President Medvedev's statement on Russia's response to the U.S. European missile defense plans was probably supposed to demonstrate Russia's frustration with the lack of progress in its discussions with the Unites States and NATO and to demonstrate that Russia is taking the issue seriously. In short, the United States should get serious about giving Russia a legally binding guarantee that the system will not be directed against its strategic forces, or else. But, or else what?
There was a lot of talk coming from Moscow about some kind of a dangerous new arms race that the U.S. intransigency would presumably trigger, but a closer look at what this arms race might involve shows that there is very little that Russia could do beyond what has been already done. Will it deploy multiple warheads on its otherwise single-warhead missiles? Well, deployment of RS-24, a MIRVed version of Topol, began almost two years ago. Will Russia start development of a new MIRVed heavy ICBM? That decision has been already made earlier this year. Moreover, another ICBM appears to be in the works. What about more warheads on SLBMs? That's the idea of the Liner SLBM project - this version of R-29RM missile apparently will carry up to ten warheads. Maybe Russia will withdraw from the New START? It could, but the treaty does not limit its forces in any meaningful way - according to Russia's minister of defense, Russia won't reach the limit on warheads established by the treaty until 2018 and the one on launchers - until 2028.
Of course, virtually all these modernization programs were justified as a response to the U.S. missile defense deployment, offering to build systems that "could penetrate any future defense." But when the Russian government announced that it will spend $70 billion over the next decade on its strategic forces, nobody said this money will be taken away if the United States and Russia reach an agreement on missile defense.
There should be no doubt that missile defense is a fundamentally flawed concept - it offers no meaningful protection against missile threats. Everybody will be better off if (when) the U.S. program runs out of political support and money. But at the same time it is too easy to blame everything on missile defense - we should keep in mind that it is too often an excuse for the decisions that would have been made anyway. Russia's strategic modernization has its own logic and will go ahead with or without limits on U.S. missile defense. So will the Chinese one. The United States, which is facing no missile defense, is about to begin a thorough and expensive overhaul of its strategic forces. The question we should ask is not how will missile defense affect this strategic buildup but why is it happening in the first place.