Russia's Nuclear Bluster: How Should America Respond?

"There are no winners in nuclear chess; each player ends up in checkmate."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has not been shy in brandishing his country’s nuclear weapons. Not since Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev boasted of “producing missiles like sausages” and issued his warning to Western ambassadors that “we will bury you” has the world been subjected to a leader in Moscow so loudly rattling his nuclear saber. With U.S.-Russian relations continuing to deteriorate and worldwide nuclear arsenals still holding some 15,700 warheads and bombs, it is all the more important to deliberate on guidelines for effectively dealing with such conduct.

Nuclear Bluster

Since the Ukraine crisis, Putin has explicitly reminded his audiences of Russia’s large nuclear arsenal and, following the seizure of Crimea, he declared that he had been ready to put Russian nuclear forces on alert. He has also gone out of his way to herald the production of new nuclear missiles and bombers, and has authorized active, and sometimes reckless, nuclear-capable aircraft activity on the periphery of NATO. And he has apparently authorized the testing of ground-launched cruise missiles that violate the 1987 Treaty on Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces.

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The nature of international relations has been fundamentally altered by the development and deployment of nuclear weapons. Their use in war now poses a much more imminent threat to civilization and even to life on our planet than does climate change. Nuclear threats, however empty, cannot be taken lightly, and increasing reliance on nuclear weapons cannot be considered an acceptable option.

Cold War Lessons

The recent book release of “Nixon’s Nuclear Specter” by Jeffrey P. Kimball and William Burr provides a useful reminder that the United States also engaged in nuclear bluffing and posturing during the Cold War—and domestic politics was often part of the calculus. Most of Washington’s risky moves—such as concocting a nuclear alert in 1969 to induce the Soviets to pressure North Vietnam for concessions in the peace talks—were remarkably unsuccessful in achieving their objectives.

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Objectively perusing such histories of the nuclear age can inform our thinking about how current challenges with Russia should be addressed. Doing so prompts several behavioral guidelines:

·      Soberly assess the military implications of the nuclear threats issued

Most of Putin’s nuclear maneuvers are less significant militarily than headlines would have you believe.

In early June, for example, President Putin trumpeted the news that Russia would deploy forty new ICBMs in 2015 with multiple, independently-targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), but that number was actually lower than the figure he had used last December. Moreover, even if this were a net increase—unlikely because older systems are being retired—it would leave Russia’s deployed ballistic missile totals well below both U.S. levels and the 700 limit allowed under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Adding newer MIRVed missiles might permit Russia to reach New START’s 1,550 limit on deployed warheads and bombers as its 10-warhead SS-18 ICBMs are retired, but it would not increase its target coverage of NATO countries.

Russia’s Air Force chief Col.-Gen. Viktor Bondarev confirmed in late May Putin’s decision to restart production of Russia’s most advanced heavy bomber, the Tu-160 Blackjack, with plans to build at least fifty of a modernized variant, tripling the country’s strategic bomber force.

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Press coverage in both Russia and the U.S. featured pictures of the sleek swing-wing bomber, the largest in the world, but the fine print left a different impression. The decision to build more of the Cold War-era bombers was reportedly necessitated by slippage in the schedule for replacing them with a fifth-generation system, the PAK DA. The new Tu-160s would start rolling out around 2023, allowing Russia to maintain viable bomber forces (including cruise missiles) through the decade, but these forces would be less numerous and less capable than those envisioned for the U.S. bomber leg.

·      Avoid tit-for-tat reactions

It is important not to overreact when Russian military gestures are made for mostly symbolic reasons or for managing domestic politics. Moscow often appears intent to goad the West into a response, which can then support Russia’s narrative that it is the victim and not the cause of belligerence and tension.

Accordingly, NATO has been wise to so far resist the urgings of some in the West to deploy nuclear weapons onto the territories of its eastern-most members or to assume NATO-like defense obligations toward Georgia or Ukraine. Likewise, Russian testing (not deployment) of banned INF ground-launched cruise missiles has been the subject of private talks and public rebukes, but it has not (yet) provoked counterproductive military deployments of comparable systems.