«The Russian authorities have introduced a new missile, ‘Satan 2,’ which is capable of destroying a whole country the size of France within a few seconds,» the French television channel BFMTV warns, along with many other world mass media outlets. It seems that the attempt to intimidate the West with the «radioactive ash» into which Dmitriy Kiselev threatened to turn the United States in 2014 has finally worked: They have become afraid of Russia.
While Moscow continued, day after day, to talk about the most up-to-date missiles with no counterparts in the world that were capable of overcoming any missile defense system, the world scoffed at this. Not because such missiles cannot exist, but because, first, Russia continued to be perceived as a technologically backward country for which moving from words to action would take an extremely lengthy and expensive period of time.
Second, Russia was regarded as a country that had lost in the bloc confrontation of the second half of the 20th century and was retreating to the periphery of history, a vulnerable, deeply corrupt country with unjustified ambitions, a country that had to be listened to only occasionally, and even then, only mostly because of the acute discrepancy between Russia’s geopolitical role and its nuclear capabilities. It was customary to keep a watch over Russia as over a dying bonfire, so that the smoldering embers, which occasionally burst into flames, should not accidentally inflict damage on the environment.
Today, this situation has radically changed. We have to do with a new geopolitical reality about which only one thing is known — it only resembles the Cold War of the last century, but is actually something completely different. Russia, it seems, has begun to believe in the possibility of a preventive strike by the United States with non-nuclear, high-precision weapons capable of significantly weakening Russia’s nuclear potential. The Russian power elite, and indeed, the president himself, are convinced that the American missile defense project is, in the long-term, aimed at defending precisely against Russian intercontinental nuclear missiles, which upsets the balance and allows one of the sides to obtain an advantage in a theoretical nuclear war. Any nuclear security expert will tell you that nuclear parity has not gone anywhere, and that the principle of mutually assured destruction remains topical. But as soon as this parity ceases to exist in people’s heads, a new era arrives — an era of preparing for the worst possible scenarios, ones that had hitherto seemed incredible.
Until very recently, it was mostly the military and the special services — who, in Putin’s eyes, remain the only «sovereign» part of the elite that is difficult to suspect of sympathies for the West, but which can always be relied on — who believed in the «worst scenario» (and earned a little money from this). Now, judging by the Western press, even those who recently scoffed at Russia are beginning to believe in the «worst scenario»: Nowadays, British, French, and American publications are writing about what «Putin’s missiles» could wipe off the face of the earth, and how quickly.
These fears, like Kiselev’s «radioactive ash,» are just as irrational as Russia’s belief in America’s preparation for winning a nuclear war. Suffice it to look at the way that a small announcement on the official website of the Makeyev State Missile Center stating that, back in 2011, the enterprise had begun developing the Sarmat research and development project, which the West has dubbed «Satan 2,» became the cause of an information explosion. The news was accompanied by a photograph, which was indeed the cause of the sensational headlines — for the first time, Moscow had published the external form of the missile, which is already undergoing testing. For someone who is not informed about what is really happening, the Western mass media are creating an absolutely unambiguous impression: Putin is preparing for a war with the West, and his new weapon renders the world defenseless.
The missile is due to enter service in 2018; tests began in 2016 (the test firing of the first stage engine actually began in August) and flight development tests are due to begin no earlier than the first quarter of 2017. If the information being received is correct, the Strategic Missile Troops are going to receive the missile ahead of schedule (this was initially planned for 2020, but then development was accelerated). In the words of Deputy Defense Minister Yuriy Borisov, the new missile has no restrictions in the direction of combat use; it can destroy targets in trajectories passing through both poles of the planet, whereas NATO’s protective systems are not designed for this.
The West does not understand what to expect from a head of state who has «lost contact with reality» (a well-known phrase ascribed to Angela Merkel). Failure to understand always gives rise to irrational behavior and emotions that hinder a sober assessment of the situation. Sociopolitical fears, which to a certain degree reflect the dead-end nature of what is happening and the shortage of instruments for controlling the situation, bring to the fore the military, who, unlike the politicians, are always ready with recipes for «retaliatory actions.» The military began to exert a very powerful influence on state administration in Russia from 2014, when it was they who played the key role in the annexation of Crimea. The West is also beginning to increasingly listen to the military.
In NATO, the topic of Russia is becoming almost the main fuel for discussion. The Warsaw summit in July is seen as the alliance’s Renaissance: Twenty-five years after the collapse of the Warsaw Treaty Organization, it has begun to acquire a new raison d’etre — to contain Russia. At the summit at that time, a decision was adopted to station rapid deployment forces in Poland and the Baltic countries — four battalions with up to 1,000 servicemen in each. A British battalion will be based in Estonia, a Canadian battalion will be based in Latvia, a German battalion will be based in Lithuania, and an American battalion will be based in Poland. A whole division of foreign military personnel in the shape of the 5,000 servicemen of the high-readiness Spearhead Forces — 1,000 declared servicemen in a battalion under the command of the United States and another 4,000 soldiers in a separate American brigade — could appear in Poland. At that same time, Elissa Slotkin, a current adviser to the U.S. defense secretary on international security questions, said that the United States would deploy forces and resources equal to a division in Europe by the end of 2017. Finally, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg announced the transition of all elements of the missile defense system in Europe — these are the U.S. Navy ships based in Spain, the radars based in Turkey, and the intercept systems based in Romania — to the command of NATO. They agreed to discuss strengthening the alliance’s presence in the Black Sea. All this is also being discussed right now at a more detailed level in Brussels, at the level of defense ministers of the member countries of the alliance.
While NATO beefs up its presence in Europe, Moscow is sending Iskanders to Kaliningradskaya Oblast and [Russian Defense Minister] Sergey Shoygu is attempting to mobilize Russia’s post-Soviet military influence. How far are the two sides prepared to go? NATO declares that the alliance’s tactics are defense and dialog with Russia. But no dialog is even foreseen, and in the hierarchy of threats at the practical level, Russia is seen as more dangerous than Islamic radicalism. This is probably why, under the pressure of NATO, Spain is making the decision to refuse to refuel the Russian aircraft carrier group heading for the shores of Syria.
Herein lies one of the peculiarities of the current crisis of relations: The West is attempting at the very least to formulate its position, which appears relatively transparent and predictable, whereas Moscow has «gone to ground» and is choosing reactive tactics that depend not on its own vision of what is happening, but on the actions of the «competitor,» and, which is even more terrible — on interpretations of that competitor’s actions. NATO has an institutionalized and bureaucratized the adoption of decisions, but in Russia, a great deal depends on a single person, whose favorite tactics remain special operations and unexpected provocative sorties. The role of Putin’s inner circle is also changing: The adoption of decisions is becoming an even more closed process, and their discussion is becoming less and less argumentative. Diplomats are giving way to military persons.
While the military in Russia prepare to accept into service the most powerful nuclear missile in the world, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s official spokesperson, Mariya Zakharova, complains that NATO «instead of combining efforts with all the responsible international players to oppose real threats, combats contrived challenges and concentrates efforts on ‘the threat from the East,’ which does not exist.»
So, does a threat from the East exist for the West? For many years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this question had a topical interest mainly for «strategists,» the military, and «hawks.» Politicians and peoples moved the «Russian topic» to the distant periphery. But now the problem is ceasing to be «militaristic»; it is returning to the sociopolitical space. Ostentatious «saber rattling» as a form of intimidation has had its effect. And the following phenomenon should not be underestimated: When the topic of Russia’s ambitions spreads far beyond the cabinet rooms of general staffs and the intelligence organs, and begins to be heard «in heavy rotation,» and the issue of «Vladimir’s missiles» begins to be discussed over morning coffee in Paris and London cafes, a new sociopolitical demand is formed. It is possible to blame the Western mass media for exacerbating the situation, but it was, after all, Moscow that began to scare the living daylights out of the ordinary man in the street by so strenuously attempting to convince the world of its ability to turn whole countries into «radioactive ash.» Putin’s new image — with missiles instead of pupils in his eyes — symbolizes the new Russia, in which the image of a strong leader is being transformed into a crazed dictator. Russian hysterics have reduced the West to hysterics as well, which makes the world today far less safe than it was yesterday.