© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Essay: Russia Rocket Rattling Not Surprising or Alarming

Sean Gallup
Getty Images News
Russian President Vladimir Putin

Tensions continue to mount between Russia and the United States.  A nerve agent attack on a former spy in the UK, expelled diplomats on both sides, nuclear missile testing… it all brings back memories of the Cold War.

Lake Effect essayist Art Cyr says we need to put all of this in context:

Reflecting now firmly established tradition, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has delivered his own version of a state of the union address to the people. His speech on March 1st dealt to a substantial degree with the challenges of economic growth and modernization.

Putin’s speech is the latest installment of the annual address formally titled the Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly. The custom dates back to the early 1990s and the turbulent regime of President Boris Yeltsin. Putin took over national power at the turn of the century, and essentially has maintained control ever since.

Significantly, considerable media attention is devoted to his statements regarding the current and future development of nuclear weapons, including advanced technologically exotic offensive systems and a new generation of cruise missiles. His tone was combative, and the rhetoric clearly aggressive, even if there was nothing especially new in the substance of his remarks.

This is not surprising, given the increasing tensions between Moscow and Washington D.C. Current preoccupation in the United States with confirmed Russian meddling in the 2016 elections has greatly increased hostile sentiments ranging from anxiety to alarm.

In fact, President Barack Obama called attention to this meddling before voting took place. Today’s media commentators and reporters, and of course our politicians, tend to overlook that point. Our current demonization of Russia is one understandable result. The latest partisan-driven effort to try to link criminal activity directly to the White House and President Donald Trump, a legacy of the Watergate scandals of the 1970s, feeds the general obsession with Russia.

Ignored in all this intense political heat is the degree to which Putin’s speech addressed economic rather than military matters. He admitted that Russia’s position remains weak. While the government halted decline, and is taking significant steps to promote investment and infrastructure, the economy remains vulnerable.

Russia’s president employs autocratic and at times ruthless tactics. That reflects both absence of democratic practices and tradition, and the clear preferences of those in charge.

Putin deserves credit for stabilizing an economy in free fall when he took over. Russia was literally disintegrating in tangible terms, public suffering was growing at an alarming rate, and total collapse was imminent. Even though the government averted disaster, Russia remains essentially a developing country, plagued with corruption, lack of investment and basic dependence on petroleum.

On the military side, Putin emphasized the important decision of President George W. Bush to withdraw from the 1972 ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty as partial justification for new weapons development. This treaty complemented another limiting the numbers of strategic missile launchers on both sides. The two SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitation) treaties are capstone diplomatic achievements of President Richard Nixon and adviser, later secretary of state, Henry Kissinger.

Moscow historically gave greater attention than the U.S. to defense but that changed. In the early 1960s, Kennedy administration Defense Secretary Robert McNamara emphasized offensive missiles. He rejected the anti-ballistic missile as impractical and too easily overwhelmed. Later, President Lyndon Johnson forced McNamara to declare support for an ABM system.

President Ronald Reagan gave priority to exotic space-based missile interceptors, termed the Strategic Defense Initiative. The Air Force became the leading service but the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff endorsed the effort. Emphasis on advanced technology greatly increased fears in the Soviet Union.

Putin’s speech directly reflects this Cold War history, along with Russia’s traditional insecurities about security. Russia remains weak, while Americans overreact, as usual.

Lake Effect contributor Art Cyr is director of the AW Clausen Center for World Business at Carthage College in Kenosha.

Arthur I. Cyr is Director of the Clausen Center for World Business and Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha. Previously he was President of the Chicago World Trade Center, the Vice President of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, a faculty member and executive at UCLA, and an executive at the Ford Foundation. His publications include the book After the Cold War - American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia (Macmillan and NYU Press).