Moscow's Siege Mentality
- By Alexander Golts
- Feb. 12 2008 00:00
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In one of the key passages from his speech, Putin said, "We are seeing a new round of the arms race. ... The more developed countries have technological superiority and are spending billions of dollars on the development of next-generation defensive and offensive systems."
The problem is that an arms race requires at least two participants. Such a race to build ever more destructive weapons was waged in the second half of the last century. The United States built the first atomic bomb in 1945, and Soviet scientists followed in 1947. The Soviet Union and the United States tested their first nuclear bombs almost simultaneously in 1949. The Soviets staged the first test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile in 1957, with the United States matching the feat two years later. As the two countries continued to threaten each other, they raced to be the first to build nuclear-powered submarines and, later, multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles, or MIRVs. All of this constituted the arms race.
At the same time, neither side hid its suspicion that the other was planning a nuclear first strike, and each declared that the only way to stave off such a catastrophe was to convince the "potential aggressor" that such a move would result in a counterstrike causing "unacceptable damages." In this way, the United States and the Soviet Union competed in developing one new weapons system after another.
The current situation is different, however. Lacking a military opponent that needs to be kept in check by the threat of annihilation, the United States has instead focused its efforts on creating cutting-edge military technologies designed to counter foreseeable future threats.
Although Washington does not currently view Russia as a military threat, U.S. National Director of Intelligence Michael McConnell included Russia in its Annual Threat Assessment report, which he presented to Congress on Feb. 5. But the focus of this report was Russia's financial -- and not military -- influence to achieve political goals that might pose a threat to U.S. interests.
A new confrontation with the West is impossible. The ideological component that served as the basis for the U.S.-Soviet confrontation is now absent. Moreover, all of Russia's recent prosperity is based on its ability to sell oil, natural gas and metals to the West. Thus, any attempt by the Kremlin to inflict damage on the West would cause enormous harm to Russia. In addition, most of the money in the country's stabilization fund and Central Bank -- as well the riches of its business and political elite -- are held in the "aggressor's" currency.
More important, Russia lacks the resources to fund a new arms race. With its military budget one-twentieth the size of the United States', the Kremlin understands that it simply cannot afford to spend all of its resources on a new arms race.
Then why is the president speaking of an arms race when nobody is planning to compete with him? Why does he persistently return to the language of the Cold War when there is no basis for this?
In my opinion, there are two reasons. First, Putin wants to convince the world that Russia is seriously concerned that the West wants to take its rich oil resources by force. Thus, the goal is to convince the West of Russia's military inadequacy. This, in turn, would necessarily entail a greater reliance on its nuclear weapons, thereby making them once again an important factor in international relations. Second, Putin wants to convince Russians that they are living in a sieged fortress in order to justify the rapid shift toward authoritarianism.
But one very important question naturally emerges: How does Putin plan to build an innovative economy when Russia is so heavily burdened by its acute siege mentality?
Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.