Strategic Debates Within Putin’s Russia

Few would seek to deny that open political dissent in Russia today is not exactly welcomed by those in power. But I think it important to point out that, side by side with the overt repression of political opposition, debates over critical areas of policy that are highly classified as top secret none the less find loud echos in the press. The hawks do not have it all their own way, particularly at a time of tight budget constraints on military spending.

On 6 October, for example, within the pages of one establishment newspaper, Nezavisimaya gazeta, two statements appeared that completely contradicted one another.

The one – forming a large segment of an article reviewing the wide range of threats to Russian security, foreign and domestic – appears under the name of Aleksandr Bartosh (“Razvedka Rossii v protivostoyanii gibridnym ugrozam”) in the section devoted to foreign intelligence matters. It boldly asserts that Russia faces a critical threat that the United States will abandon the ABM treaty signed as part of the SALT agreement in 1972 by Richard Nixon. This severely limited the construction and deployment of anti-missile defences. The Russians broke that treaty blatantly only a few years later. This was often cited as justification when Ronald Reagan decided to escape from its confines with the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars, in Edward Kennedy’s inflammatory phrase, doubtless borrowed from someone else). SDI was used as a negotiating lever to get the Russians to give up intermediate range missiles targeting Western Europe (the SS-20). SDI was later given a further boost by Condoleezza Rice under the Presidency of George Bush Jr.

Were the Americans to break out, Bartosh envisages the neutralisation of Russian strategic nuclear capabilities. Putin and his successors would be defenceless. He therefore presses home the need for timely strategic early warning systems.

In contrast, the other statement, directly conflicting with these assertions, appears under the name of a senior military analyst, Aleksandr Khramchikhin (“Yadernyi bespredel pora prekrashchat’). This Aleksandr is inclined to believe that the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons is the major threat and dismisses out of hand the idea that the Americans can do anything serious about neutralising Russia’s offensive nuclear systems. To him “even the prospect of an American anti-missile defence is, basically, a myth.” (This is what former US Defense Secretary Harold Brown, a physicist, had believed since the late 1950s. So it has a sound pedigree.) The state of play in this debating game thus appears to be ‘deuce’.