Before Dmitry Medvedev’s valedictory speech earlier this month, the outgoing president awarded medals to dozens of Russians, including a theatre director, a policewoman and the chairman of the Russian hockey federation. Then, taking the podium in a glittering Kremlin ballroom, Mr Medvedev declared that Russia’s younger generation needed positive role models to inspire them towards “success in literature, art, education, and” – he paused wistfully – “nuclear weapons”.
“They may still come in handy,” he said, apropos, seemingly, of nothing. “We’re not going to use them, but let’s still keep them around, because we have a big country, a complex country. We must value it and protect it.”
Then, wishing his audience “safe skies”, he signed off.
It was an odd demonstration of the Kremlin’s even odder relationship to its most prized asset – the one thing that still gives Russia its global superpower status: the ability to blow the planet to kingdom come.
In speech after speech this month, Russian officials have tried to out-Dr Strangelove each other in warning of a potential nuclear conflagration. The rhetoric, which US analysts tend to dismiss as harmless, coincided with the test launch on Wednesday of a new generation of strategic missiles.
The nuclear hyperbole seems directed at the US and its allies, who announced at an annual Nato summit in Chicago this week the formal beginning of a much-vaunted anti-ballistic missile system based partly in eastern Europe. This is nominally aimed at Iran but, Russia suspects, intended to neutralise its own beloved nuclear deterrent.
If that were to happen, said General Nikolai Makarov, chief of Russia’s general staff, it could lead to an “illusion of security”, which could lead to war. Countries allowing the missile defence shield on their soil, Gen Makarov said, risked a Russian nuclear first strike. “A decision on pre-emptive use of the attack weapons available will be made when the situation worsens,” he breezily told a news conference this month.
For most Russians, the Kremlin’s obsession with nuclear deterrent is a figment of the cold war, a somewhat charming piece of nostalgia, like Komsomol party meetings and red bandannas.
“For most Russians, nuclear security doesn’t matter. It’s all taking place in a parallel reality, unconnected to mainstream politics,” says Fedor Lukyanov, chief editor of the Moscow-based journal Russia in Global Affairs.
But tell that to Russia’s financial markets, which sold off last week when Mr Medvedev engaged in more of the recreational paranoia that has come to be the hallmark of US-Russia relations.
Warning the audience of a legal affairs conference in St Petersburg against interference in third-party global conflicts, he said: “At some moment such actions, which undermine sovereignty, can end with a full-fledged regional war, or even, and I don’t want to scare anybody, the use of nuclear weapons.” The stock market promptly dived 3.5 per cent.
Talking up the nuclear deterrent is a sure sign the Kremlin is nervous, say analysts. US experts insist that the ballistic missile defence system poses no threat to Russia’s nuclear missiles.
Even Russian analysts agree that Nato’s ballistic missile defence system, in its early incarnations, is harmless and consists mainly of rebranding existing US assets as part of Nato’s arsenal. A radar system in Turkey, for example, has now been handed over to Nato, while Aegis missile-equipped US warships in the Mediterranean can now be placed under Nato operational control “if necessary”.
According to Ivo Daalder, the US ambassador to Nato, the agreement reached in Chicago will give Nato “an operationally meaningful ballistic missile defence mission” for the first time. “It will provide real protection for parts of Nato Europe against ballistic missile attack,” he said.
Russia, however, is most concerned about the final stage of the Nato project, not due until 2020, which will see the introduction of the SM3 missile interceptor. This would be capable – in theory – of hitting an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile and, warn Russian analysts, possibly Russian ICBMs as well.
The “SM3 block 2B” interceptor has a speed of 5.5km per second, faster than Russian ICBMs, which fly at 5km per second, says Sergei Rogov, director of the Institute of US and Canada in Moscow. US analysts deny, however, that this interceptor would be able to hit Russian missiles heading for the US.
While much of controversy stems from Nato’s decision to base some of the radar and missiles in former Warsaw pact countries, US experts say that basing missiles nearer to Russia actually makes them less effective against Russian missiles. Mr Rogov agrees the real threat to Russian missiles would come from the sea-launched Aegis class cruisers, which could be positioned later in the flight path of Russian missiles, giving them more time to reach their targets.
“There is a real sense of unreality. They don’t listen to our arguments, and we don’t listen to theirs,” says Mr Rogov.
The debate about missile defence is therefore, says Mr Rogov, “about technologies on both sides that don’t yet exist, and may never exist”. He adds that the US is “deploying technology against Iranian ICBMs which Iran doesn’t have, while Russia is concerned about similarly non-existent American interceptors”.
He concludes: “The argument is a just a battle of worst-case scenarios.”