The Kremlin and SDI

Since President Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative in March of 1983, it has dominated Western discourse on international security. Throughout this debate, the issues addressed have ranged from technical feasibility to fiscal practicality to the implications of SDI for America’s alliance relations and the strategic balance. It is hardly surprising that SDI has provoked such controversy. Broadly speaking, the program entails a far-ranging effort to explore new concepts for ground- and space-based defense against ballistic missiles that might, in the president’s words, eventually render these weapons "impotent and obsolete."

Naturally, given its implications for the East-West deterrent relationship, SDI has been a lightning rod for Soviet criticism. Although much of its commentary has been patently propagandistic, the Kremlin’s pronouncements have also reflected deeper concerns about what SDI may portend for Soviet prospects in the long-term competition. That the program has figured so centrally in Soviet rhetoric and behavior speaks powerfully of its potential for influencing a broad array of Soviet interests in both the near term and the longer run.

Yet little attention has been paid to the Soviet side of the equation. True enough, there have been numerous efforts to predict the hardware options the Kremlin might pursue in an effort to evade, emulate or neutralize future American strategic defenses. However, in this rush to itemize and contemplate the various technical solutions available to the Soviets, few analysts have given much thought to how Moscow perceives SDI in strategic terms or what it implies for Soviet foreign and defense policy.

The programmatic and policy dimensions of Moscow’s response to SDI will be crucial in determining the ultimate practicality and fate of the American venture. Moreover, insofar as Soviet planners regard SDI as a significant threat, their expectations will largely dictate the leverage SDI offers the West over Soviet force deployments and arms control behavior. For both reasons, it is essential to understand the nature and depth of Moscow’s concerns about SDI and the implications it presents for the full scope of possible Soviet responses.

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