With his ratings down and state funds needed to hedge against new Western sanctions and raise living standards, Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot afford to get sucked into a costly nuclear arms race with the United States.
Alleging Russian violations, Washington said this month it was suspending its obligations under the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and starting the process of quitting it, untying its hands to develop new missiles.
That raises the prospect of a new arms race between Washington and Moscow, which denies flouting the treaty. Putin responded by saying Russia would mirror the U.S. moves by suspending its own obligations and quitting the pact.
But Putin, who has sometimes used bellicose rhetoric to talk up Russia’s standoff with the West and to rally Russians round the flag, did not up the ante.
He did not announce new missile deployments, said money for new systems must come from existing budget funds and declared that Moscow would not deploy new land-based missiles in Europe or elsewhere unless Washington did so first.
“…We must not and will not let ourselves be drawn into an expensive arms race,” Putin told Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
His statement was borne of necessity.
Harsh economic and political realities and memories of how the cost of the Cold War arms race contributed to the Soviet Union’s demise means Putin’s options are limited, a situation that may curb his appetite for expensive escalation in future.
That does not mean Putin is not still spending heavily on the military. He unveiled an array of new weapons last year which he billed as world-beating, including a hypersonic missile, a laser weapon, an underwater nuclear drone and a nuclear-powered cruise missile.
But his ability to bankroll a full-on arms race is limited.