Putin’s Nuclear Trash Talk Needs a Serious Response–47g.,b12-3
When Syrian opposition activists pushed John Kerry to take a tougher line with Russian president Vladimir Putin last year, the secretary of state asked them, “What do you want me to do, go to war with Russia?”
It is fast becoming a cliché whenever someone advocates pushing back against Russia and its proxies. Whether it’s establishing a no-fly zone in Syria to stop Bashar al-Assad from raining terror down on his own people, increasing efforts to train and equip Syrian rebels, or providing lethal aid to the Ukrainian government, the response is nearly always a variation on Kerry’s phrase—what do you want, war with Russia? A chief concern of policymakers and analysts in Washington, sometimes explicitly articulated, is that a conflict with Russia wouldn’t remain in the conventional realm. Rather, we would be pushing Russia into an escalatory dynamic that could result in a nuclear exchange.
. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has moved nuclear weapons to the center of its national security strategy and military doctrine, in part to compensate for its conventional military inferiority to NATO. As Putin put it in August 2014 at the height of the crisis over Crimea, “It’s best not to mess with us. . . . Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.”
Since that time, Moscow has brandished nuclear forces in a way we have not seen since the end of the old Cold War. Nearly every major Russian military exercise in the past decade has ended with simulated nuclear strikes. Rather than lose a conventional war to NATO, Russia plans to conduct limited nuclear strikes on NATO civilian and military targets in an effort to force the West to sue for peace on terms favorable to Moscow. They bet, perhaps correctly, that Western leaders would prefer capitulation to Russia than running any risk of a broader nuclear exchange.
Russia’s nuclear-centric strategy is meant to intimidate potential opponents. Putin understands that Western leaders fear nuclear confrontation, and he uses these threats to terrify Western audiences with images of a nuclear war on the horizon and thereby deter their governments from challenging Russian interests. Putin’s nuclear threats provide a cover under which he acts with impunity in what he sees as his geopolitical sphere of influence, including the domain of the former Soviet Union and, apparently, parts of the Middle East. That the first response of so many U.S. policymakers and analysts to Russian aggression is a rhetorical question about nuclear war with Russia indicates that Putin’s strategy is successful.
The answer, rather, is to turn the tables on Moscow and force Putin to worry a bit about the risks of escalation in confrontations with the West. As we saw when Ankara splashed a Russian jet that strayed into Turkish airspace, Putin too backs down when the going gets tough.
misguided desire to slash nuclear arsenals and reduce reliance on nuclear weapons—a goal in and of itself—U.S. and NATO nuclear deterrence lacks credibility. As Washington debates the need to modernize America’s decades-old and decaying nuclear arsenal, Russia is already deploying next-generation nuclear missiles and submarines and envisioning novel weapons of terror, such as a nuclear-armed underwater drone. As Russia makes explicit nuclear threats, President Obama considers adopting a nuclear no-first-use policy. In effect, no first use would reassure Russia that it can get away with conventional aggression against America’s allies without worry of a U.S. nuclear response.
Deemphasizing nuclear weapons as an objective in and of itself probably never made sense, but its time has certainly come to an end. The United States must remind Russia and other adversaries that it is a nuclear power. Instead of debating no first use, Washington should be clear and firm that it is willing to use nuclear weapons if necessary to defend itself and its allies. Moreover, Washington should ensure that it has the capabilities to make this policy credible.
This means modernizing all three legs of the strategic nuclear arsenal (missiles, submarines, and strategic bombers) and developing more flexible nuclear options so that it can respond if necessary to a limited Russian “de-escalatory” nuclear strike, for instance. The purpose of renewed seriousness about nuclear policy is not because anyone wants to fight a nuclear war. Quite the contrary. It is precisely to deter Russian nuclear aggression from a position of strength.
With a serious strategic deterrence policy in place, it will be much easier for the United States to pursue its goals in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere.
source–weekly std, matthew kroeing, robert jervis