Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Putin’s Maginot Line Exposed by North Korea’s Missile Launch
Putin’s Maginot Line Exposed by North Korea’s Missile Launch

Putin’s Maginot Line Exposed by North Korea’s Missile Launch

Hey mom there’s something in the backroom
I hope it’s not the creatures from above
What if people knew that these were real
I’d leave my closet door open all night
I know the CIA would say
What you hear is all hearsay
I wish someone would tell me what was right
                                             – Blink-182 “Aliens Exist”

As Russian President Vladimir Putin aims his country’s missile defenses westward toward an ambiguous adversary, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un chipped a ballistic missile into Mr. Putin’s eastern backyard. On Sunday, 14 May, a North Korean ballistic missile launched from the Paekun-ri (aka Paegun) missile base located northwest of Pyongyang flew 700 kilometers in thirty minutes to land in the Sea of Japan—a mere 97 kilometers from Vladivostok, where Russia’s Pacific Fleet is home ported. The following day, the North Korean government identified the missile as a Hwasong-12,[1] which first appeared in public at a mid-April military parade in Pyongyang.[2] The official Rodong Sinmum news agency issued photographs purporting to show the launch, accompanied by a lengthy statement, which reads in part:

The most perfect weapon systems in the world will never become the eternal exclusive property of the U.S., [Kim Jong-un] said, expressing the belief that the day when the DPRK uses the similar retaliatory means will come. He continued that on this occasion, the U.S. had better see clearly whether the ballistic rockets of the DPRK pose actual threat to it or not. If the U.S. awkwardly attempts to provoke the DPRK, it will not escape from the biggest disaster in the history, he said, strongly warning the U.S. not to disregard or misjudge the reality that its mainland and Pacific operation region are in the DPRK’s sighting range for strike and that it has all powerful means for retaliatory strike.

Source: Rodong Sinmun

The successful launch of the Hwasong-12 is important in and of itself, and also for what it may signify. Some experts question whether two earlier North Korean test launches conducted in October 2016 were in fact part of an intercontinental missile program and not tests of medium-range ballistic missiles.[3]

It bears further consideration that the Hwasong-12 came within 100 kilometers of Vladivostok, and did so at a time when Mr. Putin was in Beijing attending the Chinese government’s “One Belt” (aka “Silk Road”) forum. According to one public report, Russia, only a few weeks earlier, deployed its S-400 Triumph [NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler] air defense missile system to the border with North Korea south of Vladivostok.[4]

Russia’s Far East

Source: Wikipedia

After Sunday’s Hwasong-12 launch, Mr. Putin said laconically, “There’s nothing good in this.” He elaborated that while “the launch did not pose a direct threat to us, it undoubtedly will further provoke conflict and isn’t a good thing.”[5] He called the test “unacceptable” according to Regnum, continuing, “We need to return to dialogue with North Korea, stop threatening it, and find ways to solve these problems peacefully.”[6]

We are categorically opposed to the expansion of the nuclear powers club, including on the Korean peninsula. We consider [the North Korean missile test] counterproductive and dangerous. On the other hand, so are gross violations of international law, regime change, and promoting an arms race with threats to invade.[7]

The “no direct threat” line was echoed in Nezavisimaya gazeta, which wrote:

North Korea’s missiles fly in unpredictable ways. They do not always impact where their flight guidance system directs them. In principle, they can fall on Russian territory, something that would lead to unpredictable consequences. But Russian air defense and anti-missile defenses are on constant alert. If these missiles threaten our territory, they will be intercepted and destroyed.[8]

It quoted a frequently cited Russian military analyst, Viktor Litovkin, who added:

The fact is North Korea doesn’t target its missiles towards Russia, it aims them toward the Sea of Japan. It therefore doesn’t pose a direct threat to us militarily, though politically, it certainly violates all applicable United Nations Security Council resolutions.[9]

Mr. Litovkin echoed the Russian Defense Ministry, which said, “The missile attack warning system tracked the North Korean missile before it fell into the Sea of Japan. As a result, the Russian military remained fully in control of the situation.”[10] As time progressed, the reported impact spot moved farther from the Russian coastline. The Russian Defense Ministry identified the point of impact as “500 kilometers from the Russian coast,”[11] and some Russian media outlets downplayed its proximity to Vladivostok, for example, electing to use the Japanese Defense Ministry’s Japan-centric identification of the impact point.[12]

Oleg Zhdanov—a politolog or ideologist whose extreme nationalist commentaries appear in publications like Russkaya vesna (“Russian Spring”)[13]—accused the United States of using “North Korea as a pretext” to achieve “their main goal—they deployed a strike group with Tomahawks aboard near the borders of the Russian Federation . . . Russia, in fact, today is isolated. I understand the next step is to declare that Russia is a source of a military threat.”[14] He continued:

On the one hand, while it monitors North Korea, the United States’ Tomahawk strike group continues to blockade the Russian Federation, at the point where all the ballistic missiles located in Russia’s Far Eastern region aimed at the United States are controlled.  There are destroyers on the Baltic side, where [the United States] established an aviation-strike force that can fly to Moscow and back with a single aerial refueling. In Poland and Romania, [the United States] deployed antiballistic missile systems and troops, and transferred a tank division to Poland. In Syria and Afghanistan, Russia was given a clear understanding that any military movements would be brutally suppressed by high precision weapons.[15]

Joining in the Kremlin effort to deflect attention from the North Korean missile test, the Russian Federal Assembly’s official Parlamentskaya gazeta (“Parliamentary Newspaper”) published survey findings, which said that while “39% of Russians consider the North Korean nuclear threat to be real . . . The real threat of the use of nuclear weapons, according to Russians, comes from the United States (50%) and al-Qaida (32%).”[16]

With a land border running over 20 thousand kilometers (12,577 miles), Russia today resembles Charles Dickens’ c.1858 description of Prussia:

It is the awkwardest state on the face of the globe. Its breadth bears no proportion to its length, and its possessions are divided from each other by foreign states. She cannot defend her whole line of frontier.[17]

Mr. Putin faces the perennial challenge of defending a largely indefensible border in Russia’s Far East. As far back as 2009, Russia reportedly deployed an S-400 Triumph [NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler] air defense missile system near Nakhodka (the red dot on the map above) to counter the then rising threat from North Korean ballistic missiles.[18]

In August 2016, the Russian language news portal Gazeta asked military analyst Mikhail Khodarenok the question “What is the state of Russia’s missile defense?”[19] He responded:

With the completion of the full deployment of the missile attack warning system (including the space echelon) and the adoption of the development-stage AMD A-235 Nudol missile system, Russia will regain the positions largely lost in the 1990s.[20]

Regaining a position lost over two decades ago is useful only insofar as the threat landscape remained largely unchanged. As last weekend’s North Korean missile test makes clear, however, that threat landscape has changed ineluctably.

Credit: RIA Novosti

A few weeks ago, Mr. Putin spoke at the restored memorial cross marking where the Governor-General of Moscow, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, was assassinated in February 1905 just steps from the Kremlin’s Nikolskaya Tower. Calling the memorial cross a reminder “of the price that had to be paid for disunity,” Mr. Putin said, “We must protect and defend Russia.”[21] Speaking in November 2016, Mr. Putin said he would protect Russia without “indulging in a frenzied military buildup” (predavat’sya militaristskomu ugaru) against threats arising from “the creation of a United States missile defense system in Europe and NATO’s enlargement eastward;”[22] in 2007, Maksim Agarkov assessed that such threats had “drawn [Russia] into an arms race.”[23]

Crashing into the sea less than 100 kilometers from Vladivostok, North Korea’s Hwasong-12 exposed the fatal porosity of Russian missile defenses in the East. Mr. Putin’s pointless commitment to a westward-facing ballistic missile defense has served to emphasize Russia’s wide-open back door. It is a Russian Maginot Line, and an unaffordable one at that. 

The national missile defense is our Maginot Line. It would give us a false sense of security and be completely ineffective in countering threats that simply go around it . . . The Maginot Line of national missile defense will not only encourage countries to go around it, or to overwhelm it, it could also become the Trojan Horse that lets our enemies into the nuclear club.[24]

Mr. Putin would have been wise to heed the above warning by Senator Richard Durbin, articulated during a 1999 Senate debate. The false promise of Mr. Putin’s European Maginot Line has been exposed by a single North Korean Hwasong-12 missile flying unimpeded to within 100 kilometers of Vladivostok. Yaroslav Shimov’s claims that “at the moment, Russia is fairly inactive in the Far East, as opposed to Europe, where the opposite is true”[25] is as true militarily as it is politically. Notwithstanding Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s late March declaration that Russia will “complete its air defense system to protect Russia’s air and sea borders”[26] by year’s end—and Russian demands that “North Korea refrain from further provocative actions”[27]—last weekend’s missile test bolsters Mr. Putin’s internal critics, who assert Russia’s “Far East has been left unprotected”[28] behind Mr. Putin’s western-facing Maginot Line. 

The translation of all source material is by the author unless otherwise noted.

[1]“Kim Jong Un Guides Test-Fire of New Rocket.” Rodong Sinmum [published online 15 May 2017]. Last accessed 15 May 2017. According to the report, “A test-fire of new ground-to-ground medium long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 was successfully carried out on Sunday by scientists and technicians in the field of rocket research, who are bravely advancing toward a new goal to be proud of in the world, true to the far-sighted idea of Kim Jong Un, chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, for building a nuclear power. Kim Jong Un guided the test-fire on the spot.”

[2] “North Korea’s 2017 Military Parade Was a Big Deal. Here Are the Major Takeaways.” The Diplomat [published online 15 April 2017]. Last accessed 15 May 2017.

[3] “Failed North Korean missile launch was possibly an ICBM capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.” Chosunilbo [published online in Korean 28 October 2016]. Last accessed 15 May 2017.

[4] “SPOTTED: Putin ‘moves military forces’ to North Korea border as world prepares for WAR.” Express [published online 18 April 2017]. Last accessed 15 May 2017.

[5] “Nichego khoroshego: Putin prokommentiroval novyy raketnyy pusk KNDR.” RIA Novosti [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. Last accessed 15 May 2017.

[6] “Putin: «Nuzhno vozvrashchat’sya k dialogu s KNDR».” Regnum [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. Last accessed 15 May 2017.

[7] “Putin: Pusk rakety KNDR ne predstavlyal opasnosti dlya Rossii.” Life [published online in Russian 15 May 2017].новости/1007780/putin_pusk_rakiety_kndr_nie_priedstavlial_opasnosti_dlia_rossii. Last accessed 15 May 2017.

[8] “Kim grozit obrushit’ mech na golovy amerikantsev.” Nezavisimaya gazeta [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. Last accessed 16 May 2017.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “V Minoborony Rossii prokommentirovali ocherednoye ispytaniye raket v KNDR.” Tsargrad [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. . Last accessed 15 May 2017. The missile attack warning system is commonly known by its Russian language acronym, SPRN (Sistema preduprezhdeniya o raketnom napadenii).

[11] “Vladimir Putin: Pusk severokoreyskoy rakety Rossii ne ugrozhal, no konflikt provotsiroval.” Vladnews [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. Last accessed 16 May 2017.

[12] The Japanese Defense Ministry stated that it had “determined the missile fell into the Sea of ​​Japan 450 km from Okushiri Island in Hokkaido Prefecture,” according to Izvestia. See: “Minoborony Yaponii ustanovilo mesto padeniya severokoreyskoy rakety.” Izvestia [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. Last accessed 126 May 2017.

[13]  For example, Mr. Zhdanov wrote in a commentary published in Russkaya vesna that the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariapol is “mentally prepared” to leave Ukraine and join the DPR,” the latter an acronym for the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic [Russian: Donétskaya Naródnaya Respúblika. Ukrainian: Donets’ka Narodna Respublika]. See: “Mariupol’ i Odessa gotovy vyyti iz sostava Ukrainy, — ukrainskiy ekspert.” Russkaya vesna  [published online in Russian 18 April 2017]. Last accessed 16 May 2017.

[14] “Severnaya Koreya blefuyet, — ekspert.” Politolog [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. Last accessed 16 May 2017.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Rossiyane vidyat ugrozu primeneniya KNDR yadernogo oruzhiya — opros.” Parlamentskaya gazeta [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. Last accessed 16 May 2017.

[17] “The Opinions of Field-Marshal Radfetsky.” Bentley’s Miscellany, v.XLIV. (London: Richard Bentley) 591.

[18] “Chetvertyy polk S-400 zastupit na boevoe dezhurstvo v Nakhodke.” RIA Novosti [published online in Russian 15 August 2012]. Last accessed 15 May 2017. The S-400 is designed to engage aircraft, ballistic and cruise missiles. Russia deployed its first S-400 system in 2007.

[19] “Kuda prodvinulas’ rossiyskaya PRO. Kakovo sostoyaniye rossiyskoy protivoraketnoy oborony.” Gazeta [published online in Russian 27 August 2016]. Last accessed 16 May 2017.

[20] Ibid. According to published reports, Russia’s AMD (antimissile defense) A-235 Nudol ballistic missile completed its first successful test flight on 8 November 2015 (the first two test flights failed).

[21] “Putin prizval berech’ i zashchishchat’ Rossiyu.” RIA Novosti [published online in Russian 4 May 2017]. Last accessed 16 May 2017.

[22] “Putin poobeshchal zashchitit’ Rossiyu bez «militaristskogo ugara».” Vedomosti [published online in Russian 30 November 2016]. Last accessed 16 May 2017.

[23] Cited in Keir Giles (2014). European Missile Defense and Russia. (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Press) 13.

[24] Congressional Record- Senate (17 March 1999) 4760.

[25] Yaroslav Shimov (2017). “Politika dvukh maniy.” Inosmi [published online in Russian 12 February 2017]. Last accessed 17 May 2017.

[26] “Shoygu: diviziya VS RF na Dal’nem Vostoke sozdayetsya isklyuchitel’no dlya zashchity Rossii.” Tass [published online in Russian 20 March 2017]. Last accessed 17 May 2017.

[27] “Yaponiya i Rossiya potrebuyut ot KNDR vozderzhat’sya ot provokatsionnykh deystviy.” Tass [published online in Russian 20 March 2017]. Last accessed 17 May 2017.

[28] “Dal’niy Vostok ostavlen bez zashchity.” Voprosik [published online in Russian 28 March 2016]. Last accessed 17 May 2017.