Putin’s Use of the ‘Nuclear Card’

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 122

Russian Topol-M ICBM (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

President Vladimir Putin continues to use strong rhetoric not only linked to what he sees as Kyiv’s “responsibilities” to adhere to Minsk II but also in an increasingly controversial area of Russia’s military modernization: namely the future role of the country’s nuclear deterrent. Moscow has also claimed that Kyiv’s ceasefire violations are not as widely reported as those on the part of the Donbas separatists (Vesti, June 9). On June 16, during the Russian arms show Armiya 2015, in Kubinka near Moscow, Putin issued a statement referring to the modernization of 40 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM). In so doing, the Russian president quickly evoked responses from senior officials from the United States government and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The West is increasingly anxious about Russian military aggression in Ukraine, which shows no sign of abating. Furthermore, Western officials are more and more concerned by the manner in which Russia’s nuclear triad is somehow “folded into” Russian military exercises—such as by strategic bombers testing NATO airspace and by Putin’s comments, on the anniversary of Crimea’s annexation, which contained a nuclear motif. However, the speed and level of concern among the US and NATO leadership about Putin’s recent nuclear references at the Armiya 2015 event confirm deeper uncertainty over Russia’s nuclear posture (Rossiya 1 TV, June 16).

First, the specific origin of the recent controversy stems from Putin’s comments as he opened the Armiya 2015 arms show: saying that, in 2015, Russia will add 40 ICBMs to its nuclear forces and adding that these will have the capability to overcome any missile defense system. His comments and their timing quickly drew condemnations from US Secretary of State John Kerry, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Allied commander in Europe General Philip Breedlove. Their responses characterized Putin’s statement as “reckless,” “unacceptable,” “destabilizing” and “dangerous” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, June 22).

This was clearly a case of timing, rather than necessarily substance; Moscow’s attachment of high importance to nuclear deterrence and the modernization of its nuclear triad are all familiar features of its strategic posture and security doctrine. It has been underscored constantly in recent years by statements from the political-military leadership; even the role of tactical nuclear weapons has been a tangible element in the country’s strategic-operational military exercises.

In May 2015, for example, sources in the Russian General Staff told TASS about plans to enhance the Strategic Rocket Forces by 2020. By 2019–2020, the Strategic Rocket Forces (Raketnyye Voyska Strategicheskogo Naznacheniya—RVSN) will be increased from 12 to 13 missile divisions, which will be achieved by including the railway-based ICBMs among the RVSN. The leadership of the RVSN also dismissed the idea that the adoption of the RS-26 (Yars) and the giant liquid-fueled Sarmat missiles will change the battle order, as they will simply replace other systems being phased out. The former chief of the RVSN, Colonel-General Viktor Yesin, said that the creation of the rail-based “Barguzin” is part of the Russian response to the deployment of the US global missile defense system. The “Barguzin’s” predecessor was taken out of service in 2005, but, according to Yesin, the 2010 US-Russian START III agreement does not prohibit the deployment of such systems (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, May 7).

On June 26, inadvertently offering fresh evidence of the deterioration in US-Russian relations, an editorial by Oleg Vladykin in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye (NVO) highlighted the recent nuclear controversy and offered a Kremlin-friendly interpretation of these developments. The article shows the growing distance opening between both sides and underscores the deep attachment to nuclear weapons as the bedrock of Russian security strategy. Vladykin first referred to Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov’s retort to Western responses to the Russian president’s nuclear remarks: Peskov essentially argued that no one need be concerned by Russia’s nuclear modernization. Peskov also added that it is not Russia but NATO that is changing the balance of forces. By June 20, the attempt to defuse nuclear tensions had moved to the context of Russia’s need to respond to US and NATO plans to base heavy weaponry in the Alliance’s East (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, June 26).

Conceptually however, the NVO editorial argued the case that NATO is seeking any excuse to blame Russia for upping the nuclear ante, and rooted his argument in the terms of START III. In this context, the article notes that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, at the enlarged meeting of the defense ministry board in mid-December 2014, had stated that the RVSN received 38 new ICBMs in 2014. In addition, the commander of the RVSN, Colonel-General Sergei Karakayev, announced plans to add 24 new Yars ICBMs in 2015. Later, the Navy confirmed that it would see 16 of the long-delayed Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missiles enter service in 2015. Vladykin believes that this is where Putin arrived at the overall figure of “40,” before noting that Russia lags behind the US in terms of its nuclear arsenal. He neglected to highlight Moscow’s repeated threat to withdraw from START III, if there is no agreement reached on ballistic missile defense (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, June 26).

The same editorial recalled the US withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty and the eventual fissure of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which its author attributes to NATO enlargement. With US and NATO anxiety over Russia’s nuclear posture in light of recent strategic bomber flights close to NATO airspace, submarine activity, as well as hostile rhetoric linked to the stand-off over Ukraine, Moscow still reserves its right to pull-out of START III (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, June 26). Moscow’s options to respond to what it deems as NATO’s unnecessary basing of military hardware in the Baltic region and in Eastern Europe, as well as its concerns over missile defense are driving its threats to place tactical nuclear warheads in Kaliningrad and Crimea using the Iskander launch system.

Nonetheless, amidst these nuclear interpretations and attempts to read each other’s posture, there is a much deeper issue linked to how the Kremlin views tactical nuclear weapons as a weapon of choice in an escalating conflict as a means to “de-escalate.” This doctrine, which emerged after the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, sees the use of limited or demonstration nuclear strike as a means to compel the other side to seek a political solution. Moscow also sees nuclear strike as part of its asymmetric response strategy to US missile defense. And, if Moscow comes to believe that the Alliance would stop short of nuclear use during a crisis in NATO’s East, then the entire theme of 21st century nuclear deterrence needs urgent revision.