It’s a sign of just how fast the balance of world power is shifting, that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin oversaw a huge exercise of Russia’s nuclear forces this Wednesday, involving — as the AP reported — “multiple test launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles, a formidable demonstration of Russia’s resurgent military power.” This follows the entry of Russian warships into the Mediterranean, concurrent with the Russia-brokered deal to relieve Syria’s Assad regime of its chemical weapons, at the cost of relieving the U.S. of any real influence in what might come next. That followed the biggest war games launched by the Russian military in more than two decades, involving, as the AP also reported, “160,000 troops, about 5,000 tanks, more than 100 aircraft and dozens of navy ships.”
This week’s nuclear attack drill was eye-catching not only for its size and scope, but for how relatively little attention Russia’s nuclear exercise drew in an America currently focused on the chaos of canceled health insurance policies, soaring premiums and a dysfunctional HealthCare.gov web site. The Russian drill was no small event. As defense expert Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon reports, the drill “included the test launch of two land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and two submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).” More specifically, the land-based missiles included a silo-based SS-18, a missile with “a range of up to 10,000 miles and up to 10 warheads, or multiple, independently-targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs),” and an SS-25, or Topol missile, test-launched from the Russian base of Plesetsk, “capable of launching up to four MIRVs” with “a range of up to 6,200 miles.”
Russian forces also test-fired short-range missiles, and, as Gertz further reports, Russian air defense forces “also fired S-400 and S-300 anti-aircraft and anti-missile interceptors at incoming ballistic missiles targets. … The strategic missile exercise highlights Moscow’s large-scale nuclear forces buildup under Putin.” (You can sample more of Gertz’s well-informed reporting on Russia’s missile development in his June 25 article, “Treaty Cheating.”)
This is a staggering contrast with the scene I witnessed 18 years ago, while working as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in newly post-Soviet Russia. In 1995, I visited the Plesetsk space base and missile range — located about 500 miles north of Moscow, and site of this week’s SS-25 test launch. Back then, Russia was on the ropes, and trying out a lot of projects to convert Cold War military equipment into anything that might turn a profit. I went to watch a rocket launch, but it was an SS-25 that the Russians were trying to adapt to carry civilian-use satellites into space.
It was a display both impressive and pathetic. The Russians had struck a deal with an Israeli technical institute, to use an adapted SS-25 to put an Israeli prototype communications satellite into orbit, for the use of amateur radio buffs. Members of the press were invited — Israeli, Russian, and Moscow-based foreign reporters. It turned into a rolling fiasco. The Israeli reporters, arriving from Tel Aviv, were held up by Russian customs officers, who tried to confiscate their satellite phones. The chartered plane to take reporters from Moscow to Plesetsk was late taking off — in those days, it sometimes took a while at Russian airports to hunt down fuel. When we got to Plesetsk, with little time left before the launch, there was an altercation between some of the reporters, who wanted a closeup shot of the missile ready for launch, and a Russian military officer, who wanted them to go no closer than the safely distant viewing area. I still remember him screaming at one of the press liaisons, “No! They cannot go there! I am about to launch a ballistic missile!”
The launch itself was awe-inspiring. We could see the missile, on its mobile launcher. When it took off, the ground shook. I mean, it really shook. For a moment, there was nothing in the universe but the tremendous force boosting that missile. I had the obvious thought: You never want something like this, armed with nuclear warheads, actually heading in your direction.
That satellite launch failed. The Russians at Plesetsk told us it was all going well, but by the time we got back to Moscow that evening, the news was that the converted missile had gone down somewhere over the Sea of Okhotsk.
Plesetsk had more troubles later that year. In October, 1995, there were reports that its electrical power had gone out — one of a series of power blackouts at Russian military bases, as the post-Soviet government tried to sort out new ways of managing the electrical grid. At the Journal’s Moscow bureau, my colleagues and I had a half-jocular half-nervous debate over what that meant — and whether anything untoward might happen if the power suddenly came back on. But we were worried about accidents in those days, not some abrupt return of a Russian nuclear threat.
These days, it appears that Plesetsk has sorted out its electrical problems, and that SS-25 test launch on Wednesday, part of a much larger drill, was not about trying to put civilian-use satellites into space. It was about the ability to hit nuclear targets. Gertz quotes a Russian spokesman as saying, according to Russian news agencies, “All launches took place as expected. All of the practice targets were hit.”
Elsewhere, earlier last month, U.S. Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller told the United Nations’ Committee on Disarmament (the so-called First Committee, where Iran now serves as rapporteur) that while the conditions for a world free of nuclear weapons do not yet exist, the U.S. is prepared to do its part, and is planning to further reduce its deployed strategic nuclear weapons.
And while all this goes on, Iran is watching. And spinning its uranium centrifuges. And the New World Order taking shape in 2013 is ever more dramatically different and more dangerous than it looked from Plesetsk, just 18 years ago.