Russian Response to US Missile Testing Coming as Weapons Race Heats Up

Only two weeks after the United States pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, it already tested a new land-based missile which prompted a response from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Following the American missile test, Putin directed his government to coordinate a “symmetric response.” 

No Treaty, More Missiles

“Considering the newly emerging circumstances, I instruct the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and other specialized agencies to analyze the level of the threat, which the above-mentioned U.S. moves are creating for our country, and take comprehensive measures for preparing a symmetric response,” Putin said while meeting with his national security advisors. 

The U.S. missile was a variant of the Tomahawk cruise missile which was originally developed in the 1970s. When the INF went into effect, the American military ceased using ground-based launchers for the Tomahawk leaving only the U.S. Navy’s sea launch systems in use. Putin argued that the occurrence of both events – the INF withdrawal and the testing of the ground-based missile – indicates that the U.S. had been preparing for the new missile since before it scrapped the treaty. 

“The Americans have tested this missile too quickly after having withdrawn from the treaty,” he said. “That gives us strong reason to believe that they had started work to adapt the sea-launched missile long before they began looking for excuses to opt out of the treaty.”

The rush back to previously-banned weapons signals the end to a decades-long period in which both countries largely scaled back their weapons development and shed large amounts of their nuclear arsenals. The idea put forward by Moscow that the move to reinitiate development and testing of intermediate-range missiles was plotted before exiting the INF treaty would help explain Washington’s eagerness to do so. U.S. President Donald Trump has never been fond of international treaties which he views as handcuffing the U.S. 

Close to Home

The testing of the new Tomahawk – which successfully hit its target 310 miles off California coast – could have broad implications for Russian security in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Putin argued that the launcher used for the test run was startlingly similar to one currently deployed at an American military location in Romania. This site and one like it in Poland could eventually host the new missiles, a prospect which would have been inconceivable when the INF treaty was in effect.

According to Washington, the new missile systems will first be stationed in East Asia, which Putin also contends would threaten Russian security. 

“American politicians of quite a high rank and level are saying that the Asia-Pacific region could be the first to host new systems, but it also affects our core interests, because all this is in the immediate proximity of Russian borders,” Putin said in an official statement on the matter. 

Any missile of the sort that was previously banned would undoubtedly draw criticism from Russia as it faces the possibility of finding itself within their range. The U.S. military has a vast global spread and tensions in both the Middle East and South China Sea could prompt it to use the regions as testing beds for its new technology.

Possible Responses

As for a response, a couple of ideas have been floated from Moscow on how to counter possible deployments of the land-based Tomahawk. The most likely would be the development of a comparable weapon using the Russian Kalibr system. According to Russian Major General Vladimir Dvorkin, it would be an easy task to adapt the currently sea-based Kalibr system, much akin to how the U.S. modified the Tomahawk. 

“The speed of possible deployment is the question. We will not deploy them before the Americans do. If the Americans deploy their missiles in the Asia-Pacific region, we will scratch our head and think how to act,” Dvorkin said. “We cannot deploy many in that area because our strategic ally, China, is there. So I think the speed will be moderate, and the deployment will be limited to our territory.” 

Another option would be to station missiles within Venezuela, but this tactic would likely draw-up memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis which saw Russian warheads placed in Cuba. The event is largely considered the height of the Cold War and neither state would likely wish to return to that pandemonium. 

Putin promised to develop intermediate-range missiles of his own if the U.S. did so first, and Washington has already begun testing them. Without a treaty to limit the development of weapons, both sides are unrestricted, but thus far Russia has taken a more calculated approach. Putin will wait for Trump to move first before delivering matching responses which will help him avoid escalating the situation too far.  As it stands now, it’s Putin’s turn to make a move in the new arms race amongst superpowers.