Over the past week the Western media have been energetically discussing the first publication of an image of the Sarmat intercontinental missile (in the West it has been dubbed the Satan 2), which is due to enter the armory of the Strategic Missile Troops in 2018. Practically all the media pointed to the new missile’s capability for destroying within a few seconds a country the size of France or the eastern part of the United States, as well as reaching any point in the world by an unpredictable route. This was the background against which the Valday Club forum was held in Sochi, addressed, in accordance with tradition, by Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
While the speech was in preparation a source told Bloomberg about the Russian president’s sharp interruption of tough anti-American remarks by the military at a conference. Experts started talking about a new kind of Cold War between Russia and the West and the elites’ fear of an uncontrollable increase in escalation up to and including a hot war scenario.
On 25 October the British newspapers published reports of the unveiling in Russia of the first image of the new Sarmat intercontinental missile (Satan 2), which is supposed to replace the obsolete Satan (Voyevoda in the Russian classification). «Putin’s ‘Satan’ would wipe out America’s East Coast in minutes should World War III break out, experts warn,» the British newspaper The Sun reported. On the following day similarly alarmist items appeared in the French press. «The Russian authorities have presented the new Satan 2 missile, capable of wiping out an entire country the size of France in seconds,» the French TV channel BFMTV reported. This is the first time for many years that such a pronounced information wave has swept through the Western media, emphasizing Russia’s exclusive capability of, to put it crudely, «wiping out half the world.» It is also one of the first pronounced indications of the growing fear among Western elites in the face of Russia’s unpredictability.
Recently people have been talking increasingly frequently about a «Cold War» by analogy with the period of the second half of last year [as published; context suggests «last century»]. However, experts simultaneously point out that the present situation is much more dangerous and uncontrollable. During the Cold War period there were generally understood rules of the game and «red lines» based on the principle of mutual assured destruction. However, a peculiarity of the present situation is the new mentality of the opposing sides. The Kremlin admits the existence of the threat of a preventive US strike within the framework of the concept of a «Prompt Global Strike» by precision nonnuclear weapons against Russia’s nuclear facilities (even though experts say that this possibility will emerge only hypothetically and no sooner than in 15-20 years’ time). Furthermore Russia has long made no secret of the fact that the secession of the United States from the ABM Treaty in 2002 and the country’s long term plans for the realization of a «nuclear umbrella» constitute a direct threat to Russia’s security.
However, whereas in Russia admissions and fears of this kind have been present throughout recent decades (in Putin’s time they have become mainstream), in the United States the «Russia problem» has become acute only now, in the context of the geopolitical crisis of 2014-2016, and particularly following the breakdown of the agreements on Syria. For the first time in many years commentators have started talking about the possibility of the «Cold War» developing into a «hot» war, and not so much through the intentions of the sides as through the loss of control over the situation. «Russian and foreign experts have expressed serious concern that the two nuclear superpowers could inadvertently reach the point of a ‘hot’ conflict,» Vedomosti newspaper wrote. The key word here is «inadvertently» — testifying to the total failure of both the elites and the expert communities to understand the paths of development of a possible conflict and acknowledge its impossibility, on the one hand, but the irrational possibility of its emerging out of nowhere, on the other.
What lies at the basis of this is the West’s evident lack of understanding of Russia. Whereas Moscow’s position was always more or less transparent (in relation to missile defense, NATO expansion, and so forth), the West has always left Russia’s role on the periphery, recognizing only its regional significance in individual conflicts and not regarding the Kremlin’s military strategy as a factor in the disruption of the strategic balance. But now the very fact of the unpredictability and lack of understanding of Putin’s «limits» (what else might he be capable of?) is generating a largely irrational fear of some kind of hypothetical moves that the Kremlin might resort to if it feels cornered.
Perhaps that is why the publication of the first photograph of the Sarmat intercontinental missile led to an extremely emotional reaction by the Western media. Even though no substantive news corresponding to that level of alarmism had emerged. The instruction to begin the development of the new Sarmat missile was issued in 2010 (although sketches of the missile were actually published in the 2000s, but only at a theoretical level). At that time it was planned that the first tests would begin in 2016. In August this year there were firing tests of the first-stage engine; flight-engineering tests will take place no earlier than the first quarter of 2017. In this context information about the development of the missile has been appearing in the media throughout the past five years, and this has never been a reason for heightened fears.
Furthermore the new missile is supposed to replace the obsolete Voyevoda (Satan) intercontinental ballistic missile, whose life span has been extended over many years. Moreover, that missile was manufactured in Ukraine (and technical servicing of Voyevoda missiles by Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye Design Bureau and Yuzhmashzavod was terminated in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea), and therefore the development of a more up-to-date Russian equivalent was understandable. The new missile, compared with its predecessor, is more accurate, faster, and holds 15 warheads instead of 10, the news agencies reported. Since the device, in the final section of its trajectory, does not fly on a ballistic trajectory (via the South or North Pole), its interception is practically impossible at the current stage of development of missile defense systems, the Russian military say. However, previously the Voyevoda was also dubbed the West’s «nightmare,» a missile capable of overcoming the missile defense system. So no conceptual change in the situation in the nuclear balance is taking place, and Russia is only trying to modernize its forces in case of the need to carry out a launch on warning and in the light of Washington’s further implementation of its plans for the deployment of the missile defense system.
In this context the emergence of the new missile is perceived not as a routine update but as an indication of the country’s preparation for war. Meanwhile Moscow is losing the information war in the Western media, and its invective aimed at the West, which it blames for the Ukrainian revolution and the activation of terrorism in the Middle East, appears unconvincing to Western audiences.
This was the atmosphere in which Putin’s speech at the Valday forum took place. Meanwhile the discussions are becoming both more routine and more moderated: According to Vedomosti‘s source, this year the communication did not look like a dialogue so much as a press conference by the president. The entire speech and the questions and answers were devoted exclusively to foreign policy issues. In this context a significant reduction in the level of expertise in Putin’s remarks and the preponderance of rigidly designated positions that have been repeated throughout recent years were notable. This reduces the interest in the Russian leader’s remarks and encourages the perception of his words as extremely rigid and not open to debate.
In this connection the main news from the forum was not Putin’s remarks but a Bloomberg report: Citing its own sources, the agency reported that a high-ranking Russian official, on condition of anonymity, told the club about a government session at which president Vladimir Putin mentioned an extremely risky incident when Russian military aircraft flew alongside a US Navy ship in the Black Sea. When some of the participants in the session allowed themselves to express satisfaction, speaking in the spirit of «serves them right,» Putin interrupted them with the question: «Have you gone crazy, or what?»
It followed from this that the Russian leader is distancing himself from his own «hawks,» condemning the escalation of the situation and the game of nerves, and seeking a relaxation of the situation in relations with the West. However, the very fact that this story appeared was perceived with distrust: as an attempt by the Kremlin to adjust Putin’s image in the eyes of the West by demonstrating the existence of different viewpoints within the system of governance of Russia as well as Putin’s moderation compared with some of his military entourage. Some people were inclined to interpret this as a positive signal indicating the Kremlin’s concern at the demonization of the president’s image. Other commentators reacted rather negatively, taking the view that artificial «leaks» like this are only part of the information manipulation process and do nothing to confirm greater or lesser «moderation» on Putin’s part, since practically nothing is done in the country without the personal involvement of the president, particularly on foreign policy issues.
At the same time, immediately after Vladimir Putin’s speech a wave swept through the media and the social networks concerning the possible onset of a «thaw.» Commentators lumped together several significant statements that had appeared at the same time. Apart from the leaks about Putin’s comment to the military, another such «signal» was perceived in the clear distancing of the president from the well-known remarks by Vesti anchor Dmitriy Kiselev, who in 2014 reminded the United States of Russia’s capability to turn the country into «radioactive ash.» «Rattling nuclear weapons is the very last thing. I do not welcome this,» Putin responded.
The president’s Press Secretary Dmitriy Peskov also stated that Putin regards the resumption of airstrikes by the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces in Aleppo as not expedient despite the General Staff’s request for permission to do this. Strategic decisions on the course of the operation in Syria will be made by Putin, while operational leadership lies with the General Staff. The Kremlin spokesman noted that «decisions on further operations will be made depending on the state of affairs.» According to him, whether they will be announced beforehand or not will depend on the expediency of such a preliminary announcement. Asked how long the president of the Russian Federation is prepared to wait before starting bombing the terrorists in the Aleppo region again, Peskov admitted: «I cannot give you a precise answer to that question.»
The peaceable background was objectively reinforced by domestic political signals. In particular, by Dmitriy Peskov’s words calling on the Surgeon [Khirurg; Aleksandr Zaldostanov, leader of biker activist group the Night Wolves] to apologize to Konstantin Raykin, artistic director of the Satirikon theater [Zaldostanov had made remarks attacking Raykin after the latter complained of «censorship»]. Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko spoke about the danger of «tightening the screws» and the need to conduct dialogue with all groups within society: not only the opposition within the system, but also «small groups.» She also mentioned the Yarovaya Law [on counterterrorism measures], expressing regret that its adoption took place without the necessary level of expert debate. Sberbank chief German Gref described as pseudo-patriots those who say that everything is fine in Russia already and there is no need to change anything: «Real patriots are those people who are trying all the time to work very hard on themselves, on their business, on their institutions, in order to be in line with and even somewhat ahead of the times.»
At the same time, the domestic political signals were accompanied by actions demonstrating the absence of consensus within the power elite over the possibility of even verbal liberalization. Thus, the Surgeon refused to apologize (this is an unprecedented response by a loyalist to a statement by the president’s press secretary) and Ramzan Kadyrov came out in support of him, sharply condemning Raykin’s work.
The «peaceable» and «liberalizational» signals can hardly be an integrated Kremlin «plan» for softening attitudes toward Russia. However, the collection of statements that have been uttered may indicate two important points. First, the authorities’ understanding of the danger of endlessly stepping up the «nuclear rhetoric» and «saber rattling.» Second, the elites’ tiredness with aggression emanating not so much from the authorities themselves as from their narrow corporate representatives (the military, the special services) or pro-regime groups of «conservatives.» This is not a factor promoting a «thaw,» but rather a factor restraining the further toughening of the regime. At the same time, there is no sign of any special optimism with regard to possible liberalization (first and foremost of the economy, which is difficult without political relaxation), as was demonstrated by the attitude toward Aleksey Kudrin’s speech at the Valday forum: Despite Kudrin’s active involvement in formulating the economic strategy he continues to be perceived as an expert and not as an ideologist of the new economic course who is part and parcel of the regime. In this case the audience was interested not so much in the reformist potential of the liberal section of the elite (which has basically become technical) as in the limits to the expansion of the «conservatives.»
For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia has begun to be perceived to a certain extent as a country that possesses sufficient ambition and potential to constitute a threat, however hypothetical, to the West. Whereas hitherto on questions of the management of global risks Russia has been treated as a limited partner, albeit one capable of unpredictable but relatively harmless steps, now Russia’s unpredictability and its «militarized» nature are presenting a different perspective on the question of whether it is a local or global threat. And even calls for cooperation not infrequently, though not always, fit into the format of restraining it (if you do not hold out a hand to Russia, the aggression will grow). The fear of global conflict is ceasing to be exclusively Russian, and that is the main peculiarity of the current period.