Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Putin's Modernization Plan "Grandiose" to Those Who Don't Know Difference between Missiles and Warheads

Vladimir Putin's remarks on military modernization, aired over Russian radio on October 18th, are causing quite a stir. Last Friday, the Times of London quoted the Russian president as follows:

We will develop missile technology including completely new strategic [nuclear] complexes, completely new. Work is continuing successfully. We have plans that are not only big but grandiose, and they are fully realistic. Our armed forces will be more compact but more effective and better ensure Russia defence.
The paper stated that Putin's remarks "signaled the start of a new nuclear arms race," and they received coverage in a variety of news sources. However, a journalistic error made by a large number of papers made the Russian President's modernization declaration seem more inflammatory than it actually was.

Missiles (left) must be distinguished from warheads (right)

In reporting Putin's remarks, news sources including Reuters, Agence France-Presse, AFX, and The Telegraph failed to draw a distinction between the delivery systems for nuclear warheads (i.e. missiles, submarines, and bombers) and the nuclear warheads themselves. This unnecessary ambiguity may have made Putin's remarks--which largely reiterated old news about Russian military modernization--seem like a "signal of a new nuclear arms race."

While the Times omitted sections of Putin's remarks in the quotation above, his exact statement on nuclear modernization (according to the official transcript) was that "We will develop missile technology, including entirely new strategic systems, not just the Topol system with multiple warheads, but also completely new systems."

Putin was clearly referring to the development of new missiles, not new warheads. He explicitly states this initially ("we will develop missile technology"), then specifies the remark in a way that proved confusing for some mainstream media sources. Putin stated that Russia will develop "entirely new strategic systems," (sometimes translated as "strategic complexes"), a fairly vague phrase. However, the meaning is made clear in the subsequent clause, when he contrasts these "completely new systems" with Russia's recent modification of the existing Topol missile system. Putin is talking about new missile systems, not new warheads. This is made still clearer by looking at the broader context of the remark: The subsequent paragraphs discuss comparable modernization plans for submarines and bombers, the other two legs of the "triad" of nuclear delivery systems.

However, the preeminent global news services Agence France-Presse and AFX separately described Putin as announcing the development of "a 'completely new' atomic weapon," the UK's Telegraph reported that Putin had "announced plans to build a new generation of nuclear weapons," and Reuters cited the Russian president as having said that "Russia was working on new types of nuclear weapons as part of a "grandiose" plan to boost the country's defenses."

"Nuclear weapon" is not an acceptable synonym for "missile," even when the missiles in question are designed to carry nuclear warheads. Anyone who read the transcript of Putin's remarks would know that the Russian President was referring to missiles, not warheads, but readers of the AFP, AFX, Reuters, or Telegraph stories would have to draw their own conclusion. And the distinction is important, even to laypersons: "New warheads" suggests a quantitative increase in deployed nuclear weapons, when in fact Russia is slated to decrease its number of deployed nuclear weapons as per the (admittedly flawed) Moscow Treaty.

Had Putin announced the development of a new generation of nuclear warheads, it would be a shocking development in the increasingly tense U.S.-Russian relationship. But Putin was not talking about warheads, he was talking about missiles, and as the Russian Strategic Forces blog observed, Russian plans to develop new missiles are old news:
A closer look [at Putin's remarks on military modernization], however, shows that there was nothing really new there. Russia has been modernizing every single leg of its strategic triad already, so it is somewhat difficult to come up with something on top of that that would be "grandiose" enough to justify the rhetoric.
There are many elements of Russian-U.S. nuclear relations that warrant concern (most notably the imminent expiration of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) but Putin reciting military modernization plans over Russian radio is not among them.

1 comment:

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