Is Russia putting nuclear rhetoric on the table?

Russia was ready to put nuclear forces on alert over Crimea, Putin says and according to reports Russia is deploying strategic bombers to Crimea, missiles to Kaliningrad. In the limelight of this events how do you perceive current Russian nuclear policy and should the West somehow react on this? Read few comments.

Nikolai Sokov, Senior Fellow, Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation

On Putin’s statement he was prepared to increase the level of alert during the Crimea referendum, I have no special insights, but it is my belief that the story was invented for that movie. I seriously doubt nuclear weapons were high on Putin’s mind a year ago.

My very considered opinion – and I have written several papers on that as well as spoke at a variety of seminars, both open to public and closed-doors – is that nuclear weapons have played a marginal role in the entire crisis over Ukraine, if any at all. They might be present in the back of the minds of policymakers, but their presence has not changed much, or anything. Russia has not invoked nuclear weapons throughout the crisis, except for rhetoric; Ukraine’s actions would not have been different had it had nuclear weapons; the West’s reaction would not have been different if Russia did not have nuclear weapons.

A close look at the production and deployment rates of nuclear-capable delivery vehicles does not show a change – everything has remained largely the same. There is much more talk about nuclear weapons, for sure, but the only tangible change has been increased patrols by strategic bombers – the only thing that could be done “on the cheap”. Otherwise I have not seen a major commitment of resources. Moreover, I believe that all the talk about nuclear weapons has been primarly intended for domestic consumption as a way to reassure the Russian public; the West has been a secondary audience.

Relocations of various nuclear-capable delivery vehicles (it’s not strategic bombers that are being moved to Crimea, but medium bombers Tu-22M3; they carry short-range missiles, includign nuclear, and gravity bombs; Iskanders are nuclear-capable, but there has not been conclusive evidence that they are equipped with nuclear weapons – instead, their role is apparently primarily conventional, which actually makes them much more usable) are part of large-scale maneuvers. Normally, they are conducted in the fall, but it has been a consistent pattern in the last several years to have unannounced exercises to keep forces in shape. They will likely return back to their usual bases.

This is certainly saber-rattling, no question about that. I believe we should keep to a balanced view, though.

The political intent is, of course, to increase the temperature, to scare the West by reminding it about the assets Russia has. For that reason, I am skeptical about a recent flurry of studies that talk about high risk of misperceptions, unintended responses, or overall high tension. By paying excessive attention to saber-rattling we actually play into Putin’s hands – this is what he intends to achieve.

It might sound as a paradox, but in the end Putin can play this game only because the likelihood of an actual conflict in Europe is very low. Neither Russia, nor NATO have forces (or resources) for a serious war. Thus neither will go to war. This gives Putin (and to a smaller extent NATO) greater leeway to play games and make threatening noises. Had military situation in Europe been truly tense, everyone would have been much more cautious.

The bottom line – register Putin’s moves, but do not succumb to panic or overestimate the level of threat.

Douglas Shaw, Assistant Professor of International Affairs, The Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University

Nuclear weapons deployments and alerts are a dangerous and unreliable means of communication. The United States should not react to nuclear provocations but remain prepared to respond to threats to our security, interests, forces, and allies while the wider international community works to preserve international security. If nuclear weapons have a purpose in the 21st Century, it is to deter the use of other nuclear weapons and this terrible requirement is not advanced — and may be undermined — by ambiguous muscle-flexing.


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