Putin's Presidential Return: Implications for Russian Foreign Policy and Missile Defence

President-elect Putin has been ushered into power on a promise of furthering Russia's hard-nosed attitude towards the West. Central to Putin's stance is continued Russian reticence towards NATO's plans for Ballistic Missile Defence. A stand-off ensues where Russian insistence on guarantees will be hard to meet.

By Igor Sutyagin and Avnish Patel for RUSI.org

26/03/12: In a policy paper leading up to the recent Russian presidential elections, Vladimir Putin reiterated his criticism of the NATO ballistic missile defence (BMD) system, arguing that it undermines Russia's strategic nuclear forces and that he is 'loath to dismiss the possibility of reaching a compromise on missile defence. One would not like to see the deployment of the American system on a scale that would demand the implementation of our declared countermeasures'.[1]  Statements in this vein play up to the suspicion of Western governments and are deflective in purpose, detracting away from domestic concerns including those of the economy and the general disenchantment with the political system and ruling elites. Putin has also been critical of the United States, accusing it of meddling in Russia's internal affairs by supporting the protests during the elections.

Russian interests in the international arena coalesces around three fundamental priorities: an emphasis on its strategic nuclear arsenal (partly to de-emphasise a dilution in its conventional forces and to drive a hard bargaining position related to missile defence ); oil and gas supplies, which account for two-thirds of Russia's exports, and how they can be potentially withheld to further strategic aims if necessary; and Russia's membership of the United Nations Security Council and usage of its veto, recently utilised in curtailing action in Syria. An erosion of any of these stances would limit Russia's ability to influence, coerce and cajole.  This was exemplified by both Putin and outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev recently announcing that a staggering $790 billion would be spent over the next eight years on Russia's military capabilities, including modernising the military-industrial complex, acquisition and operational costs.

BMD and Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces

Russia has appropriated a dual track strategy to counter the evolving deployment of a US-led NATO BMD system. Firstly, by applying an ambiguous policy to stop or deter BMD deployment, the intention here is to divide NATO members so as to avoid the alliance from unifying wholesale behind US leadership. Secondly, to send out a robust message that Russian strategic nuclear weapons are highly effective.

Practical steps to fulfil the latter aim have recently been undertaken. Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, announced in February the plan to acquire for the Russian Navy ten Borey-class strategic submarines (SSBNs), armed with R-30 Bulava sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Just two months earlier it had been envisaged that eight submarines would be built.[2]The Russian Navy will also resume permanent combat patrols of its strategic submarines later this year, which were suspended 26 years ago.[3] From 1986, the Soviet and then the Russian Navy deployed SSBNs for combat patrols on a temporary basis, with periods of time when none took place at all. These developments indicate a genuine fear of intercept ballistic missiles as epitomised by the fledgling NATO system. The Russian rationale is that sea-based ballistic missiles are more difficult to intercept as the precise position of their possible starts are unknown for the intercepting side.

Reset Derailed?

The 'reset' between Washington and Moscow was brokered by Presidents Obama and Medvedev, both basking in the glow of a warm personal relationship, with the latter pushing for a more engaging Russian foreign policy. This culminated in the signing of the New START agreement in 2010, but this should be seen as a temporary blip in an otherwise rocky relationship. The obstinate and bullish rhetoric used by Putin recently suggests that cordial relations with both the US and NATO will not be handled with finesse now that a leadership change has been affected in the Kremlin.

In order to maintain a grip on his authority, it is likely that Putin will once again resort to the politics of fear reminiscent of the Cold War era and escalate the rhetoric used by Dmitri Medvedev prior to the State Duma elections in late 2011. Medvedev sought to draw the sting out of a NATO Ballistic Missile Defence system and seek concessions by threatening to withdraw from the aforementioned START Agreement, deploying countermeasures such as stationing Iskander missiles in the western exclave of Kaliningrad and pushing for a legally-binding declaration that a NATO system will never be utilised against Russia. It is inherently difficult for NATO to offer such specific guarantees. Prior to the Presidential elections, Russian Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov also warned the US against stationing Aegis-equipped ships in Arctic territories and Black Sea as well as attempting to dissuade Norway not to bow to US pressure to equip its own maritime assets with Aegis systems. Most recently, Dmitry Medvedev has announced that whilst still being open to dialogue with NATO, Russia will seek to develop counter-measures by 2017-2018. The deployment of new ICBMs tasked with countering BMD assetswould ominously complement the third and fourth phases of the US European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) which would be in place to counter short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missile threats.[4]

Following Putin's election victory and integral to his own cult of personality is theability to stand up to perceived NATO encroachment. The ingrained fear of a NATO BMD system comes from cold war paranoia and genuine concerns. The prickly demeanour of Putin's leadership style will continue to help cultivate a narrative of the perceived unfairness of a BMD defence system on Russia's borders and sphere of influence, arguing that NATO is unresponsive to its concerns. The EPAA and deployment of anti-missile interceptors and advanced radars in Poland, Romania and Turkey is seen as another affront to its regional hegemony, already undermined by NATO's provocative flirtation with Ukraine, Georgia (with a nod to the contretemps in 2008) and the Baltic States.

The Russians insist that their offers of cooperation, based on a joint system, have been rebuffed, but such an arrangement is anathema to NATO, with the obvious insistence that Russia would not have command-and-control over the defence of NATO territory. This issue and the continuing evolvement of US EPAA assets and their integration into a NATO BMD system, will be discussed at length at the forthcoming 2012 RUSI Missile Defence Conference on 30-31 May. Tangible co-operation would require a consensus on threat assessments, clarification on command-and-control issues and technical co-operation. The limited sharing of classified data as part of a defence technical co-operation agreement has recently been alluded to by the Obama Administration in yet another effort to temper Russian intransigency. This is a thorny issue which would require placating a wary and partisan Congress, with certain members opposed to providing information such as the burnout velocity of SM-3 interceptors, an integral component of the NATO system.

Practical and meaningful cooperation is possible if Russia cedes from viewing NATO and 'the West' in an adversarial light, but this would require a major attitudinal change in the present leadership.  

The recent announcement that the Russian Ministry of Defence is to hold an international BMD conference prior to the NATO Chicago Summit is evidence of Russia's continued unease over NATO's BMD architecture. The conference, being a pre-emptive move to steal NATO's thunder, will no doubt provide an opportunity to foment domestic public opinion against a NATO system as well as ramp up the rhetoric regarding proposed Russian capabilities (but remaining light on detailed technical specifics). It is likely to be the first shot in a diplomatic barrage in May that will also see Putin, after being sworn in for a third Presidential term, heading assertively and confidently to the G8 Summit at Camp David. The fact that the G8 gathering  is not in Chicago is a deft ploy by the Obama administration, making it easier for Putin's non-attendance at the NATO Summit and for him to save face with NATO's intent to declare an interim missile defence capability during that time.

Looking ahead post-Chicago, low-level cooperation activities such as simulated joint exercises will become infrequent or cease but Russia will later respond with further proposals (mainly to resume the postponed co-operative programmes). Russia will continue to insist that it wants to cooperate with missile defence dialogues as disconnection is commensurate with losing influence. Ultimately, Russia under the current leadership is politically interested in talks about co-operation rather than actual co-operation itself.




[1]'Russia and the Changing World', Vladimir Putin, The Moscow News, 27 February 2012

[2] 'Strategicheskiy podkhod' ('Strategic approach') Aleksey Mikhalev, Lenta.Ru, 7 February 2012

[3] Ibid.

[4] 'United States European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) and NATO Missile Defense, US Department of State Fact Sheet, 3 May 2011


Avnish Patel

Research Event Officer

View profile

Explore our related content