During campaign season, it never hurts for a presidential candidate facing a frustrated public to display toughness and resolve in the face of an old and familiar adversary. And it also doesn't hurt to throw in some shock-and-awe–say, an intercontinental ballistic missile nicknamed "Satan."
This appears to at least partly explain why on Monday Russia announced that it had successfully tested a short-range interceptor missile; part of its ongoing effort to develop a domestic missile defense shield according to Russia's RIA News Agency. (The Russian Defense Ministry has provided a video of the missile's launch on its website.) Russia also announced it is working on the development of a 100-ton intercontinental ballistic missile slated for release in 2015, Pravda reports. Russia recently held contested parliamentary polls and is due to hold presidential elections in March. Russia watchers note the political backdrop to the announced missile plans and their wider narrative agenda: resurgent Russia's determined opposition to American missile defense plans in Eastern Europe.
"In connection with the plans of the United States to develop the air defense system in Europe, in close vicinity to Russia's borders, and because of the unwillingness of the U.S. side to provide any guarantees, the Russian Federation continues to take measures to preserve parity in the field," Pravda reports.
"Russia does not stand against the U.S. missile defense system," Sergei Karakaev, the Russian Defense Ministry commander of the missile troops, was cited by the paper. "Russia stands against the creation of the missile defense system, which would be directly aimed against Russia to potentially reduce the possibilities of the Russian nuclear containment forces."
The field tests come a month after Russia's outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev declared that he was walking away in protest from U.S.-Russian missile defense negotiations. "The United States is unwilling to provide a written guarantee that the system would not be used against Russian nuclear forces," the Union of Concerned Scientists' Elliot Negin wrote at the Huffington Post Monday. "[Medvedev] warned that, if the United States carries out its plans to build it without such an assurance, Russia would site missiles in its westernmost Kaliningrad region and consider walking away from the New START agreement." (The strategic arms reduction treaty, signed last year, calls for the United States and
Russia to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear arms by a third over the next seven years.)
Medvedev's throwing down the gauntlet on missile defense talks with the West also played to a delicate moment in Russian domestic politics, analysts say.
Medvedev has served since 2008 as the Kremlin-approved placeholder for Russian president Vladimir Putin after the latter served two terms as president and moved over to serve a term as prime minister. However, Putin, a former KGB colonel, announced in September his plans to run for president again in March.
But things haven't gone as smoothly as Putin planned. Putin's United Russia party barely claimed a majority in contested Russian parliamentary polls held Dec. 5 that many Russians and international observers believed were rigged. Protests ensued, with another major demonstration scheduled for Dec. 24.
"Putin typically has consolidated his power by pursuing campaigns against nefarious foes — Chechen extremists, Russian oligarchs, and now the West," Anya Schmemann, a Russia watcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Yahoo News Tuesday. "This is a time-tested tactic in Russia. The Russian government's threat in November to target missile defense sites fits into this category–blustery talk for a domestic audience. However, the Russian public has become more savvy in recent years and Putin's effort to blame the United States and Clinton for supporting the protests and criticizing the elections was mocked in the streets."
"Russia's military establishment is concerned about losing parity with the United States on the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads that it maintains," the Ploughshare Fund's Joel Rubin told Yahoo News Tuesday. "By developing a new heavy missile, a perverse outcome is taking place, where Russia is attempting to not fall further beneath New START levels in order to satisfy the concerns of its military establishment."
Of course, tough-guy posturing on the well-worn grooves of the Cold War axis is not unique to Moscow. On Saturday, President Obama's nominated envoy to Moscow, Michael McFaul, was finally confirmed after Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois lifted a weeks-long hold on the nominee.
"Kirk lifted his objections after the White House wrote him a letter assuring him that it will 'not provide Russia with sensitive information about our missile defense systems that would in any way compromise our national security,'" Agence-France Press reported. "Specifically the White House told Kirk that 'under no circumstances' would the United States provide hit-to-kill technology and interceptor telemetry to Russia."