On March 1, 2018, in his annual state of the nation speech to the Russian Federal Assembly, President Vladimir Putin declared that his country has developed an "invincible" intercontinental cruise missile resistant to US missile defense systems. Putin claimed the new weapon can operate at very high speeds and has unlimited range.
Although "some experts" have suggested Putin may be bluffing, Theodore A. Postol, professor emeritus of science, technology and national security policy at MIT, told Truthout, "I think he's deadly serious." Postol, who evaluated Moscow's anti-ballistic missile defense while serving as adviser to the chief of naval operations in the early 1980s, said Putin's speech "made very clear that every attempt to engage us in constructive discussion has been met with no response. He was responding to the US unwillingness to talk about missile defenses."
US Withdrawal From Treaty Escalated the Arms Race
Putin criticized George W. Bush's 2002 withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which stated that in order to reduce offensive nuclear forces in Russia and the United States, both sides would have to agree to limit anti-ballistic missile defenses.
"Russia was categorically against [the US withdrawal]," Putin said. "We saw the Soviet-US ABM Treaty signed in 1972 as the cornerstone of the international security system."
The significance of the US withdrawal from the ABM treaty cannot be overestimated, in Postol's opinion. "What the Russians would say, and I fully agree, is that the current escalating arms race between the United States and Russia is a direct product of US withdrawal from the ABM treaty of 1972," he said.
As David Krieger, founder of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, noted at Truthdig, "The fuel for a new nuclear arms race was already on the fire, and a Russian strategic response was predictable, when the US withdrew from the ABM Treaty and began developing and emplacing missile defense systems globally. The US withdrawal and abrogation of the ABM Treaty may prove to be the greatest strategic blunder of the nuclear age."
Likewise, Moscow correspondent Fred Weir wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, "The US withdrew unilaterally from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty ... triggering Russian fears that technological advances might one day wipe out their nuclear deterrent."
"Things have been escalating for quite a while," Postol pointed out, adding that the US is "increasing the size of its missile defenses while at the same time trying to get Russia to reduce the size of its offensive forces." That "created a theoretical imbalance. The US has been building, in theory, a system that could be used to intercept Russian forces while those forces are being reduced."
The escalation of the nuclear arms race continued during the Obama administration. As Reuters reporter Scot Paltrow has pointed out, "By the time Obama left office in January 2017, the risk of Armageddon hadn't receded. Instead, Washington was well along in a modernization program that is making nearly all of its nuclear weapons more accurate and deadly." Paltrow cited examples of lethal nuclear weapons developed on Obama's watch.
Does Missile Defense Really Work?
Postol is skeptical about the effectiveness of missile defense systems because they have only been tested under the "most orchestrated conditions and even under those conditions, they have failed a high percentage of the time, some simply because something unexpected happened. In combat, the conditions will not be choreographed."
Thomas S. Lee, writing for CNN, agrees that anti-ballistic missile defense systems are ineffective. Lee noted, "It is very hard to shoot down a ballistic missile. This is true even of a short-range ballistic missile with a relatively flat trajectory, much less a long-range missile with many more possible trajectories and a far greater speed."
But Donald Trump thinks US missile defenses can be very effective, Postol observed. "In a crisis or a standoff, Trump might take actions he wouldn't take if he thought he was defenseless. So, the potential for miscalculation is much higher when the weapons systems are not effective."