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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Missing the Nuke Deadline

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Russia's political set-up is such that once or twice a year the people get to hear the president's thoughts regarding pressing foreign and domestic policy problems. One such occasion, this year's meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, produced something like a sensation, as Putin hinted that Russia did not need its status as a nuclear superpower.

If Putin was understood correctly, then this is a serious change of political direction. Until recently, his speeches made it obvious that maintaining nuclear parity with the United States was a crucial part of Russian policy.

The change, of course, obviously caught off guard members of the military-industrial commission at a meeting last week, in the wake of the unsuccessful test of a Bulava sea missile. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov's words seemed to contain a hidden threat: "At the meeting I held this summer ... I expressed concern about the way work is going. The Bulava tests held yesterday showed that we have to take measures in a number of areas to guarantee that these submarines are built on time." Nobody with any Soviet background needed to be told what the euphemism "take measures" meant -- in the best-case scenario, they would lose their jobs.

Ivanov was also seething because the unsuccessful fifth test of the rocket put top officials in a quandary. Both he and Putin have repeatedly made mention of the Bulava missile, which they say should guarantee continued nuclear parity with the United States -- and therefore superpower status -- when it comes into service.

The Kremlin sees maintaining parity and the ability to inflict unacceptable losses on the United States at the top of its agenda in security and foreign policy. Not because Moscow sees a serious possibility of war with the United States, still less of nuclear war. The leadership is just certain that a nuclear potential comparable to the United States' will secure the country its proper place in the international arena.

But the problem is that Russia's nuclear weapons are rapidly aging. Even today, its heavy rockets with nuclear warheads have already been in service for twice as long as originally intended. Replacing these old rockets is too expensive. The armed forces can purchase at most six or seven new Topol-M missiles per year. This means that every year one new missile regiment can come into service, while a whole division has to be dissolved. It is also noteworthy that the missiles being decommissioned can carry 10 or 12 warheads, while the Topol-M can only carry three. Thus, by the end of 2011, Russia will be unable to maintain the 1,700 to 2,000 warheads allowed under the Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions, the same number as the United States will also have at that point.

Therefore, as usual, the leaders have believed anyone who promised a miracle. After three consecutive unsuccessful tests of the Bark sea-based missile, the director of the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology, Yury Solomonov, took on the hurried creation of a unified sea- and land-based missile on the Topol-M platform. To reduce the missile's development time, they decided to skip on-land testing and go straight to launches from submarines. Initially, the risk looked justified, as the first four of a planned series of 10 tests were successful. Solomonov told journalists that Russia would have a strategic potential of 2,000 nuclear weapons in 2011. The unsuccessful Bulava test changed this. Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Moskovsky said in June that the fifth test would "take place under difficult conditions." As it turned out, the conditions were too difficult for the Bulava. There was no miracle and the test delays will cause even greater problems.

The Bulava has already missed Ivanov's deadline. The construction of the nuclear submarine Yury Dolgoruky has been under way in Severodvinsk for 10 years. It was originally designed to carry Bark missiles, which were roughly three times the size of the Bulava. The submarine was altered for the Bulava before the missile was even available. Since the submarine is to enter service in 2007, it and two other submarines in the same class will be left without weapons. Billions of dollars -- half of which were spent on missiles -- have gone down the drain.

It is possible that Putin's statements were the result of the unsuccessful Bulava test. However, the day after his meeting with the Western experts, Ivanov told the president about a successful rocket launch from under the ice in the Arctic Circle by the submarine Yekaterinbug. The message: The country's nuclear missile force is still strong.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.