The New Russia, and the New Russian Warhead

By February 23, 2006

Been to Moscow lately? If you have, it’s impossible not to notice how commercial the city has become. New automobiles clog the wide boulevards and the air reeks with exhaust. Conspicuous consumption is now an ingrained part of life. Despite the staggering rift between rich and poor in Russia as a whole, Moscow has more billionaires than any other city in the world. Although still an emerging economy, Russia has been sailing along on profits made in the oil and gas industries, inspiring Russia’s leaders to reassert to the world that their nation is still a nuclear superpower.

Times are better in Russia than in the 1990s, when the ruble collapsed, and violent crime ran wild. President Putin is leading his country towards joining the global economy in an autocratic — but effective – fashion. Putin has wisely courted Western industry, and has secured Russia’s place as head of the G8. He also agreed to reduce Russia’s overall nuclear warhead count, but has at the same time stabilized the budgets for ROSATOM’s nuclear weapons programs. While not flaunting Moscow-style material wealth, Russia’s nuclear designers at the closed cities are now at least receiving their paychecks. And they’ve been busy building a new generation of warheads:

The new maneuverable warheads are designed to zigzag in flight when approaching targets. This maneuverability would counter current U.S. anti-missile technology by not falling to earth on a predictable trajectory. They may be fitted to new land-based Topol-M missiles and the prospective Bulava missiles. The maneuverable warheads are still several years from production, but Russia’s weapons scientists have more than the required talent to build these devices. And they are very smart, patriotic people.

As a technology, the maneuverable warhead could be quite remarkable, although President Putin would view it more as a Russian political trump card. It is such trump cards and their possible long term political reverberations that Russia and other nuclear-capable nations need to be attuned to. Especially considering what they could mean for the future of arms control and the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Many critical questions need to be asked: What of other nations developing new warheads? How effective is the Moscow Treaty? Will any nations observe the NPT in five to ten years from now? And how many non-nuclear states will produce their own weapons in that time period? Their efforts to become part of the nuclear club appear to be speeding up. The Soviet Union’s breakup – without a doubt the best thing that could have happened to that nation’s people – continues to have critical unintended consequences on a global scale.

The 30 km taxi ride from Sheremetyevo airport to downtown Moscow can take over two hours prostoyal na dorogye – sitting in the traffic congestion. But the breakdown of the Cold War’s system of arms control may be moving relatively faster.

Categories: Nuclear Proliferation