Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement on Tuesday that Moscow would put into service more than 40 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) undoubtedly adds to the sense of deja vu — that the Cold War has been reignited along the geopolitical faultlines in eastern Europe. The new missiles are SS-27s, capable of delivering up to six strategic nuclear warheads and reducing a city like London or Paris to rubble. An ICBM’s minimum range is above 5,500 kilometres and Russia’s ICBM stockpile is approximately 300. While Nato accused Moscow of “nuclear sabre-rattling”, Russian defence spending has increased manifold since Putin’s return to the presidency. What can’t be denied, however, is that this scale of modernisation is unprecedented.
Putin’s statement that the new hi-tech missiles can destroy the most technically advanced anti-missile defence systems was clearly aimed at Washington, which is negotiating with Poland and the Baltic states to station tanks and heavy weapons along Russia’s border. So, while Russia’s new ICBMs risk pushing things to a point of no return, Western powers cannot evade questions about their handling of the Ukraine conflict. The global implications of the Ukraine fallout are already manifest. Complaining about Nato’s encirclement of it, Russia has reverted to being a Eurasian power. It now looks east at China for investment and technology and is firming up a new alliance that could have adverse implications for the military tensions in the disputed waters of East Asia.
Russia and the US are still bound by the 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that caps deployed nuclear warheads at 1,550 each. But given Russia’s conventional military weakness and the heavy costs of modernisation in an economy crippled by sanctions, its renewed emphasis on the nuclear option was foreseen. This hasn’t resurrected the spectre of “assured mutual destruction” yet. But at a time when Moscow and Washington needed to work together — from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific — a world where the default national security option is military deterrence, instead of treaties and confidence-building measures, can only bring back bad memories.