A new Cold War

Both the US and Russia have been developing a range of new weapons over the past decade and a half — recent developments have prompted the Russians to highlight their “achievements”.

 Cold War, Russia, US, retaliatory strikes, new capabilities, nuclear arsenal, global missile defence, Manoj Joshi

Soviet military hour-clock — [Representational image]

A new and dangerous phase of the Cold War is building up between the United States and Russia, featuring a new generation of strategic weapons. Last week, President Vladimir Putin unveiled a number of new weapons which, he said, was necessitated by the things the US had been doing for the past two decades that had been impacting negatively on Russian security.

Both the US and Russia (and China) have been developing a range of new weapons over the past decade and a half. But several recent developments have prompted the Russians to highlight their “achievements”. First among these is the Trump administrations new National Security Strategy announced in December 2017 followed by a Nuclear Posture Review last month.


President Vladimir Putin unveiled a number of new weapons which, he said, was necessitated by the things the US had been doing for the past two decades that had been impacting negatively on Russian security.


The NSS has declared that “revisionist” China and Russia were now posing a threat to the United States security. The NPS, on the other hand, has detailed plans of developing new capabilities, in particular a new generation of low-yield nuclear weapons for a submarine launched ballistic missile and a new submarine launched cruise missile. Linked to this has been a new National Defense Strategy which says that the US military now had to equip itself to deal with Russia and China which posed a greater threat to the US than terrorism.

In July 2017, President Trump had called for a ten-fold increase in the US nuclear arsenal creating a sensation among the senior military staffers. At present Russia has some 4,300 weapons as against 4,000 of the US, China has just 270.

To an extent the tone and tenor of Putin’s annual state address last week was dictated by the fact that he faces a Presidential election soon. There is no question that he will win, but what he wants is a high turnout as a signal of public acclaim for his policies. So, the tough-talking speech was accompanied by dramatic graphics showing what the systems could do.

Incidentally, both China and India found favourable mention in the speech when Putin reiterated the “comprehensive strategic partnership” with China and the Russian-Indian “special privileged strategic relationship.”

In essence all the new and exotic systems were aimed at defeating what Putin said was a growing American global missile defence system. In addition to simple and inexpensive decoys on existing missiles, there was an entirely new type of missile called the Sarmat which had a specially short boost phase and carried nuclear warheads on hypersonic vehicles. The second was a cruise missile powered by an innovative nuclear engine which gave it virtually limitless range and the ability to fly in an unpredictable trajectory. This weapon had completed its trials and was ready to for the development phase. A third, new and unique system, was an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), also powered by a nuclear engine, that could attack harbours, ships at sea or infrastructure and also possessed unlimited range.

In addition Putin amplified the Russian nuclear doctrine which he said would emphasise nuclear retaliation for any nuclear or WMD attack, or also any strike by conventional weapons “that threaten the very existence of the state.” This last point was aimed at a new generation of Prompt Global Strike systems being developed by the US. China and Russia worry that accurate non-nuclear missiles to take out their weapons and decapitate their command and control. Retaliatory strikes by surviving weapons could be picked off by BMD systems.

Many of these systems, American and Russian are still in the development phase. For example, the current American missile defence systems are all right for defence in war theatres, but cannot cope with Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles, but newer systems like the SM-3IIA based on Aegis destroyers could be deployed by the hundreds, beginning this year, and could be used against ICBMs. There are also technologies just over the horizon, such as lasers mounted on UAVs and so on.


Many of these systems, American and Russian are still in the development phase.


The principal Russian grievance is that when first Cold War ended, they were given verbal assurances that NATO would not expand eastwards in exchange for an acceptance that a reunited Germany could join the organisation. In 1999, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland joined NATO and in 2004, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania became members.

Far from being merely a political alliance, NATO revealed its teeth when it intervened in the Balkans conflict against Serbia, a historic ally of Russia. NATO was enabled to ride roughshod over Russian views because the country was down and out and faced economic collapse in the 1990s. The next step was the 2002 US withdrawal from the Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. In the old treaty, both the US and the Soviet Union were allowed to have one ABM site each, but as Putin noted in his speech, new systems have been installed in Alaska an California, two areas, one in Romania and one in Poland had been created in Europe and now new launch areas were established in Japan and South Korea. Further, the system involved some 35 warships that were deployed close to Russia. The US may argue that the systems are aimed at “rogue” regimes like North Korea or Iran, but the view from Russia is that they seek to undermine its deterrence capabilities.

The Russian pushback has resulted in its war against Georgia in 2008 and its seizure of Crimea and its hybrid war in western Ukraine in 2014. Russia argued that these instances was a defensive move aimed at the expansion of NATO to cover Georgia and Ukraine. The result has been western sanctions on Russia and a new Cold War which is now taking a dangerous turn.


This commentary originally appeared in Greater Kashmir.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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