Russia Strategic Review: With NATO Expansion, New Ballistic Missiles Signal Shift in Moscow

In recent years, Russia has made significant steps in modernizing its military and improving its capabilities. Yet another step was taken in that direction when Moscow announced that the Teikovo Division, a branch within the Strategic Rocket Forces, is the first to be fully equipped with the Topol-M and YARS missile systems. This information comes just prior to another announcement from Deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin about the establishment of a holding company, whose job it will be to establish a new generation of hypersonic weapons. With all this investment in advanced military capabilities, then, where is Russia’s strategic posture going? In a multipolar world, Russia will retain its defensive military doctrine, but it will undergo significant technological adjustments to offer the potential for offensive policy reforms.

The Topol-M system uses the SS-27 missile, to be succeeded by the YARS ballistic missile system, firing the RS-24, itself set to become the primary such weapon in the inventory by the end of the decade. Improvements include a higher flight speed, reduced radar signature and the ability to carry 800kN worth of nuclear-tipped multiple re-entry vehicles. The technology isn’t new, but the upgrade certainly is. Particularly important is the impact of these new weapons and their hypersonic cousin-to-be on the Russian nuclear posture.

Moscow updated its nuclear doctrine for the last time in 2010, with a strategic outlook for 2020. Its basic characteristics see nuclear weapons being used in local wars, in response to a conventional attack, as strategic deterrence and against fundamentally existential threats to Russia. The overall framework preserves first-use as a policy choice, but retains an overall defensive character with the aim to prevent nuclear and conventional warfare, first and foremost.

However, the RS-24 can potentially be used as a space-based weapon, for one, and two, a hypersonic derivative translates into a missile that can strike anywhere on the planet and a response time for the adversary would be between 30 to60 minutes from the moment of firing. A future development could see a hypersonic weapon derived from the RS-24.  

These options present a very lucrative offensive option for Russia. Current tensions over missile defense with NATO could prompt such a revision from Moscow, if NATO missile installations do become a fact in Eastern Europe, Georgia or Azerbaijan. The nuclear game of chicken might very well involve a nuclear Middle East, if a war with Iran erupts and causes a chain destabilization around the region; the end result could very well be a nuclear Saudi Arabia, or in a twist of historical irony, a nuclear Iraq.

The Pacific represents yet another under-analyzed strategic area. A rising China, an unpredictable nuclear Korean peninsula and a possible re-introduction of Japanese regional assertiveness combining with America’s strategic pivot and the fact Washington has an entire ally system in the region built around common defense on a bilateral basis are all factors that grind against one another. Russia would not be a newcomer to this environment, but the rising tensions within that theater are a cause of worry for potential destabilization — crisis points like unsettled island disputes, Taiwan or North Korea could spark an armed conflict.

In an environment that from Russia’s point of view looks rather unsettling, to say the least, and without the clear-cut division of the Cold War world, it is now a plethora of interests and influences, of which it is hard to make sense, let alone predict. After its invasion of Afghanistan, Russia scaled back its military operations on a big scale, and has generally taken a different approach towards conflict since the 1990s. With the Chechen wars and the 2008 war with Georgia, prolonged, pitched wars no longer seem to be to Moscow’s liking. It maintains forces in Armenia, Moldova and Syria, but these are a token amount in comparison to American deployments around the world. The point here is that if Russia can avoid getting involved in a war, it likely will stay out. That being said, however, this does not mean that Russia won’t fight defensive wars, and from here we can derive the rationale for the development of these new missiles.

Moscow’s reasoning for developing these weapons, beyond the practical need to replace obsolete technology, is because of these geopolitical possibilities. With a perception of an encroaching NATO, (despite the alliance’s best attempts to dispel such notions), an unpredictable Middle East, and a Pacific region that will only consume more and more of the global security focus this century, a defensive and deterrent foreign policy stance would be the choice for Russia.

Russia’s system of alliances is also going to undergo changes in the future. Currently, the Middle East is an area where Russian influence has diminished over the last 20 years, with Syria and Iran being the two countries that still choose to engage Russia on a deeper level. Yet, seeing more traditional Russian clients, like Egypt, Iran and probably Algeria or Libya, make another geopolitical turn towards Russia, remains a distinct possibility following the indecisive outcomes of the Arab “Spring,” despite the decidedly more Islamist flavor of the new regimes.

Overall, Russia remains one of the most strategically powerful countries, but it cannot negotiate its future position in the world without considering the interests of its near and far-away partners very thoroughly.