Are Russia and the West on the Cusp of a New Nuclear Arms Race?
June 19, 2024
  • Alexander Golts
Military analyst Alexander Golts argues that as Vladimir Putin’s strategy of using nuclear threats to deter the West from supplying weapons to Ukraine reaches the end of the road, nuclear escalation is becoming a disturbing reality.
In the immediate leadup to World War I, European leaders did not intend to fight. Rather, trying to get each other to back down, they set in motion mass mobilization and began to move troops. However, they quickly discovered that the conflict was escalating no matter their will and they were incapable of stopping it.

Today, in pursuing its strategy of threats against Western countries, the Kremlin, in my view, finds itself literally a few steps away from setting off nuclear escalation.

How Russia does ‘extended deterrence’

From the very beginning of the war against Ukraine, Putin has pursued a policy that Russia calls “extended deterrence” – using nuclear intimidation to force Western states to stop supporting Ukraine.

Three days after the invasion began, the Russian leader ordered the minister of defense and chief of the general staff to “put the Russian army’s [nuclear] deterrent forces on a special regime of combat readiness” in response to the fact that senior officials of leading NATO countries had made what Putin considered aggressive statements toward Russia.

The threat was extremely vague. Experts well know that strategic missile forces are always on the highest level of readiness; it is impossible to put them on some sort of “special” regime. Only six months later, Russian diplomats explained that Putin meant “moving to shifts at command centers of strategic forces with strengthened personnel.”
Over the past two-plus years, the Kremlin has repeatedly resorted to similar intimidation tactics. Whenever Western leaders begin to discuss further measures that could have a significant impact on the course of the conflict – for example, supplying Ukraine with long-range artillery, modern tanks, air defense systems and tactical missiles – the Kremlin immediately announces that such weapons supplies would be perceived as crossing the “red lines” that it has set, while hinting that such a transgression could be considered cause to use nuclear weapons.

This tactic has turned out only partially effective. After further Russian threats, Western countries began lengthy consultations. The necessary equipment and weapons were nevertheless supplied to Ukraine, but with a significant delay. As a result, these weapons have not delivered the expected results. Ukraine gets the help it needs, but is it too little too late? was the title of an article by Jamie Shea, former deputy assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges at NATO.
Yet the more often the Kremlin has resorted to this tactic, the less NATO countries have paid attention to the Russian threats.
Military exercises of Russia and Belarus, June 2024. Source: YouTube
This became obvious in the spring of 2024, when the leaders of the US, France, the UK and Germany began to discuss the possibility of allowing Ukraine to use Western weapons to strike targets on Russian territory.

Moscow was even more alarmed by the rhetoric of French President Emmanuel Macron that he does not rule out sending troops to Ukraine. In response, the Russian authorities decided to up the ante and announced exercises of nonstrategic nuclear forces in the Southern Military District, i.e., in close proximity to the combat zone. Later, the armed forces of Belarus, troops of the Leningrad Military District and naval forces joined the exercises.

But the organizers of the exercises faced a dilemma: how to make the nuclear threat to the West tangible. The fact is that carriers of nonstrategic nuclear weapons – tactical missiles and fighter aircraft – are also carriers of conventional weapons. As such, they are already widely used in the war against Ukraine, meaning maneuvers with these carriers are a purely trivial matter and the intimidation might not work.

The real nuclear component of these exercises lies in removing a nuclear weapon from a storage base and “mating” it to a specific carrier, complying with all the special procedures to the letter. To fully carry out such moves is extremely risky. Any activity around the storage bases would be picked up by US reconnaissance satellites and would necessitate nuclear preparations by the US.

And that would bring the danger of a nuclear conflict closer.

In the end, the organizers of the Russian exercises did not risk using nuclear weapons, limiting themselves to mock-ups painted red. Naturally, this did not cause a big reaction from the West, despite widespread coverage of the exercises by Russian propaganda.

‘Red lines’ turn into a ‘paper tiger’

Almost simultaneously with conducting nuclear exercises, Russia was given a very real casus belli – indeed, for a nuclear war: on May 23 and May 26, Ukraine attacked two missile attack warning system (MAWS) stations in Armavir and Orsk.

The 2020 presidential decree called Foundations of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Area of Nuclear Deterrence provides for the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons in the event of “adversary actions affecting critically important state or military objects of the Russian Federation, the disablement of which could lead to the disruption of retaliatory actions by the nuclear forces.”

Washington immediately recognized the danger. An unnamed administration official told The Washington Post on May 29 that the US had notified Kiev of its concerns about these strikes.

In accordance with the abovementioned decree, Russia should have taken specific actions. However, Moscow remained silent until June 3, when Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov made a very vague statement, promising some kind of “asymmetric response.” After this, the US greenlighted, albeit with limitations, strikes with American weapons on Russian territory, and Russia’s “extended nuclear deterrence” began to turn into a “paper tiger” before our eyes.

With intimidation still limited to words, the Kremlin decided to make its threats more serious. This was done at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. First, when speaking with representatives of world news agencies, Putin threatened countries that supply weapons to Ukraine: “why do we not have the right to supply our weapons of the same class to regions of the world where attacks will be carried out on sensitive targets of the countries that are doing the same in relation to Russia?” Still, Putin cannot help but understand that this threat is limited: there are not many places in the world where “targets” of Western countries can be attacked with Russian weapons.

Of course, it cannot be ruled out that Russia may transfer tactical missiles to the Houthis in Yemen for attacks on US ships in the Red Sea or pro-Iran groups in Syria for attacks against the US contingent there.
However, in that case, US retaliatory actions could lead to truly unpredictable consequences. After all, a Russian contingent is also deployed in Syria.
Therefore, Putin added that Western countries are being drawn into a direct war against Russia and recalled that Moscow’s tactical nuclear weapons are three times more powerful than the American bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. And then he explicitly threatened to use them: “for some reason the West believes that Russia will never use it. We have a nuclear doctrine – look what is written there. If someone’s actions threaten our sovereignty and territorial integrity, we consider it possible to use everything at our disposal.”

One more attempt at intimidation

The intimidation show continued during the plenary session of the St Petersburg forum. Putin faced a difficult task: on the one hand, the West needs to be intimidated, but on the other, if the rhetorical escalation continues, the Russian president will appear a dangerous madman, not a responsible leader.
Sergei Karaganov, the head of Russia’s Council for Foreign and Defense Policy (a Russian foreign policy think tank) and the dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. Source: Wiki Commons
The solution was found in the moderator of the meeting: Professor Sergei Karaganov, who for more than a year has been fiercely insisting on the need to launch a preventive nuclear strike on the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Against this backdrop, Putin, despite issuing appalling threats to the West, should have looked reasonable and moderate.

Karaganov himself did not disappoint. He both demanded that Putin put a nuclear pistol to the head of the West and insisted that Putin, like God, bring down a “rain of fire” on modern Sodom and Gomorrah. The Russian leader could only pointedly brush aside such extremism: he repeated that he did not want to engage in nuclear rhetoric and did not even want to think about using nuclear weapons.

However, in the end, Putin began to discuss the prospects of exchanging strikes with the US in the event of a limited nuclear war on the European continent. He argued that after the Europeans are obliterated (obviously in this nuclear war), the US may decide against using its strategic nuclear forces against Russia.

In other words, Putin tried to intimidate the Europeans with the prospect of the entire continent’s being wiped out during a limited nuclear war (incidentally, he finally admitted that Moscow has a much larger number of tactical nuclear weapons than the US). At the same time, he hinted that the US would not risk using its strategic nuclear weapons and, therefore, Russia would not suffer in a limited nuclear war.

It is obvious, however, that the strategy of rhetorical deterrence is reaching the end of the road, and Putin’s threats frighten the West less and less. And this in itself poses a danger.

The Kremlin is faced with a choice: either forget about nuclear blackmail forever (which essentially deprives Moscow of its main foreign policy argument) or follow the insane recommendations of Karaganov and go for nuclear escalation.

Putin said in St Petersburg that he is following Russia’s nuclear doctrine and, in his view, there is no need to use nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, he considered it necessary to add that the doctrine is a “living instrument” and did not rule out making changes to it. He also said that there is no need to resume nuclear testing at this point. The key word here is “at this point.” Basically, Putin laid out the first stages of nuclear escalation, which can be set in motion if necessary.

First, there would be a pointed change in Russia’s nuclear doctrine, possibly including a clause on a preventive nuclear strike during a local conflict (Nikolai Patrushev, when he was secretary of Russia’s Security Council, proposed this back in 2009). This would be followed by an announcement that, according to Russian information, the US intends to conduct nuclear tests, and that Russia should also carry them out as a preventive measure. Such an escalation would inevitably lead to a direct nuclear showdown.

Unfortunately, to prevent such a scenario there are no other ways than NATO, and mainly the US, bringing back traditional, “hard” nuclear deterrence. And this is already underway. For example, recently Pranay Vaddi, the senior director for arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation at the US National Security Council, explicitly indicated that the US does not rule out seriously building up its nuclear arsenal, as China and Russia are “forcing the US and our close allies and partners to prepare for a world where nuclear competition occurs without numerical constraints.”

And on June 16, the UK newspaper The Telegraph published an interview with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in which he said the bloc must show its nuclear arsenal to the world while calling for transparency to be used as a deterrent. Clearly in reference to the Russian nuclear exercises,Stoltenberg reported that there were live consultations between members on taking missiles out of storage and placing them on standby: “I will not go into operational details about how many nuclear warheads should be operational and which should be stored, but we need to consult on these issues.”

So, a nuclear arms race is once again becoming a reality. Given the Kremlin’s nuclear threats, this is still not the worst-case scenario.
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