Monday, December 29, 2008

During this Christmas season most people wish for peace on Earth and goodwill for their fellow man, but not the rulers of Russia.

In a stream of reports from Moscow the leaders and their generals threaten war and boast of their growing military power. Their excuse is the imagined threat that the United States might launch a nuclear attack on Russia. This is paranoia if not outright madness.

Americans are worried about the recession, the security of their jobs and pensions, the decline of the stock market, falling home values and failing industries. There is concern about how to withdraw from Iraq, how to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan, how to face China and how to promote peace in the Middle East. Russia is way down the list of concerns. In fact, few Americans are thinking of Russia at all.

But Russia’s leaders accuse us of trying to surround and control them. Especially outspoken has been the commander of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Force, Col. Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov. In a stream of press releases and appearances the general described what he called “the U.S. concept of an uncontested nuclear first strike” to destroy all Russian strategic missiles and prevent a counterstrike.

“The Americans will never manage to implement this scenario,” the general boasted, because Russia’s rocket forces need only two or three minutes to launch their nuclear missiles at the United States. His Topol-M mobile missiles, he added, are kept ready for launch on a daily basis and will survive an American attack. What’s more, he said, the maneuverable warheads on Russia’s new RS-24 multiple warhead missile will penetrate all U.S. missile defenses.

The United States is building no new strategic missiles, making do with an aging arsenal of missiles and nuclear warheads that are beginning to lose their reliability, but Moscow is producing a whole new family of strategic missiles. These include silo-based and road-mobile Topols, the new RS-24, and the Bulava submarine-launched missile that was flight-tested twice in the last month.

Just days before Christmas Gen. Solovtsov was still sounding off, telling Pravda that Russia was extending the service life of its remaining SS-18 strategic missiles from 20 to 30 years. The most powerful missile in the world, the 10-warhead SS-18 forms the backbone of Russia’s strategic forces. Pravda reports that not only are the remaining SS-18s to be extended in service, but Russia is working on a new heavy strategic missile similar to the SS-18. Moscow has scheduled 13 missile flight tests in 2009, nearly double the seven conducted in 2008.

The general said a new unit of Topol-M missiles is to be in place on Christmas Eve, new RS-24s will be fielded in December 2009, and by 2015-20 Russia will have all new missiles with improved capabilities. In a separate statement, Gen. Petr Deinekin, former Russian Air Force commander, said Russia could strike the planned American missile defenses in Europe with long-range X-55 cruise missiles launched by Russian bombers. This follows President Dmitry Medvedev’s threat to hit the missile defenses with Iskander short-range missiles from Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave.

Then just before Christmas Russian and Iranian press reports claimed Moscow was selling S-300 advanced air-defense missiles to both Iran and Syria, after months of denying such sales. Senior Israeli officials traveled to Moscow to try to prevent such a sale, but the Russian leadership apparently came down on the side of Iran. This top-line air and missile defense system will make it much more difficult and dangerous for aircraft to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The bellicose statements of Russian generals are intended to create fear in Europe and advance the effort to split the United States and its allies on the expansion of NATO and the deployment of missile defenses. Moscow is having some success. The European Union has resumed talks with Russia on a new partnership agreement, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy said missile defenses “would bring nothing to security in Europe.”

The madness in Moscow is actually a plan by once and future President Vladimir Putin to use the fear of Russian nuclear power to restore the Soviet empire and get the United States out of what he considers Russia’s sphere of influence. But the sharp drop in the price of oil is complicating Mr. Putin’s plan. President-elect Barack Obama should keep that in mind and stay the course on missile defenses in Europe and the expansion of NATO.

James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times based in Carlsbad, Calif.

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