Medvedev’s Statement on Missile Defense Might Postpone Russia Dialogue Until 2013

Nikolai Sokov
December 2, 2011

Medvedev's Statement on Missile Defense: Voronezh DM Radar from the back

Voronezh DM Radar from the back,
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dmitry Medvedev’s November 23, 2011, statement on military response to planned U.S. and NATO missile defense system sounds more threatening than it actually is. While on the surface it threatens an arms race, in fact it seems to be a declaration that Moscow withdraws from a serious dialogue until after U.S. presidential elections, i.e., until 2013. The statement appears to be setting the stage for negotiations — or a deadlock — with the next administration, whether Democratic or Republican.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev tried to make news recently by announcing a set of measures to counter planned U.S. missile defense deployments in Europe. (1) Medvedev complained on November 23, 2011, that a promise of U.S. and NATO cooperation on missile defense cooperation with Russia had not materialized, and the United States was moving ahead with destabilizing deployments while refusing to give Russia a necessary legally binding commitment that the future system would not undermine its deterrence capability.

The statement failed to generate much of an international response and the main target, the Obama administration, indicated that the White House would not change its position on either the missile defense system or on the dialogue with Russia. (2) Indeed, Moscow itself immediately sought to tone down the confrontational tone: Russian Deputy Minister of Defense, AnatoliAntonov (former chief Russian negotiator for the 2010 New START Treaty) explained that Russia was not starting a new arms race. (3)

The Statement

The list of measures announced by Medvedev appears to be a haphazard collection of programs that the Russian military has already been implementing or has wanted to undertake for a long time:

  • Medvedev ordered the military to commission, as soon as possible, a new early warning radar in Kaliningrad Oblast, an exclave of Russian territory between Poland and Lithuania. That radar, which belongs to a new type, Voronezh-DM, has actually been operating for more than a year in “test mode”—meaning that the finished system was being tested and fine-tuned. According to some reports, it was supposed to be fully commissioned just prior to Medvedev’s statement, but the procedure was postponed so the president could go to Kaliningrad on November 29 to commission it himself. (4) The radar is part of a long-term plan to restore the network of early warning radars that collapsed after the breakup of the Soviet Union. This is the third radar installation (the first two were built in Leningrad Oblast and Krasnodar Oblast) and more are foreseen. The radar in Kaliningrad would have been constructed even if Russia and the United States had reached an agreement on missile defense: the two issues are simply unrelated.
  • Medvedev promised to strengthen the defense of Russian strategic forces (presumably from air and missile strikes). Once again, there is nothing new in this supposed threat; the Russian military have been concerned for some time about U.S. capability to take out Russian strategic weapons using advanced conventional assets (the accuracy of that perception is a different matter). The newly created Airspace Defense Troops will have the defense of strategic assets as part of their mission. The main challenge is producing air and missile defense systems that would support that mission. Only days before Medvedev’s statement, the Ministry of Defense announced it had signed contracts to begin construction of two plants that would produce S-400 and the future S-500 systems. (5) Once again, Medvedev’s statement mentions a program started long before and would continue regardless of whether any progress is achieved on missile defense issues with the United States and NATO.
  • Strategic missiles, both land- and sea-based, will be equipped with advanced defense penetration warheads. Unlike the previous two points, this one directly addresses the presumed capability of the future U.S. and NATO missile defense to undermine Russian deterrence capability; the new warhead is supposed to be able to penetrate that defense ensuring that the strategic balance would remain intact. However, this promise is not new either: according to publicly available information, the first full-scale test of the maneuvering warhead “Igla” was conducted in 2005; (6) and R&D on the system began at least in the late 1990s.There have been multiple reports that the new ICBM system Yars, whose deployment began in 2010, and the new SLBM Bulava will carry these warheads. (7) Thus, this program has no relationship to the failure of negotiations on missile defense in 2011 and will, in all likelihood, continue whether the future negotiations succeed or fail.
  • Medvedev declared that Russian Armed Forces would develop the capability to destroy the command and control systems for missile defense. Precise details of what this means are unknown, but many have interpreted this mean cyber warfare. Another possible interpretation (not necessarily ruling out the first one) is that Moscow will add command and control centers associated with missile defense to the list of targets in Europe and the United States. Ever since 2000,Russia’s Military Doctrine provided for strikes (including nuclear strikes) against U.S. and NATO command, control and communication centers in response to an attack. (8) The 2010 Military Doctrine retained that strategy, although it tightened conditions for the use of nuclear weapons. (9) Thus, expansion of the targets list if the missile defense system is deployed on the scale and with capabilities Russia considers dangerous was only to be expected under the present strategy.
  • “If the above-mentioned measures would be insufficient,” said Medvedev, Russia would deploy short-range Iskander missiles capable of striking missile defense sites “in the West and in the South of Russia,” including in Kaliningrad Oblast. This statement appears to be a return to the policy Medvedev himself announced in 2008 when he warned that if the Bush administration proceeded with deployment of missile defense interceptors in Poland then Russia would deploy Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad Oblast. (10) After the Obama administration cancelled earlier plans and announced the Phased Adaptive Approach to missile defense, Moscow withdrew its threat about Iskanders, but with visible reluctance. It seemed reasonably clear that the linkage between missile defense and the new short-range missiles was at least in part artificial and served primarily to justify the planned deployment. (11) Instead, these missiles had to be deployed in the main Russian territory, although still in the vicinity of the Baltic states. Since the reach of these assets from the new location is smaller, the cancellation was clearly a defeat for the Russian military. Now the same old plan appears to be back and under the same pretext.
  • Deployment of Iskanders appears to fit perfectly with the decade-old policy of developing long-range conventional precision-strike strike assets to provide the Russian military with the same war fighting options U.S. military has had for two decades and to reduce eventually reliance on nuclear weapons. Development of long-range air- and sea-launched conventional cruise missiles falls into the same category. That mission of Iskanders goes far beyond Europe; only a few months ago, a member of the Public Council of the Ministry of Defense, Igor Korotchenko (who often says things the military is reluctant to admit publicly), disclosed that in the future Iskanders might be deployed in the South of Russia in the vicinity of Georgia. (12) Other Russian experts suggested as possible deployment areas other southern regions (to deter states to the South of Russia, such as Afghanistan) and the Far East (vis-à-vis China and Japan). (13) The Ministry of Defense announced the plan to acquire 120 Iskander launchers by 2020 (14) — only a share of them will apparently be deployed in the West of Russia.

It is also important to note what was not in Medvedev’s statement — the threat to withdraw from the INF Treaty and to deploy longer-range missiles. In fact, Dimtri Rogozin, the permanent representative of Russia to NATO, stated that no such plans existed. (15) That would have been a genuine threat and could have given Russia capability to destroy all missile defense assets in Europe; in the past, Russian officials have more than once raised the specter of withdrawal from the INF Treaty. Yet, this potentially most powerful threat was not invoked. Instead, Medvedev listed policies that had been underway for years, indirectly proving that the intent of his statement was political rather than military.

Intent behind the Statement

If the Russian “response” to the failure to reach an accommodation on U.S. missile defense plans is not really a response, but a restatement of some defense programs already underway, then why was this statement made at all? Several levels of explanation are possible, although the most obvious ones are probably not correct.

The first and the most straightforward one is that the statement was simply intended to demonstrate displeasure with the absence of progress. For that, however, one did not need to make such a high-profile, public statement, especially since it seems to close the page on generally positive relations that have been established with the Obama administration.

The statement might also be a calculated move to justify the military modernization programs that are already underway. If Moscow “sells” them as a response to U.S. and NATO policies, there is smaller chance that Russia will be criticized for creating an arms race. Since most of the programs listed in Medvedev’s statement are scheduled to enter the phase of large-scale production and deployment in the next one or two years, it would only make sense to start the public relations campaign now.

Another explanation, which many rushed to promote, is electoral politics. In December, Russia holds elections for the State Duma, the lower house of the parliament, and in the spring presidential elections. Indeed,maintaining a hard line in foreign policy has been one of Vladimir Putin’s favorite election techniques. Yet, it hardly adds much to the existing political lineup; although the ruling party, United Russia, appears to be losing popularity, there is no serious opposition to speak of while Putin’s own election is assured. Moreover, the tough statement was made, for a change, by the outgoing president, Vladimir Medvedev.

Another reason why domestic politics might not be the main motive is the simple fact that the statement was primarily oriented toward external audience. Similar, if usually less detailed, statements had been made for domestic audience many times before.

Yet another possibility that appears too remote to justify a major policy statement is a plan to give Putin an opportunity to demonstrate flexibility and readiness to cooperate at a later date, after the presidential election, if needed. On the other hand, the plan is too complicated and, in truth, there was no need to up the ante—Putin has the reputation of being a hardliner and he does not need a hardline policy established by his predecessor to shock the world with flexibility.

Thus, the most likely explanation is that Russia has used this statement to announce a pause in negotiations with the West on security issues. This is not a short-term “game.” Rather, it is a culmination of a trend that has been observable throughout 2011 and started perhaps even somewhat earlier. Moscow has stonewalled for more than a year and has now declared for everyone to see that it will not engage in substantive negotiations until after the presidential election in the United States. Since the next administration will need some time to develop a policy, the pause will continue until well into 2013—sooner if Barak Obama is reelected and somewhat later if a Republican candidate wins the White House.

There are reasons why Moscow has not engaged in a serious dialogue in 2011 and apparently does not intend to engage in it next year. The most obvious reason is that one does not negotiate with the United States in an election year — everyone is too busy with the campaign and no one wants to appear too “soft” in international politics. More importantly, the ratification of New START in the end of 2010 apparently convinced Moscow that negotiating with the Obama administration on arms control is largely pointless. While Barak Obama is still regarded in Moscow as someone with whom one can negotiate and strike a deal, the New START ratification process has also demonstrated to the Russians that Obama would not be able to push a future deal through Congress. For the Russian leadership, it simply does not make sense to make concessions, which are a necessary ingredient of any new agreement, if Republicans would torpedo that agreement. Russian officials and analysts have concluded that Republicans display an attitude of “my way or the highway” or, as the same concept is expressed in Russian, “there can be only two points of view: one is mine, the other is wrong.”

If compromises on nuclear arms reductions and missile defense are impossible, a hardening of positions only makes sense. If Obama returns to the White House, his position might be stronger than today and Moscow would be prepared to make concessions to reach an acceptable compromise on missile defense and a range of other issues. If a Republican wins next year, then perhaps he will be more pragmatic in his foreign policy than his party is today.

Either way, it does not hurt to up the ante. If in 2013 Washington is in the mood to negotiate, it would be to Moscow’s advantage to start bargaining from a stronger position, which is standard negotiating practice. Medvedev’s statement, in spite of the harshness of its tone, left the door to negotiations open. If in 2013 the administration in power still does not want to — or cannot — negotiate, Moscow’s position is no worse than today.

It appears that this is not a new policy. Instead, it has informed Russian approach to arms control for more than a year. Russian officials have expressed in repeated statements the view that before starting negotiations on a new arms control treaty it is necessary to see how New START is being implemented. The same attitude can be detected in Russian insistence that any discussion of reducing or regulating tactical nuclear weapons — something that the United States appears to desire quite strongly — be preceded by unilateral withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe; Russian officials expect this issue to be resolved in a package with a range of other issues of concern to Moscow, such as missile defense or conventional strategic weapons. Moscow has been cool even to the most modest suggestions of confidence building measures.

Every statement, every move has signaled that the Kremlin doubts the credibility of the Obama administration’s ability to strike a deal. Now that election year is approaching, any hope for serious bargaining has evaporated, and Medvedev has plainly said so.

Thus, there is no need for an immediate response to his recent statement. In terms of substance, it appears empty. The message is not in its words or in the threats. Rather, it’s a move designed to lay the ground for 2013. This is when a real game might begin.

(1) “Zayavlenieprezidenta v svyazi s situatsiei, kotorayaslozhilasvokrugsistemy PRO stran NATO v Evrope” (Statement of the President with Respect to the Situation that has Emerged Around the Missile Defense System of NATO Countries in Europe), November 23, 2011,
(2) David Herszenhorn, “Russia Elevates Warning About U.S. Missile-Defense Plan in Europe,” New York Times, November 23, 2011,
(3) “Rossiya ne nachinaetgonkuvooruzhenii, zayavilzamministraoborony” (Russia Does Not Launch an Arms Race, Says Deputy Minister of Defense), RIA-Novosti, November 25, 2011,
(4) ElizavetaSurnacheva, “Boevoepoliticheskoepreduprezhdenie” (A Combative Political Warning), Gazeta.Ru, November 29, 2011,; “RLSprotivugrozy PRO” (Radar Against the Threat of Missile Defense), Interfax, November 29, 2011,
(5) “ZavodyposozdaniyunoveishikhZRK S-500 planiruetsyapostroitzadvagoda” (Plants for Production of the Latest Generation S-500 Air Defense Complexes Will be Built in Two Years), RIA-Novosti, November 17, 2000,
(6) Nikolai Sokov, “The Future Shape of Russian ICBM Force Clarified,” CNS Research Story, November 9, 2005,
(7) For details see PavelPodvig’s blog at
(8) Nikolai Sokov, “Russian Ministry of Defense’s New Policy Paper: The Nuclear Angle,” CNS Report, October 10, 2003,
(9) Nikolai Sokov, “The New, 2010 Russian Military Doctrine: The Nuclear Angle,” CNS Feature Story, February 5, 2010,
(10) “Russia to Move Missiles to Baltic,” BBC News, November 5, 2008,
(11) Nikolai Sokov, “A Second Sighting of Russian Tactical Nukes in Kaliningrad,” CNS Feature Story, February 15, 2011,
(12) “Rossiyamozhetrazmestitraketnyekompleksy v Abkhazii i YuzhnoiOsetii” (Russia Might Deploy Missile Complexes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia), RIA-Novosti, September 22, 2011,
(13) “Iskanderynauchilirabotat v stroyu” (“Iskanders” Can Now Work as a Team), Izvestiya, September 25, 2011,
(14) “MinoboronyRFzakupit do 120 raketnyihkompleksov ‘Iskander'” (The Russian Ministry of Defense Will Purchase up to 120 Missile Complexes “Iskander”), RIA-Novosti, August 1, 2011,
(15) “Rossiya ne vyidetizDogovora o likvidatsiiRSMD, zayavilRogozin” (Russia Will Not Withdraw from the INF Treaty, Declared Rogozin), RIA-Novosti, November 23, 2011,

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