Back in the 1980s there was a school of U.S. strategic analysts referred to as “NUTs” — Nuclear Use Theorists. They argued that it was important to prepare for the limited use of nuclear weapons in order to maintain the U.S. deterrent against the Soviet strategic threat.
NUT thinking seems to have resurfaced in Moscow over the past year. There has been a reactivation of Russian strategic forces on a scale not seen since the demise of the Soviet Union . This new strategic assertiveness is connected to broader trends: the feeling of strategic encirclement as the Baltic countries joined NATO, the Central Europeans joined the European Union, and U.S.-friendly “revolutions” spread from Georgia to Ukraine .
Last February saw the largest naval strategic exercises since 1982, with the embarrassing failed launch of an RSM-54 missile, witnessed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The same month, Putin talked of new weapons “capable of hitting targets deep inside continents at hypersonic speed and change the altitude and direction of their flight” (Interfax, February 17, 2004). In April 2004 a test of the new mobile version of the Topol-M missile was sent to a target near Hawaii instead of the usual site near Kamchatka . In October “protection against air/space attack” was stated as the main task in the draft statement of military policy introduced by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.
In November Putin boasted of a new weapon “of the kind that other nuclear powers do not and will not have.” Experts surmised that he was referring to the maneuvering warheads on the Topol M, which has been deployed since 1998, or perhaps the new solid fuel sea-launched Bulava missile, tested in September (AP, November 18, 2004). In November, an aging 53-TS anti-missile system was test-fired at Sary-Shagan. On December 4, a story on TV Center showed a computer simulation of missiles attacking the United States . It said such missiles could only be shot down during their 10-20 second launch phase — meaning that Washington will seek anti-missile bases near Russia . December 23 saw the first test launch of Russia ‘s main ballistic missile, the SS-18 (Satan), since 1991. Such launches had previously taken place from Baikonur, now in Kazakhstan , and the missiles themselves had been built in Ukraine (Kommersant, December 22).
These steps are an extrapolation, rather than a departure, from previous policy. In 1999 the Zapad-99 (West-99) exercise supposed a blockade of Kaliningrad followed by a “preventive” Russian nuclear strike. In May 2003, the navy simulated sinking an aircraft carrier and attacking the U.S. base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean .
One problem with this strategy is that Russia ‘s nuclear capacity is eroding fast. Eighty percent of the missiles are beyond their warranty. The SS-18’s life is being extended from 10 up to 25 years. Konstantin Makienko estimates that nuclear forces will receive about half the money earmarked for procurement in the 2005 defense budget, which stands at 187 billion rubles ($6 billion), a 27% increase on 2004 (Interfax, December 10; Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, December 24; Vedomosti, December 23; Vremya novostei, December 30).
The new emphasis on the nuclear deterrent is presumably driven by a feeling that affirmations of friendship with the United States have failed to produce the desired results. Washington only respects the strong, and Russia ‘s main claim to great power status is its nuclear arsenal. Russia is still the only power that could destroy the United States within hours. But in practical terms, such reasoning is counter-productive on three counts. (Has anyone in the Kremlin heard of the security dilemma?)
First, it triggers negative reactions among Russia ‘s neighbors. The stepped-up activity reminds them about the potential threats from their neighbor: everything from nuclear accidents to nuclear blackmail. This will cause them to take counter-measures, such as drawing closer to NATO.
Second, Washington still has its own NUTs. Russian nuclear posturing only strengthens their case for more spending on ballistic missile defense, research on a new generation of mini-nukes, etc. It also bolsters congressional critics who are trying to cut the $400 million annual budget for helping Russia decommission and secure its nuclear warheads.
Finally, it wastes money that could be more usefully spent on building a professional army to meet the real security threats facing Russia . (Throughout the 1990s there was a running feud between Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, who wanted to modernize the nuclear deterrent, and Chief of the General Staff Anatoly Kvashnin, whose priority was conventional forces.)
The primary benefit of this saber rattling seems to be symbolic: it eases the wounded psyche of the Russian politico-military elite. It is a reminder of past grandeur, like the cavalry who clatter across Horse Guards Parade in London . More charitably, the Carnegie Endowment’s Rose Gottemoller suggested in a December 14 briefing that Putin was using nuclear strategy to communicate with the public, to assure them that he is looking after the Russian state.
The space and rocket forces were a colossal achievement of the Soviet Union . And they still have some practical value: from commercial space launches to substituting for the U.S. shuttle in helping keep the International Space Station alive. The Military Space Forces were making $30 million through commercial satellite launches, but this was discontinued in 2001 (Kommersant, December 22). Promoting such peaceful applications is the most productive use for the legacy of the Soviet nuclear deterrent, not hyping non-existent strategic threats.