Putin and Misfired Missiles
On February 17, Russian president Vladimir Putin watched as a Russian submarine reportedly failed to properly launch two ballistic missiles in a naval exercise – although some Russian officials later contended the launches were only simulations. A third ballistic missile launch from another submarine went awry the next day. This did not stop Putin from announcing on the same day the successful launch of a strategic ballistic missile carrying what he described as a “new weapons system”.
In an English language transcript supplied by the Russian Foreign Ministry, Putin added: Russia possesses “combat-ready armed forces and this includes the nuclear forces.” He emphasized that the recent exercises cleared the way for adding to the Russian arsenal “new hyper-sound-speed, high-precision…weapons systems that can hit targets at intercontinental ranges and adjust their altitude and course as they travel.”
The Russian leader implied that such weapons would be ideal for beating potential missile defense systems.
On March 29, the two main Russian news agencies, Interfax and Itar-Tass, quoted an unidentified Russian defense official as saying “Russia has developed a revolutionary weapon that will make the prospective US missile defense useless”. While Putin spoke about a development program, the official referred to a weapon already in existence – one that would give Russia its first substantial strategic advantage over the United States.
Military and intelligence experts around the world have been puzzling over the precise type of weapon the unnamed defense official was alluding to.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts offer some possibilities:
A maneuverable ballistic missile whose trajectory could be adjusted not only as it climbs into outer space but also as it descends toward its target. It would mark the first time a missile could be “steered” as it streaks downward, making interception by an anti-ballistic missile impossible.
A hypersonic cruise missile – another revolutionary concept. Conventional cruise missiles fly at subsonic speed, staying low to avoid radar, and can be intercepted by aircraft flying twice as fast. Nothing, however, could stop a supersonic cruise missile.
But several intelligence services, including some in the United States, had a third theory. No such weapons have been developed. Putin, personally embarrassed by the missile firing goofs, decided to shoot some sci-fi make-believe to blot out the pictures of misfired missiles flashing across world television screens. The president chose the fiction carefully, linking it to weapons programs genuinely under development.
Anonymous defense ministry bureaucrats, however, went a bridge too far. Anxious to “punish” Putin for publicly reprimanding his military chiefs over the launch mishaps and disclosing the type of advanced weapons Russia was working on, they brought the future into the present. In doing so, they placed the president’s credibility in doubt.
Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf similarly found himself in an awkward corner during an interview with CNN correspondent Aaron Brown on Thursday, March 18.
The interviewer found him in a mellow mood. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, he had just had a satisfying conversation with US secretary of state Colin Powell, who had flown to Islamabad especially to thank him on behalf of the Bush administration for throwing Pakistani troops into the Hammer and Anvil campaign in progress against al Qaeda and Taliban forces on both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan frontier of mountainous Waziristan, south of the city of Khost.
While US forces pushed from the east, Pakistanis troops went on the offensive from the west. The campaign was aimed at spiking the prospective Taliban-al Qaeda Spring Offensive in Afghanistan that was timed to coincide with a parallel drive against US forces in Iraq.
American commanders in Iraq had already dubbed the coming assault as the Iraqi Tet Offensive, a reference to the 1968 Viet Cong-North Vietnamese campaign that shattered a lunar New Year’s truce.
Powell went beyond a thank you. He also delivered a White House promise of funding for the Pakistani military input in the campaign as well as new weapons and intelligence systems for Pakistan’s armed forces, however much India complains. US special forces, intelligence officers and surveillance drones would be sent over to support the Pakistani offensive. President George W. Bush was also willing to throw in some economic breaks.
Musharraf told Powell for the umpteenth time that neither he nor his SIS military intelligence had the slightest clue to the whereabouts of al Qaeda’s top leaders Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Zuwahiri.
But he wove a quite different tale for the benefit of the CNN interviewer. Following their conversation, Brown reported: “Pakistani forces believe that al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zuwahiri, is among the group of al Qaeda fighters they are now surrounding in western Pakistan. They believe he is among some 200 well-trained and equipped extremist fighters, and they are digging in for a tough battle.”
Listening in, Musharraf added for good measure: “The net has been cast. They (Zuwahiri and other top al-Qaeda operatives) are there. We can see them digging in at their fortified positions. The houses there are almost fortresses – reinforced mud huts. They hold all of these fortresses. They have dug in and are conducting a determined fight. Therefore, I am reasonably sure there is a high value target among them.”
A media whirlwind followed. Some outlets not only reported hat Zuwahiri was in the area but also quoted US intelligence sources as saying there were recordings of his voice from the field along with reports he had been wounded.
The bubble burst two days later, when Pakistani military spokesman major general Shukat Sultan was forced to concede that Pakistani forces had pulled back from the battle zone and that only low-ranking al Qaeda fighters had been found.
But while Putin’s embroidery of the facts caused him little real damage, Musharref ended his spin journey around the world media with a painful crash. The failure of the Pakistani offensive brought the US Hammer and Anvil campaign to a grinding halt. Both participants were left clutching air.
Bin Laden and Zuwahiri remain free, al Qaeda and Taliban forces eluded both the hammer and the anvil and the fate of the fundamentalists’ spring offensive is unclear.
Six months of preparations by the US military command in Afghanistan, including the transfer of special forces from Iraq to tighten the noose around al Qaeda leaders, went down the drain.
The tangled case of the Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan vis a vis the White House is harder to explain. It started with his announcement of new proposals to separate Israel from the Palestinians by unilaterally drawing a security line in the West Bank and removing Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. He promised he would only act on these proposals with the assent of President George W. Bush. On the Palestinian side, there was no negotiating partner – only terrorist leaders.
So far; so good.
But then, US officials insisted that the Sharon proposals did not add up to a plan and they were waiting for details before publicly offering support. Next, the White House rejected the “contradictory and confused” reports presented by Israeli emissaries to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Finally, in late March, the White House sent a caustic message to the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem: We give up. If you want to implement the plan, go right ahead – but don’t bother asking for our advice or consent. We are against it.
Yet Sharon and his spokesmen insist on keeping up the fiction that the White House is behind his disengagement scheme and only waiting for the right moment to say so. They expect his April 14 talks with Bush to produce an American commitment to Israel’s security and cooperation in the war on terror. However, there is nothing new there – that’s been the situation for the past 56 years.
The state of US-Israeli relations is deteriorating as Sharon tacks and weaves between pious hopes and ebbing credibility. Finally, this week, he threw a bone to the critics at home who resent his go-it-alone tactics – not so much in relation to the Palestinians as towards his own party, government and parliament. He announced that he would put his disengagement plan to the vote of the 200,000 registered members of his own Likud party and accept the outcome.
That move has put Sharon even deeper in the mire. He has no business putting a matter of high national importance, whether or not to disengage from the Palestinians and evacuate thousands of Jewish settlers, in the hands of a single political party, says the opposition. It ought to be decided by Israel’s five million eligible voters or their representatives.
Like Putin and Musharraf, Sharon has sailed up the disinformation creek without an oar. Putin at least can always contend Russia’s new ballistic and cruise missiles are still on the drawing board. Musharraf can say he was misinformed about Zuwahiri. But what can Sharon argue – that he misunderstood the White House, or the White House misunderstood him? No matter how he tries to get out of the mess, his political star is fading fast.