MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti military commentator Viktor Litovkin.) -- The surprise about the international response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent news conference was its controversial, even ironic tone on some issues.
For instance, the Associated Press might have been trying to sound ironic when saying that Putin "touted" or "boasted of" Russia's new missile capability.
In fact, irony is probably the last word one would use when discussing Russia's missile capability if they knew it well enough. The President was referring to the silo-based and road mobile Topol-M (SS-X-27), the two Strategic Missile Force's intercontinental ballistic missile systems, and to the similar Bulava-30 (SS-NX-30) bound for new Russian Navy's Project 955 nuclear-powered submarines (the Borei, the Yury Dolgoruky, and the Alexander Nevsky are being built by a Severodvinsk Arctic shipyard; the keel of the Vladimir Monomakh is to be laid there shortly). The systems are indeed unrivalled, and, as the President rightly said, "it does not matter to these missiles whether there is an ABM system in place or not."
This is mainly because in all versions - silo-based, road mobile, and submarine-launched - the missile picks up speed so fast upon launch that early warning systems monitoring Earth's surface from space just do not have enough time to take appropriate countermeasures.
Moreover, these missiles are not strictly ballistic. They begin midcourse ballistically but, having covered part of it, can dive unexpectedly or make other avoidance maneuvers; in the terminal stage, it maneuvers continuously - like the famous Moskit (SS-N-22 Sunburn) supersonic cruise missile - and, passing a certain point, accelerates to hypersonic speed which is beyond the limits of all operational and most future anti-missile defenses.
Interestingly, the first-ever silo-based SS-X-27 was commissioned for high alert service in Tatishchevo, near Saratov, Central Russia, back in 1997. Now the site already includes over 40 such missiles with single warheads. After an extensive test program last year, the Armed Forces are planning to field first road mobile Topol-Ms at Teykovo, Ivanovo Region, later this year. The "M" in the new version stands not only for mobility but also for its ability to carry multiple re-entry vehicles.
The naval Bulava-30 is even more sophisticated and lighter, 30,000kg compared to the 47,000-kg Topol-M. Some sources say it can carry up to ten re-entry vehicles. This speaks volumes to an expert about the rest of the iceberg people won't usually see: advanced production processes, high technology, efficient numerical simulation techniques, and other support elements that help Russia stay on the cutting edge of technology without running a practical nuclear test program.
Clearly, a man who governs a state with such a deterrent capability has reasons to be proud of it. What is strange here is the perception of this praise as muscle-flexing or saber-rattling, let alone drum-banging.
This reaction seems odd because the strategic missiles Vladimir Putin was referring to have no particular targets and pose no threat to anyone. Russia has never drawn its nuclear sword - and most likely never will - in a power game. It's not Russia's style to say something like "we chair the G8 or someone is going to get it."
An equally important thing about Russia's nuclear capability is that the continuous development and upgrade effort in this domain in no way amounts to an arms race. On the contrary, the overall capability is being reduced. Last year, six new Topols were commissioned in Tatishchevo while two missile divisions -- this means several dozen heavy missiles like the R-36MUTTKh/R-36M2 Voevoda (SS-18 Satan), RT-23UTTKh Molodets (SS-24 Scalpel) and the road mobile Topol (SS-25 Sickle) - were disbanded; another one is going to be disbanded within months.
Russia's nuclear capability is maintained at a minimally sufficient level, and its purpose is not to intimidate but to deter. By 2013, under the SORT, it will range between 1,700 and 2,200 nuclear warheads, a considerable reduction from today's 3,000 in the Strategic Missile Force, according to its commander Colonel General Nikolai Solovtsov, and many more in the Navy and Air Force. Still, military experts say Russia will have even fewer by 2012 - the minimal sufficiency strategy in action.
This is why Putin's self-confidence was so obvious. In today's world, with all its challenges and threats, keeping one's nuclear mind balanced and clear is as important as having a nuclear stockpile under one's belt.