washington’s claim that the system is needed to defend against Iranian aggression is spurious, Putin alleged.

“The use of the threat of a nuclear missile attack from Iran as an excuse, as we know, has destroyed the fundamental basis of modern international security—the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty,” Putin said in one of the more memorable parts of his speech at the Valdai Forum last October. The president added that the move “was not about the hypothetical Iranian threat, which never existed. It was about an attempt to destroy the strategic balance.” 

Clearly, Putin considers the U.S. missile defense program to be the main obstacle to strategic arms reductions. Yet there are numerous contradictions in Russia’s official position.

Major General Dvorkin (retired) is a distinguished military fellow in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Nonproliferation Program.
Vladimir Dvorkin
Distinguished Military Fellow
Nonproliferation Program
Moscow Center
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Speaking last September, Putin said that Russia would add to its arsenal 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of “overcoming even the most technically advanced anti-missile defense systems.” Actually, while these 40 missiles are indeed brand new, they are simply new specimens of models that are already represented in Russia’s strategic nuclear forces—Yars, Bulava, and others. 

But Putin’s point—that the missiles could get through U.S. defenses—contradicts his own assertion a month later that Washington was upsetting the strategic balance.

Putin’s statement that Russia could defeat enemy anti-ballistic missile systems might lead one to conclude that the Kremlin would cross the U.S. missile defense program off the list of factors disrupting the strategic balance between the two countries, thus mitigating bilateral nuclear tensions. This, in turn, would likely have shifted the conversation to other destabilizing factors—and possibly spurred talks on additional strategic arms reductions. However, nothing of the kind happened. 

The U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the development of U.S. sea-and land-based missile defenses has not prevented Russia from engaging in negotiations with Washington before. In 2010, the two sides signed the New START Treaty, which drastically cut their nuclear arsenals. 

Putin is also on record as saying, “Recently, the United States conducted the first test of the anti-missile defense system in Europe. What does this mean? It means we were right when we argued with our American partners. They were simply trying yet again to mislead us and the whole world. To put it plainly, they were lying. It was not about the hypothetical Iranian threat, which never existed.”

In fact, the recent test to which Putin was referring changed nothing in the three-phase plan for the revamped European missile defense system. The only purpose of the test, it seems, was to reassure European allies that the American system was functional and to reaffirm the European partners’ commitment to U.S. plans.

Putin’s statement that the threat from Iran was a pretext did at least have some basis in fact. Senior U.S. officials had previously stated that European missile defense would no longer be required if the Iranian nuclear threat disappeared. Now that Iran has complied with international demands over its nuclear program, so the thinking goes, there is no longer a justification for the U.S. system in Europe.

But that is only partially accurate. The nuclear agreement with Iran does not include limits on its missile programs. This means that both Washington and Moscow need to reassess the threat from Iran’s conventional ballistic missiles as it continues to improve their range and accuracy. 

Thanks to inputs from North Korean scientists, the Iranians have made significant progress in their missile program. They have overtaken the North Koreans by developing the two-stage solid-fueled Sejil-2 mobile missile that can be launched to a distance of 2,200 km with a payload of 1,000 kg. Reducing the payload by 1 kg increases the missile range by slightly over 1 km, which means that the Sejil-2 can cover a distance of 2,700–2,800 km with a payload of 500 kg. By using lighter alloys and materials and adding a third stage, Iran could hypothetically extend the missile’s range to 3,500–3,800 km.

Moreover, in early 2009, Iran used its own launch vehicle to put its first satellite into space. A launch vehicle is essentially a potential intercontinental ballistic missile. Some minor improvements to its second stage could make it into a 4000–5000-km-range missile. It would then be capable of reaching any target in Europe. 

Given the missile capability that is within Iran’s grasp, Washington’s European missile defense system may therefore prove useful, even after the signing of the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.

Vladimir Putin has made other bold assertions about U.S. strike capabilities that do not stand up to close scrutiny. For example, he said, “We have already seen the appearance of the concept of the so-called disarming first strike, including one with the use of high-precision, long-range, non-nuclear weapons comparable in their effect to nuclear weapons.” 

He alluded to the same issue last year while discussing the prospects for nuclear arms reductions: “Today, many types of high-precision weaponry are already close to mass-destruction weapons in terms of their capabilities, and in the event of full renunciation of nuclear weapons or radical reduction of nuclear potential, nations that are leaders in creating and producing high-precision systems will have a clear military advantage. Strategic parity will be disrupted and this is likely to bring destabilization. The use of a so-called first global preemptive strike may become tempting. In short, the risks do not decrease but intensify.”

The threat of a disarming first strike through the use of high-precision conventional weapons has been periodically raised by Russian experts and government officials. Discussions sometimes include panicky suggestions that 70 to 80 percent of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces could be wiped out by such a strike, which, together with the U.S. missile defense program, would deprive Russia of its nuclear deterrence capability.

Russian officials discuss these ideas, despite the fact that credible analysis from their own military establishment states that a disarming first strike is not feasible. 

An article in a Russian military periodical, Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kur’er (Military-Industrial Courier), cites detailed calculations that demonstrate the impossibility of simultaneous high-precision cruise-missile strikes against even one of the Strategic Missile Force sites in the European part of Russia. The calculations take into account target size and configuration, as well the estimated number of cruise missiles required to reliably strike one hardened missile site, such as an underground missile silo or command center. 

For instance, 14 cruise missiles would be required for a strike against a single underground missile silo, assuming no defensive measures and the use of cruise missiles with 95-percent reliability and a circular error probable (CEP) of 5 meters. Thirty-five cruise missiles would be required given a CEP of 8 meters. Russia also boasts a large number of Strategic Missile Force sites that are out of range of cruise missiles. Furthermore, the Pentagon does not have enough cruise missiles to strike all of the Russian targets—and likely never will. 

We should also note that high-precision cruise missile strikes can be thwarted by a number of effective missile defense measures. These include defending stationary nuclear sites with surface-to-air missiles like the Pantsir-S1, as well as other anti-aircraft artillery weapon systems and other air and missile defenses; using electronic warfare (EW) against the NAVSTAR global positioning system; moving mobile launchers frequently and employing decoy targets during periods of increased tensions; and dispersing ballistic missile submarines protected by naval forces.

For all these reasons, it seems rather fantastical to suggest that the Pentagon could be planning a disarming conventional strike against Russia’s strategic nuclear forces: such a measure would not only prove absolutely useless, but would trigger a devastating retaliatory nuclear strike.

So where did this imaginary concept of a conventional disarming strike come from? American government officials have never said nor written anything of the sort. At best, some bold independent experts might have made some pronouncements that the Pentagon later refuted. Instead, the authors of this concept are in Russia itself.

To take one example, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said at a June 2013 academic conference that “an attack against a large, developed country using 3,500–4,000 units of high-precision weapons would almost completely destroy the country’s infrastructure in only six hours, leaving it unable to fight back. Obviously, if Russia came under such an attack, its nuclear deterrence force would become the aggressor’s main target. According to current United States estimates, 80 to 90 percent of Russia’s nuclear potential could be destroyed in such an attack.”

The Russian media referred to Dmitry Rogozin’s predictions several times using headlines such as “Russia Would Lose a War With the U.S. in Six Hours.” Rogozin can therefore safely be considered one of the key authors of the concept of a disarming conventional strike—and, it would seem, one of the president’s main advisors on the topic. 

The country’s leaders, by all appearances, are trying, as they have been in recent years, to instill militaristic fervor among its citizens. 

When President Putin spoke of the “double standards” hindering further arms reduction, he was essentially talking about American superiority in long-range, high-precision conventional weapons and the deployment of the European and global missile defense systems. Since, in keeping with the New START Treaty, Russia and the United States maintain equal strategic nuclear arsenals, and Russia is far ahead of the United States in terms of non-strategic nuclear weapons, Russia’s commander-in-chief has had to resort to using the U.S. missile defense program as his chief scapegoat, calling it the “main destabilizing factor” threatening the strategic balance between the two countries. Ignoring expert analysis, he has also added the threat of a conventional disarming strike to the list of factors that upset this strategic balance.

In this context, it is worth drawing attention to the specifics of Russia’s process for developing strategic weapon systems. The high command of the Russian armed forces approves all technical specifications for a new system, including requirements for effective missile defense penetration and for protecting strategic nuclear installations from aerial attack. These requirements are discussed with the chief engineers and then tested and verified at each trial stage. At the end of the process, they are granted final approval and then adopted by the armed forces.

If it were established that Russia's provisions for effective missile defense penetration and protection of strategic nuclear installations were inadequate, Vladimir Putin would be proven right in his assertions about the lack of strategic balance between Russia and the US, and those responsible for the mistakes in question would need to face harsh reprisal. But if the necessary defenses have been put in place—and they always have in the past—Russia’s leaders will need to stop talking about the threat of a disarming conventional strike. 

If that were the case, there would no longer be any excuse to put off negotiations on further strategic arms reductions, from which Russia has always benefited—and from which it will benefit now, especially given the economy. This would also be a small step toward the gradual resurrection of mutual trust between Russia and the United States, which has been thoroughly eroded in recent years by the Ukraine crisis and other issues. 

In conclusion, upon a thorough examination, talk of the destabilizing effects of the U.S. missile defense program and the possibility of a disarming conventional strike is without foundation. There is no point in continuing to use this argument in discussions with Russia’s foreign adversaries, since it is so transparently baseless that Russia’s opponents have ceased to pay it any attention. The Russian president would do well to enlist the services of more competent advisors if he wishes to avoid further contradictions in his official statements.