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What Does Putin’s Nuclear Sabre Rattling Mean?


Either out of political desperation or military conceit, Vladimir Putin is playing the nuclear card in the crisis spawned by his invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s war has taken on global dimensions, even though the Ukrainians are the only ones fending off Russian forces on the ground. In Putin’s incendiary harangue announcing the invasion last week, one ominous sentence from the Russian leader threatened more than Ukraine. “Whoever tries to interfere with us,” he warned, “should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never experienced in your history.” He said that Russia “is today one of the most powerful nuclear states.”

Putin went further on Sunday in a bizarre meeting with his long-serving defense minister, Sergey Shoygu, and the legendary military strategist General Valery Gerasimov. Putin sat at the head of a long table fit for a banquet. His commanders, who looked like deer caught in the headlights, clustered together at the distant far end. Putin ordered them to put Russia’s nuclear forces on a “special regime of combat duty alert.” It’s an unconventional term, but it means that Putin wants the world’s deadliest weapons to be prepared for a possible launch—or at least for the world to think so.

The Biden Administration has not taken Putin’s bait. It has responded coolly to Moscow’s latest provocation. Asked on Monday whether Americans should be worried about nuclear war, Biden replied bluntly: “No.” The U.S. has not changed the posture of its nuclear forces. The U.S. alert level has not been raised. “We have the ability to defend ourselves,” the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said. A senior Pentagon official said that Washington remains “comfortable and confident in our own strategic deterrence.” In London, the British defense secretary, Ben Wallace, said that Putin’s threat was a distraction designed to spook the West.

Putin’s nuclear sabre rattling seems like an epic bluff, intended to divert the world’s attention and raise heart rates. It appears to reflect weakness rather than strength, after the mediocre early performance of his military. “He would not say those things if the war wasn’t going badly,” Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, told me. Yet Putin’s repeated references to nuclear arms have succeeded in suddenly putting the subject of bombs back into public consciousness after decades of assumptions that the atomic threat was of a bygone era, bounded by the detonation of the first nuclear bomb in 1945 and the seeming end of the Cold War in 1989. The Russian bellicosity followed a little-noticed decision by Belarus in December (that was approved last week) to change its constitution and allow Russia to deploy tactical nuclear weapons within the country, which borders Ukraine and also three NATO members—Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. I asked Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, if the world was reëntering the nuclear age. “We never left it,” he replied. “But it’s a new part of the nuclear age.”

There are some thirteen thousand nuclear weapons on Earth, in the arsenals of nine countries. The number is down by about eighty per cent since the Cold War ended, yet today the world’s system to limit existing nuclear arsenals and prevent their spread “is in chaos,” Kelsey Davenport, a nuclear-arms-control specialist, told me last winter. The threat of a new nuclear arms race is growing. The Pentagon estimates that China could have a thousand bombs by 2030, while India and Pakistan are believed to be engaged in a nuclear arms race of their own, and North Korea is estimated to have built up to sixty nuclear devices.

Ninety per cent of all nuclear bombs are now under Russian and U.S. control, according to the Arms Control Association. Russia is estimated to have more warheads, roughly six thousand. Most of the Russian and U.S. bombs are more than ten times more powerful—in explosive yield—than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killed about two hundred and fourteen thousand people by the end of 1945, according to the Arms Control Association. In 1981, I travelled with Pope John Paul II to both Japanese cities. We visited the hospital on the Hill of Mercy in Nagasaki where people were still dying—thirty-five years later—from radiation poisoning. “And they’re still suffering and dying today,” Kimball said, on Monday.

The State Department spokesman Ned Price called Putin’s nuclear-forces order “provocative rhetoric,” but noted that it “adds to the risk of miscalculation.” And that’s the rub, given Putin’s irrational behavior in Ukraine, which has defied international laws, conventional wisdom in the twenty-first century, and his own past policies. After Putin and Biden held a summit in Geneva in June, they issued a joint statement reaffirming the premise of a policy that dates back to negotiations between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. “Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” the two current U.S and Russian Presidents repeated, again, on behalf of their nations.

In contrast, Dmitry Kiselyev, a longtime Kremlin propagandist who is known as one of the most sulfurous personalities on Russian television, opened his state television program on Sunday with a rundown of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. “In total our submarines are capable of launching over five hundred nuclear warheads, which are guaranteed to destroy the U.S. and all the countries of NATO to boot,” he said. “That’s according to the principle, ‘Why do we need a world if Russia’s not in it?’ ” He went on, “We’re not even going to talk about the strategic rocket forces. . . .Putin warned them. Don’t try to frighten Russia.”

Putin’s announcement—which appeared designed to pressure, cajole, or coerce the West to stay out of Ukraine—carries inherent dangers. “Despite the best intentions, we do have a situation here where there can be miscalculation and escalation, and Putin’s raising of the alert level of his forces is extremely risky,” Kimball told me. The Ukraine crisis has already put much of the world on edge. On Friday, as a defensive measure, NATO activated its rapid-response force—some forty thousand troops. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on Sunday, urged Putin to de-escalate the situation in an interview on CNN, “If you combine this rhetoric with what they’re doing on the ground in Ukraine, waging war against an independent sovereign nation, conducting a fully fledged invasion of Ukraine, this adds to the seriousness of the situation.”

Putin may be lashing out because of embarrassment after his forces failed to quickly take Kyiv, the capital, as he expected. In a propaganda slip for the ages, Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency prematurely published an article on February 26th, just two days after the invasion, celebrating a Russian military victory. “There will no longer be a Ukraine which is anti-Russia,” it boasted. “This doesn’t mean that its statehood will be liquidated but it will be rebuilt, re-established and returned to its natural position as part of the Russian world.”

The article reflected the reality of Putin’s intent in Ukraine: the war is as much about his rivalry with the West as it is about who governs in Ukraine. “The rest of the world sees and understands perfectly well—this is a conflict between Russia and the West, this is a response to the geopolitical expansion of the Atlanticists,” RIA Novosti wrote. “This is Russia’s return to its historical space and place in the world.” The irony, of course, is that Putin’s invasion has generated greater unity in the West—and greater support for NATO—than at any time since his Soviet Union collapsed three decades ago.

Putin’s coterie has basically given the West the bird, too. On Saturday, the former President Dmitry Medvedev threatened that Russia could withdraw from the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that was signed in 2010, and which Putin and Biden agreed to extend in 2021. It is the last major arms agreement between the two nations. On social media, he also said that Russia no longer needed diplomatic relations with the U.S. and its allies. “It’s time to padlock the embassies and continue contacts looking at each other through binoculars and gun sights.”

After becoming a pariah to much of the world, Putin has resorted to tough-guy rhetoric for both domestic and foreign audiences. He hopes to influence public opinion and political decision-making in other countries, Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me. “There is no other tool available in Putin’s hand to change this but to play with the fear of Europeans from nuclear war. But it’s a game of brinkmanship, nothing more.”




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