Vladimir Radyuhin

Given Washington's record, Moscow says it has no reason to trust the U.S.' assurances that the plan to deploy elements of a missile defence system in Eastern Europe is not directed against Russia.

TWENTY YEARS after the end of the Cold War, Russia and the United States stand on the brink of a new full-scale missile race as Washington pushes to tip the strategic weapons balance in its favour and roll back Russia's resurgence by drawing it into a crippling new arms race. The U.S.' plans to deploy elements of a missile defence system in Eastern Europe close to Russia's borders have drawn a string of stern warnings from Moscow in recent weeks that this posed a potential threat to Russia and would force it to retaliate.

"Plans to set up a missile defence system [in Europe] will upset the balance of forces," President Vladimir Putin said. "We feel compelled to react one way or another."

The U.S. proposes to base interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic to shoot down long-range missiles launched by "rogue states," such as Iran and North Korea.

Pentagon officials argue that a narrow beam radar to be set up in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland cannot threaten Russia in any way. "You're not going to counter the hundreds of Russian ICBMs [Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles] and the thousands of warheads that are represented by that fleet with 10 interceptors in a field in Europe," U.S. Missile Defence Agency director Lt. General Henry A. Obering told foreign reporters in Washington last month.

Russian military officials agree that at this stage the U.S. missile defence system does not threaten the Russian nuclear missile arsenals. However, they point out that the U.S. radar in the Czech Republic will enable the Pentagon to keep a watch on Russian strategic forces deployed as far away as the Barents Sea beyond the Arctic Circle. The U.S. missile base will also pose a credible threat to Russia when it becomes part of a global missile shield the Pentagon is building, they say. The system has been dubbed "Son of the Star Wars" as it effectively resurrects President Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" programme of the mid-1980s designed to provide total protection to the U.S. and its allies against a massive Soviet missile attack by launching interceptors from land, sea or outer space.

Also, Moscow has ridiculed the logic of deploying missile defences in East Europe to guard against Iranian or North Korean missiles. "None of the so-called `problem countries' has, or will have in the foreseeable future, missiles with a range of 5,000 to 8,000 km that can actually threaten Europe," Mr. Putin said.

It is for the first time that the U.S. will deploy an anti-missile base outside its territory. This will reconfigure the U.S. military presence in Europe by including, for the first time also, a strategic component. The silos that will be built in Poland for missile interceptors are identical to those that house ballistic nuclear missiles in the U.S.

Given the long record of the West's cheating on Russia, Moscow says it has no reason to trust the U.S.' assurances that its missile shield is not directed against Russian missiles.

First, Western leaders promised the former Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation would not expand eastward. That promise was broken less than 10 years later, when Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were admitted to the alliance. Later, NATO swore that no military infrastructure would be deployed in the territories of new members of the alliance. Today, the U.S. is setting up military bases in Bulgaria and Romania and is about to deploy missile defence components in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The beginning

And this is only the beginning. The Pentagon said the European component of its global missile defence would keep expanding and upgrading. On March 1, Lt. Gen. Obering said he would like to have an additional radar station in the Caucasus.

In January, the Pentagon relocated its Cobra Dane floating radar, the world's biggest radar, from the Hawaii to the Aleut Islands within 300 km of the Russian border. Russian experts believe the U.S. missile shield will eventually include 1,400 ground-based interceptors (GBI) redeployed from California and Alaska to Europe, as well as hundreds of sea, air, and space-based anti-missiles.

In a revealing reflection of American strategic thinking, the U.S. security-consulting agency Statfor, sometimes referred to as "The Shadow CIA," said the U.S. missile shield could pose a credible threat to Russia's fleet of ICBMs around 2020, as the Russian defence potential had been stagnating while the U.S. was steadily beefing up its war muscle.

Indeed, Russia's fleet of long-range missiles has been shrinking fast. Its armed forces today induct a handful of advanced Topol-M missiles a year and decommission dozens of old Soviet-era missiles. The Moscow-based AST think tank has estimated that at the current rate of rearmament, Russia will be left with no more than 400-500 nuclear warheads by 2020, half of which the U.S. global missile system will be able to intercept even if they are all launched simultaneously.

As a top Pentagon missile-defence official put it, the U.S. missile shield is "the missing link to a first strike." In other words, its role will be to protect American territory from a retaliatory attack by enemy missiles that may survive a massive first strike by U.S. missiles.

Quite logically, parallel with the deployment of a global missile defence the U.S. has enhanced its first-strike capability, installing larger-yield high-precision multiple warheads on the Minuteman ICBMs, equipping its nuclear submarines with more accurate and deadly Trident II D-5 missiles, and refitting its B-52 bombers with nuclear-armed cruise missiles.

The U.S. has also rejected Russia's persistent initiatives to put a cap on a further nuclear race.

The global missile shield, coupled with the upgraded first-strike potential, should give America nuclear superiority over Russia for the first time in the past half-a-century. It does not mean the U.S. will use its primacy to launch a nuclear attack on Russia, but it will be able to dictate to Russia on such issues as energy.

"Their aim is to bring under NATO control Russian oil and gas resources and strategic communications," says Gen. (Rtd.) Leonid Ivashov of the Academy of Geopolitical Studies.

The U.S. supremacy plan hinges on the assumption that Russia, whose defence budget compares with that of the U.S. in a 1:25 proportion, will not be in a position to maintain strategic parity.

American strategists argue that even the Soviet Union broke its back trying to counter President Reagan's "Star Wars" programme. The "Son of the Star Wars" will do the same to Russia, they feel. However, Russia has accepted the challenge even though President Putin has said the Russian response will be "asymmetrical" given its limited financial resources.

"We recently carried out tests on new ballistic-weapon systems, weapons which no other country in the world has," he revealed earlier this year. The new systems "don't care if there is a missile-defence system or not."

Experts said the Russian leader was talking about a new unique targetable warhead. It is fired into space on a conventional ballistic missile, but instead of following a predictable trajectory after detaching from the carrier rocket, manoeuvres like a cruise missile as it re-enters the atmosphere to confound U.S. missile defences. "We are talking about totally new strategic weapon systems travelling at hyper-speed and shifting trajectory both vertically and horizontally," Mr. Putin said.

Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, promoted last month to First Deputy Prime Minister, promised that Russia would have a "new generation" of strategic missiles by the end of the decade. Within days of his appointment, Mr. Ivanov announced plans to develop by 2015 an advanced integrated air, missile, and space defence system.

Russia is also speeding up the re-armament of its strategic forces with new long-range missiles. Mr. Ivanov said this year the Russian army would receive 17 Topol-M missiles compared with four last year. Moscow has also threatened to withdraw from a 1987 treaty with the U.S. banning medium-range ballistic missiles and resume their production if the U.S. goes ahead with its anti-missile plans for Europe.

Even though President Putin said Russia would not be drawn into an expensive new arms race, the country's defence budget in dollar terms has quadrupled in the past five years. Earlier this year, the Kremlin approved a re-armament programme through 2015 that will cost Russia close to 5 trillion roubles (almost $190 billion).

This is a huge amount of money for Russia, whose economy only in January bounced back to surpass the high level of GDP it reached before the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. But then, few analysts in the West expected Russia to recover from the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia may turn the tables again on the West by regaining its military strength.