Putin Raising The Risk Of Nuclear Conflict By Deliberately Increasing Uncertainty
October 10, 2023
  • Aleksander Golts
Military expert Aleksander Golts analyzes Putin's latest nuclear threats in the context of Russia's suspension of participation in the New START Treaty. In his view, Moscow is making a resumption of negotiations on nuclear weapons contingent on the US ending support for Kyiv.
Vladimir Putin at the recent Valdai Forum, October 2023. Source: Wiki Commons
For many years now, Russia’s nuclear potential, capable of wiping out humanity, has had a special place in Vladimir Putin’s annual speeches at the Valdai Discussion Club. You might recall Putin’s prophecy from 2018 that in the event of a nuclear war, Russians would go to heaven and the aggressor would burn in hell.

The conversation with experts that took place on October 5 was also not without sensational nuclear rhetoric. Sergei Karaganov, one of the founders of Valdai, asked whether Moscow should lower the standard for the use of nuclear weapons in its military doctrine to “sober up” Western countries, which are supposedly waging an aggressive war against Russia. In a number of recent articles, Karaganov called for such a “sobering-up,” advocating limited nuclear strikes on cities in NATO member countries.

De-ratifying the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

While noting that he understands Karaganov’s “patriotic feelings,” Putin said that he does not consider it necessary to update Russia’s nuclear doctrine. However, before foreign experts could breathe a sigh of relief, the president stated that he regularly hears expert opinions that Russia should resume nuclear tests. At that point, he made a sensational announcement: “the latest test launch of Burevestnik was a success. It is a nuclear-powered cruise missile with a basically unlimited range. By and large, Sarmat, a super heavy missile, is also ready. All we have left is to complete all the administrative and bureaucratic procedures and paperwork so that we can move to mass production and deploy it in combat standby mode.”

Experts insist, Putin continued, on testing the warhead that the new missiles will carry. Putin said that he had not made a final decision on the matter. However, he called attention to the imbalance between Russia and the US in terms of nuclear testing: whereas Moscow had ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Washington had not (though it is a signatory – RP). Putin recommended that the Duma “revoke ratification.” The very next day, MPs launched the “de-ratification” process.
Judging by Putin’s comments, the Kremlin has radically changed its approach to the development of nuclear missiles.”
The new heavy ICBM Sarmat being tested at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, March 2018.
Source: Wiki Commons
In the recent past, a series of successful tests were standard before a new missile could go into service. For instance, the R-36M2 Voevoda ICBM (NATO reporting name SS-18 Satan), which is the missile slated to be replaced by the Sarmat, was tested 26 times over two and a half years in the mid-1980s. Moreover, consider the fact that it was a modification of a long-developed rocket. Meanwhile, several years ago, testing of the RSM-56 Bulava SLBM, which would be put on Borei class submarines, also took considerable time. Due to constant failures, 32 test launches had to be conducted. Thus, long test cycles with almost guaranteed failures were the norm for Russian missile engineering.

Fast-tracked into service

But now something unprecedented is happening. The Sarmat heavy missile has been under development for more than a decade, having faced considerable difficulties. Since 2016, high-ranking military officials and defense industry representatives have regularly promised to begin testing and quickly put the missile into service. And just as regularly, the dates for testing and deployment have been pushed back.

The first and only successful test of the Sarmat took place in April 2022, six years after Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly in which he unveiled the development of unprecedentedly powerful new rockets. The next test of the Sarmat took place on February 17, 2023, on the eve of another address to the Federal Assembly. However, according to the US government, it was a failure. Yet these, to put it mildly, modest results were enough to deploy the heavy missile in combat mode, as Putin claimed at Valdai. Note that the media, citing a “source in the defense industry,” has previously reported that the minimum number of test launches is five.

The story of the Burevestnik, the exotic nuclear-powered cruise missile, is even stranger. According to media reports citing intelligence data, a dozen and a half tests have been conducted since 2017, of which only one could be called “partially successful.” At the beginning of October 2023, The New York Times, based on satellite images from Planet Labs, reported preparation for or already completed testing of the Burevestnik at a Russian base on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. A few days later, Putin made the statement about the successful test launch.
One can only guess as to whether the Kremlin really intends to begin production and deployment of missiles that have not actually been tested, or whether it is launching a fresh nuclear blackmail campaign.”
For years, Putin has spared no effort to maintain Russia’s massive nuclear potential, to that end channeling gigantic financial and material resources. Nuclear weapons are considered Russia’s greatest asset, seen as putting the country on an equal footing with the US. It was telling that in the propaganda television documentary Crimea. The Way Home about the military operation to annex the peninsula, Putin said that at that time Russia could have put its nuclear forces on alert and that he had threatened leaders of other states: “we were ready to do this. I talked to my colleagues and told them that this (Crimea) is our historical territory, Russian people live there, they are in danger, we cannot abandon them.”

Later, in another propaganda film called World Order, speaking about the use of Kalibr cruise missiles against targets in Syria, Putin emphasized that it is proof that Moscow has powerful weapons: “Russia has the will to use them if it corresponds to the national interests of our state and the Russian people.”

At the end of the 1990s, this approach even received theoretical justification with the so-called doctrine of “extended nuclear deterrence,” which assumed that the very fact of having a powerful nuclear arsenal should play a decisive role in resolving any international problem in line with Russian interests. And now, it seems, we are seeing a new version of “extended deterrence.”

Putin’s threats not achieving the desired effect

After February 2022, the constant reminders of Russia’s massive nuclear potential and hints of its possible use reached a crescendo. As early as February 27, Putin issued the following order: “senior officials of leading NATO countries have also made aggressive statements against our country, therefore I order the minister of defense and the chief of the general staff to put the deterrent forces of the Russian army in a special regime of combat duty.”

Only six months later did Russian diplomats find it necessary to clarify that Putin merely meant “shifts at strategic forces command points” were to see personnel reinforcements. A few days before Russia annexed territories in eastern Ukraine, Putin announced a partial mobilization in Russia and said that when its territorial integrity is threatened, Russia would use all means, including nuclear weapons.

However, these threats no longer delivered the results the Kremlin had hoped for. Though Western states have made weapons supplies to Ukraine conditional on Kyiv’s not using them against internationally recognized Russian territory, they have duly ignored all the other “red lines” that Moscow laid down.

More and more long-range and high-precision weapons are being supplied to Kyiv. Meanwhile, Washington has reacted directly and rather sharply to Moscow’s nuclear hints. President Biden noted the increasing danger a year ago: “for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat to the use [sic] of nuclear weapons, if in fact things continue down the path they have been going.”

A month later, a White House official said that CIA Director William Burns had warned his Russian counterpart Sergei Naryshkin about “the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons by Russia, and the risks of escalation to strategic stability.” After this, the Russian threats died down. But only for a while.

Kremlin raising the stakes

The Kremlin calculated that the stakes should be raised. This happened on February 22, 2023, when Putin announced the suspension of Russia’s participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). In fact, it was the last surviving (and most important) of the Russia-US disarmament treaties. Putin argued that the inspections of nuclear facilities provided for by the treaty look absurd in the context of the conflict in Ukraine and the current intentions of the West to “inflict a strategic defeat on Russia.” He also accused “NATO specialists” of helping to equip and modernize Ukrainian drones that attacked Russian strategic air bases. Still, Moscow said that it would continue to adhere to the restrictions (700 deployed delivery vehicles and 1,550 nuclear warheads) set out in the treaty, as well as give notice about upcoming missile tests.

As a result, all inspections, which had allowed the sides to check the actual composition and condition of each other’s nuclear forces, were stopped. Now, Russia can make any statement about deploying the Sarmat (in the Kremlin’s mind, this hypothetical deployment is fundamentally important to maintain the appearance of quantitative nuclear parity with the US), which no one can verify.
Suspension of the treaty also relieves Moscow of the need to discuss the extent to which the Burevestnik missile complies with the provisions of the treaty.
Russia has resolutely refused to discuss the future of the treaty, even though the US has proposed it. “On the basis that the Americans are now proposing we are not ready to conduct this dialogue and will not do so, because they ignore several key points in the whole configuration: namely, we must, first of all, be sure that the US course, fundamentally hostile to Russia, changes for the better for us. This is not even close to being the case, and, rather, I would say that the opposite process is taking place: the anti-Russian component in the American line is not just predominating, but is getting worse and going beyond all conceivable limits, with great associated risks,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. In other words, the US must stop supporting Kyiv for Russia to resume negotiations on nuclear weapons.

The Kremlin, hoping to reduce Western support for Ukraine, is quite diligently working to plunge the situation with nuclear weapons into a state of maximum uncertainty. This is extremely dangerous in the current context. Without information about the state of the other side’s nuclear forces and intentions, the military will assume worst-case scenarios. And this means that the risk of a nuclear confrontation is rising.
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