WASHINGTON, March 2 (UPI) -- Is Russia seriously considering putting nuclear pressures on Europe to a degree not seen since the last dark days of the Cold War? Or are a group of Russian generals trying to derail the reformist military policies of President Vladimir Putin and his Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov?
U.S. military analysts are asking these questions after a well placed, senior Russian general Wednesday was reported in a major Moscow newspaper as saying Russia might consider opting out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range and Short-Range Nuclear Forces Nuclear Forces Treaty.
The daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta quoted Gen. Vladimir Vasilenko, the head of the Russian Defense Ministry's Research Institute, as saying that Russia could consider the redeployment of intermediate-range, nuclear-capable missiles that were scrapped under the 1987 treaty.
The historic INF treaty was negotiated and signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and it removed the dark threat of the SS-20 missiles that were deployed against the cities of Western Europe in the late 1970s and the first half of the 1980s.
To counter the threat, NATO deployed its own mobile intermediate-range Pershing II missiles that could destroy the cities of European Russia. The Pershings too were scrapped under the treaty.
U.S. military analysts were taken by surprise by Gen. Vasilenko's comments because they could see no rational reason in Russia's national self interest for them. As we have monitored in many BMD Focus and BMD Watch columns, Russia has been pushing ahead energetically with a highly successful series of tests of its upgraded ground-launched and land-mobile Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile and its sister Bulava submarine-launched ICBM, both with MIRV warheads. Both missiles are being fitted with ramjets and other maneuvering and evasive equipment to render them immune to the U.S. ballistic missile defense systems now being developed and deployed by the Missile Defense Agency.
But renouncing the INF Treaty and redeploying shorter-range missiles that could threaten the major cities of the European Union would not appreciably add to Russia's direct strategic deterrent threat to the United States at all. All it would do, U.S. military analysts speaking on condition of anonymity told United Press International, would be to infuriate the Europeans, who remain Russia's most crucial trade partners.
The analysts also noted that any serious statement indicating that Russia was serious about pulling out of the INF Treaty would have to come from Defense Minister Ivanov or Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
However, Ivanov has been pushing ahead energetically with his own visionary plans to restructure the large, poorly equipped and poorly trained Russian conscript army with a much smaller, far better trained and equipped professional force similar to the current U.S. Army and special forces structures that could react far more quickly to terrorist attacks, rebellions or secessionist threats.
The U.S. military analysts suggested the possibility that Vasilenko represented some group of ultra-nationalist hard-liners in the Russian military leadership. But if that was the case, they said, the group must already enjoy a very strong political umbrella of support to protect any senior serving officer like Vasilenko who made such potentially embarrassing statements.
The analysts said they thought it was unlikely that Vasilenko's comments were a direct reaction to the emergence of new Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany. While Merkel wants to retain warm ties and an excellent strategic relationship with Russia, she has made clear she also wants to improve relations with the United States, Germany's key strategic partner over the past 57 years.
And one U.S. analyst noted that four-star Army Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, the commander-in-chief of the Russian military, announced a few months ago that Russia did not regard NATO as a potential enemy and was not planning any more for any war with it.
Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, told UPI that recreating an intermediate-range nuclear strike force would not help Russia against its most immediate major national security threats.
"Any increase in tactical or intermediate-range nuclear weapons is not going to help Russia fight Islamic radicals, ethnic conflicts, and other insurgencies," he said.
That could leave the possibility that Vasilenko, who occupies a key, politically sensitive planning post in Moscow, was not speaking out of line at all but was floating some kind of trial balloon that could be easily deniable precisely because it was a relatively lower-level officer who was saying it.
This may be more likely because Vasilenko's suggestion did not come out of a total vacuum. Last year, Defense Minister Ivanov startled U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld by suggesting to him at one of their meetings that the INF Treaty should be scrapped.
The suggestion took Rumsfeld by surprise and he exclaimed that he could see no reason in Russia's own national interest why they should want to do it.
Cohen said one possible reason could be that Russia's leaders are contemplating taking a longer-term global position increasingly different from those of both the United States and the European Union.
"Russia is staking a geo-strategic position separate from the United States and Western Europe and reverting to the Soviet era military thinking," he said.
However, any serious move by Russia to pull out of the 1987 INF Treaty would have immense continental and even global repercussions. The old Pershing IIs and SS-20s were formidable weapons even by today's standards. Because they were highly mobile and therefore hard to locate before firing and were fired over relatively short ranges and had low trajectories, even today, they would be difficult to hit by new BMD systems.
Is Russia, feeling confident with its vast new income from the soaring global price of oil, still well over $60 a barrel, contemplating the possibility that it might want to increase its strategic leverage over the 25 EU nations with a revived intermediate-range nuclear missile force? Or were Vasilenko's comments just meant as a deniable bargaining chip with Europe and America? Only time will tell.