According to the pro-Kremlin pollster FOM, the majority of Russians (53 percent) consider the threat of nuclear war “real,” with most believing the main threat is coming from the United States. Some 39 percent of Russians do not believe in an impending nuclear war with the West. But in the age bracket from 46 to 60 years old, some 63 percent of Russians consider the threat of nuclear war both real and imminent (Gazeta.ru, December 7). Since Russia’s forcible takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, relations between Moscow and the West have deteriorated and, today, remain about as frigid as they were during most of the Cold War. Of course, the actual beginning of the confrontation dates back much further. Notably, President Vladimir Putin delivered his infamously combative speech at the February 2007 Munich Security Conference, where he spelled out his vision of the US and its allies as a hostile force bent on undermining Russia and its deserved place in the world. It took years for Washington to acknowledge that Putin was serious and not just engaging in a public relations stunt for internal consumption. Russian rulers are, indeed, quite convinced that only by deploying superior conventional and nuclear military forces, can Russia deter or at least survive a looming all-out war with the US and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies.
In the run-up to the November 3, 2020, US presidential elections, Moscow and Washington attempted to agree to a last-minute prolongation of the New START strategic nuclear arms control treaty, scheduled to expire on February 5, 2021. The deal would have involved also signing a supplementary political declaration that both sides freeze all nuclear weapons, including those not covered by New START, as well as pledge to begin new ambitious arms control negotiations that, the US insisted, would have to include China. This effort failed, with both parties blaming the other. The main US negotiator in the collapsed New START prolongation effort—Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Ambassador Marshall Billingslea—reportedly called on “future US administrations” not to prolong the strategic arms control treaty without a verifiable “freeze” of non-strategic nuclear weapons or without China becoming involved in further arms limitation talks. Moscow has agreed, in principle, to declare a one-year nuclear pause but without verification, and it has avoided calling for the inclusion of China in any future negotiations without Beijing’s consent, which is not forthcoming (Militarynews.ru, December 9).
Moscow, in turn, has been insisting that the Donald Trump administration renew the joint November 1985 Geneva summit statement denouncing nuclear war (“we [Moscow and Washington] have agreed that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”). Billingslea has reportedly also advised “future US administrations” not to underwrite this statement so long as Russia continues building up its nuclear capabilities not covered by New START and plans to use them in a possible conflict with the West (TASS, December 9). Moscow-based defense experts pushed back against Billingslea, insisting Russia is a peace-loving nation not preparing to attack anyone, while accusing Washington of lying as it plans to strike or invade their country (Vzglyad, December 9).
On December 9, Russian state television distributed defense ministry footage of multiple launches of long-range cruise missiles carried by Tu-95 (NATO reporting name: “Bear”) and Tu-160 (“Blackjack”) strategic bombers. The videos also showed the simultaneous launch of ground- and submarine-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. This exercise tested the ability of the Russian nuclear strategic triad to launch an attack on the enemy (the US). Putin reportedly took part in the show by giving orders to fire, entering launch codes and so on (TASS, December 9). Reportedly, a US Boeing RC-135 surveillance aircraft was deployed off Kamchatka to monitor the Russian sea- and land-based intercontinental missiles impacting the Kura training facility in Kamchatka (Interfax, December 9). According to Dmitry Rogozin, the director general of Roscosmos, the US is “nervously overreacting to Russia’s successful missile tests” (Militarynews.ru, December 10).
Putin was ordering the missile test launches on December 9 from his secluded residence, where he has been spending most of his time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kremlin leader’s Il-80 airborne command jet—the Russian equivalent of the US E-4B Nightwatch—was burglarized as it sat, awaiting maintenance, on an airstrip belonging to the Beriev Aircraft Company, in Taganrog (Rostov Oblast). The unknown thieves reportedly broke a hatch and stole some 44 pieces of electronic communication equipment, effectively disabling the aircraft’s capabilities as a flying command center, from which Putin and his generals could have directed Russian forces in a possible nuclear war. The theft of highly classified equipment is a serious breach of security, according to military flight experts. But it is also possible that the purloined components were of Cold War vintage, dating back to the 1980s, when the jet itself was built (Militarynews.ru, December 9).
Soviet-produced military-grade aircraft electronics contain relatively large amounts of precious metals: gold, platinum and silver. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a cottage industry grew up in Russia and the other newly independent republics of clandestinely extracting the gold and other metals out of electronic scrap abandoned all over the territory of the collapsed Cold War nuclear superpower. The thieves that burglarized Putin’s command jet may have transported their loot over the porous Ukrainian border, close to Taganrog, into the lawless occupied Donbas, and from there possibly smuggled it further into Ukraine proper. The precious metals could have been extracted somewhere in Donbas or in Kyiv-controlled Ukraine (Novaya Gazeta, December 8). Four Il-80 jets were built in total by the Soviet Union, of which three were heretofore considered operational. But that number might now be down to two (Lenta, December 9).
The Il-80 is based on the civilian Il-86 passenger jet. The machine is heavy and uses Kuznetsov NK-86 engines that consume lots of fuel, meaning that the plane needs to refuel often—a potential problem during nuclear war. At least two of the Il-80s have in-flight refueling rods, but Russia possesses a tiny fleet of Il-78 tankers; actual in-air refueling is done seldom, and pilots are generally not well accustomed with the procedure. Instead of flying command jets amidst a nuclear exchange, Putin and his generals will need to rely on their secured underground bunkers.