Russia, China and Putin's PR Missile Shield

The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, proudly announced last week that Russia is helping China to build an anti-ballistic missile shield. At present only Russia and the USA have any kind of anti-ballistic missile shield, so this announcement caused some raising of eyebrows and questions as to whether this would alter the strategic balance in the world.

The short answer to that question is ‘no’; at least, not significantly. There is no such thing as the perfect anti-ballistic missile shield. When the USA carried out a simulated test of its system, in perfect weather conditions, it was found that at best it could knock out four out of ten incoming missiles. Those six that it missed (and bear in mind that the USA and Russia have thousands of warheads) could of themselves do irreparable damage to the USA. They would certainly shatter Donald Trump’s plan to ‘make America great again’.

So what’s the significance of Putin’s announcement? In a word (or an acronym), PR. The Kremlin is only too aware that the strategic situation in the last half century has changed from the two superpowers of the Cold War era (USA and USSR); to an unchallenged USA as the dominant power as the twentieth century ended and the twenty-first began; to one where China has emerged as ‘the other’ global superpower, economically and militarily.

The collapse of the USSR and the loss of Russia’s prestigious position on the world stage caused great resentment for Putin. Since he became Russian President in 2000 he has been the archetypal ‘balanced’ leader: he has a chip on both shoulders. He took personally the humiliation of the Russian Army when it left Chechnya with its tail between its legs in 1996 as a sign that Russia had fallen far from its Soviet-era pedestal, and he has been determined to put right what he sees as a terrible wrong.

The first step was to exact revenge on Chechnya, which he did by unleashing a brutal and decisive second Chechen War when still Prime Minister in 1999. Then as the ruler of Russia he set about strengthening the Russian Armed Forces, giving them fighting practice in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine since 2014 and Syria beginning in 2015. He sees these conflicts as testing grounds for the Armed Forces’ capabilities and for new weaponry. He dismissed the financial costs of the intervention in Syria as ‘peanuts’.

Strategically, Putin has achieved one goal: Russia once again plays a major role in what is going on in the Middle East. But when he looks at the wider world he sees that Russia’s influence is still way behind that of the USA and China, and there is no prospect of that changing in the foreseeable future. So he has to make gestures to illustrate that Russia is still a major player on the global stage; and announcing that Russia is helping China to build an anti-ballistic missile shield is one such gesture. Strategically, however, it is little more than a gesture.

There’s a well-known Soviet propaganda poster from the 1930s showing Joseph Stalin holding up high a small child who is waving a red flag with the hammer and sickle. In recent times this has been photo-shopped to show Stalin holding Putin as the child; and Putin holding Trump as the child. Surely it can be only a matter of time when those who can master this technology will produce a version where it is China’s President Xi who is holding the child Putin? Because this is the reality of the Sino-Russian relationship.
Xi holding Putin next?

Whenever Russia shows signs of cosying up to China it should never be forgotten that at the heart of that relationship is fear: Russia has the largest territory of any country in the world, yet a population of only some 135 million, 70 per cent of whom live in the European part of Russia which accounts for only about 30 per cent of Russia’s territory. There’s an awful lot of unoccupied, under-used, resource-rich land in Asian Russia. And one day China, with its one billion plus population may just decide that it neds more territory. There is very little that Russia could do to prevent China taking over large swathes of Eastern Russia.

There was a joke in Soviet times that the then leader, Leonid Brezhnev, woke up in a panic and when asked by his wife what was wrong he said, ‘I had a terrible dream! I was watching the evening news programme, and they reported that all was quiet on the Finnish-Chinese border…’

Putin could well have such a nightmare. And helping the Chinese build an anti-ballistic missile shield won’t make that go away.


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