Saturday, September 06, 2014

In Case You Missed It, the Nuclear Option is Back

Vlad Putin is going for his nukes and we need to grasp our role in getting him there.  Russia is re-arming with a new class of nuclear submarines, a new and possibly illegal inter-continental ballistic missile and a new strategic bomber. 

Our sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine are working.  They're hammering the Russian economy which, in turn, destabilizes the state.  In case you don't get it, a destabilized nation just brimming with nuclear weapons is never a good idea.

NATO has been ratcheting up the pressure on Russia by announcing plans to establish two new bases on Russia's doorstep and the formation of an all-arms (naval, air and land) rapid reaction force specifically targeted at Russia. 

Putin doesn't much trust the West nor have we given him any reason that he should.   NATO's blunt-minded (and fortunately outgoing) Secretary-General, Andy Rasmussen, is pushing for the establishment of two military bases on Russia's borders.  It's the sort of thing that Hadrian would have done to keep the Picts at bay.  He's also spinning the idea of a rapid reaction force just in case Moscow gets frisky.  Little does Foggy Rasmussen seem to understand that his own homeland, Denmark, would probably fare poorly in a shooting war with Russia and that, maybe destabilizing Russia with provocative military installations and threats of rapid reaction forces really isn't in Europe's best interests.  Winter is coming.

But surely a cool customer like Vlad Putin wouldn't do something insane like resort to nukes, would he?  Maybe, maybe not.  The folks at aren't convinced.

Ever the one to administer bracing doses of Geopolitics 101 to his opponents, especially those inclined to underestimate his nerve, President Vladimir Putin, at a youth forum north of Moscow last week, reminded the world that "Russia is one of the most powerful nuclear nations. This is a reality, not just words." (Indeed it is.)

Fifteen days earlier, on Aug. 14, at a conference in Yalta, the Russian president had told the assembled factions of the State Duma that he soon planned to "surprise the West with our new developments in offensive nuclear weapons about which we do not talk yet." This came as Russian strategic nuclear bombers and fighter jets have been accused of violating the airspace of the United States and Western European countries with mounting frequency, while under the surface of the world's seas Russian and U.S. nuclear submarines have been involved in confrontations recalling the worst days of the Cold War. As NATO leaders convene for their summit in Wales, Russia just announced that its strategic nuclear forces will hold exercises of unprecedented dimensions this month. And the Kremlin, for its part, just declared that it will amend its military doctrine to reflect Russia's growing tensions with NATO. What this means exactly remains unclear, but in view of the rising tensions with the Western alliance, it cannot be good.

...But Putin would never actually use nuclear weapons, would he? The scientist and longtime Putin critic Andrei Piontkovsky, a former executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow and a political commentator for the BBC World Service, believes he might. In August, Piontkovsky published a troubling account of what he believes Putin might do to win the current standoff with the West -- and, in one blow, destroy NATO as an organization and finish off what's left of America's credibility as the world's guardian of peace.
In view of the Russian leader's recent remarks and provocative actions, the scenario Piontkovsky lays out becomes terrifyingly relevant. Worse, if the trigger events described come to pass, it becomes logical, maybe even inevitable.

Here's the chilling scenario the experts envision.

Not a massive launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles at the United States or Western Europe, which would bring about a suicidal atomic holocaust, but a small, tactical strike or two against a NATO member that few in the West would be willing to die to protect. Piontkovsky surmises that, in such a conflict, the nuclear-armed country with the "superior political will" to alter the geopolitical "status quo" and -- most importantly -- with the "greater indifference to values concerning human lives" would prevail. Any guesses which country that would be?

But what would trigger a Russian attack? According to Piontkovsky's scenario, it could be something as simple as a plebiscite: the Estonian city of Narva, overwhelmingly ethnically Russian and adjacent to Russia, deciding to hold a referendum on joining the Motherland. To help them "freely express their will" at the polls, Russia could send in a brigade of "little green men armed to the teeth," much like it did in Crimea in March. Estonia would thereupon invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter -- "an armed attack against one or more [NATO members] … shall be considered an attack against them all" -- and demand that the alliance defend it. Speaking in the Estonian capital of Tallinn on the eve of NATO's summit in Wales, this is just what Obama promised. "The defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London," he said.

Suddenly, the most terrifying nightmare becomes reality: NATO faces war with Russia.
How would Putin then react? Piontkovsky believes that NATO would balk at attacking Moscow over a small country remote from NATO's heartland and the hearts of its citizens. Piontkovsky imagines the course of action open to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Obama as he contemplates unleashing a planetary holocaust over a "damned little city no one has even heard of" while the American public cries out, "We don't want to die for fucking Narva, Mr. President!" Piontkovsky also cites a German public opinion poll asking what Berlin should do if Estonia enters an armed conflict with Russia: 70 percent would want their country to remain neutral.

Piontkovsky then tries to envision the situation in which Putin would find himself if NATO intervened to drive his little green men from Narva. Would Putin commit suicide by letting his missiles fly against the United States? No. Rather, he would respond with a limited nuclear strike against a couple of European capitals -- not London or Paris, but smaller ones, presumably in Eastern European countries that have only recently joined NATO. Warsaw, against which Russia has already conducted a drill simulating a Russian nuclear attack, first comes to mind. Or, say, Vilnius, Lithuania's capital. The point is, Putin would bet on decision-makers in Washington, Berlin, London, and Paris not retaliating with nuclear weapons against Russia if it had "only" hit a city or two most Westerners have barely heard of -- and certainly do not want to die for.'s worth remembering that since 2000 Russian nuclear doctrine has foreseen the deployment of battlefield nuclear weapons to de-escalate a conflict with NATO, if Russian forces were about to suffer defeat in a conventional conflict -- which shows that the Kremlin has already been betting that neither Obama nor the leaders of other nuclear powers would push the button if they could avoid it.

The Kremlin is probably right.


LeDaro said...

Mound, it is a very scary situation. Even if Putin nukes a capital of a small country there may be retaliation from one of the European countries which may escalate the conflict. It does not look good.

Owen Gray said...

We are hearing a lot of hot rhetoric, Mound -- the kind of thing that boxes leaders into corners.

Edstock said...

It is scary. IMHO, before we get to nukes, any serious ground move by Vlad will be met by Tomahawk cluster munitions from USN units in the BlackSea, followed shortly by the arrival of NATO fighters and attack aircraft to backstop the Ukrainian Air Force.

The point is, IMHO, it will be very difficult for Vlad to have air superiority.

If the US wants to play hardball, they could send one of their X-37b spacecraft (has unprecedented orbit-changing capability) to go and "inspect" Russkie satellites.

Meanwhile the Russkie economy tanks, and the oligarchs, the boyars of today, start to grumble. Kremlin nuke-talk could turn the grumble into a rumble. Vlad could have to think about a Night of the Long Knives, or risk removal. All Hail the New Chooch? Not if Vlad can help it; but meanwhile, he just keeps on digging.

Scary, indeed.

The Mound of Sound said...

It is scary, LD, and I don't think Rasmussen is doing anything to stabilize this situation. He's about as bellicose a little shit as NATO has seen for ages.

I agree, Owen, that this is the sort of conflict we can talk our way into. The only leaders I would trust on our side are Merkel and, possibly, Obama.

Ed, the point is that Putin would never have air superiority. That's why Russian doctrine calls for tactical nuclear weapons.

NATO has been politically and geographically overextended since Bush/Cheney drove it into eastern Europe. The original NATO alliance had a shared heritage that created a genuine commonality of interest. The sweep to sing up eastern Europe was an exercise in triumphalism on the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I have an affinity for the UK, the Scans, France, Holland, Germany and Italy. Hungary and the Czechs? Just a bit. Romania, not so much. The Balts? Not really. The former Soviet republics? Not at all.

There are NATO members, the core group that does the heavy lifting. Then there are NATO parasites that just want under the umbrella.

Troy Thomas said...

"Our sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine are working. They're hammering the Russian economy which, in turn, destabilizes the state. In case you don't get it, a destabilized nation just brimming with nuclear weapons is never a good idea."

I'll argue the opposite. Russia needs these sanctions to strengthen its internal economy. From agriculture to military, Russia now has the excuse to reform its myriad of industries it had externalized in nations such as Ukraine, and improve upon them, within its own borders. The nations that will hurt most are the nations caught in between the West and Russia, such as Greece, Turkey, and so on.
Russia will hurt and even starve in the short term, but my guess is they'll pull through even stronger in the years to come.
These sanctions also allow Russia to reign in its foreign capital flight. Oligarchs, ever since Putin was first elected, have been hiding their capital in London. Putin now has the excuse to really pound on Russia's oligarchs. Those who don't pay will get marginalized, imprisoned, or assassinated. Which is as it has been since Putin was first elected, but still, he now has one more excuse to take them on.
The Russian economy is set to go into overdrive to face these threats.
Also, these possible sanctions may actually force Russia closer to China. China doesn't care one way or another for Western sanctions. It'll continue to do what it wants, and what China wants is to weaken the US dollar's power.
In all honesty, the US seems too late to contain Russia (and China).
It seems like, these days, every step Russia takes forces the USA into back-stepping. It didn't used to be like this. Where'd all those talented USA statesmen go? The ones who would match Russia, step for step? The ones I read about in the history books?

The Mound of Sound said...

Interesting take on the situation, Troy. The US does seem to be falling behind but that's an inevitability given the ascendancy of the BRICS. There's been some speculation that China may use the US-Russia stand off as a vehicle to shift the global reserve currency off the US dollar. If that happens it'll be America left to re-invent itself.

Sten said...

The USA, by my reckoning, has the most to lose, here, no matter what, and especially if their distant Middle Eastern oil spigot in Saudi Arabia were to suddenly be turned into radioactive dust. Recall that he who controls the spice, er oil, controls the universe. No oil, no control.

ottlib said...

The trouble I have with Piontkovsky's scenario is it could have applied to the former Soviet Union, whose leaders in the 1970s and '80s saw the writing on the wall with regard to who would come out on top during the Cold War.

They could have changed the game considerably by using the scenario similar to what is described by Piontkovsky.

So why did they not do it?

Because the use of nuclear weapons by one of the nuclear powers in the world will have consequences that cannot be predicted. It is a certainty that all of them have gamed the nuclear option to death and they have found that all scenarios lead to an unacceptable risk of them losing, perhaps with the rest of the world, but losing nonetheless.

Contrary to the depiction of Mr. Putin by the Western media and some Western leaders Mr. Putin is not some mad Russian Czar who will bring down the whole house if he does not get what he wants. Instead he is a very shrewd man who will continue to push and push until NATO and the West finally develop the backbone to push back in some substantive manner. At that point he will stop pushing and consolidate his gains, which was the old Soviet way, and I would remind everyone that Mr Putin is an old Soviet.

The Mound of Sound said...

A couple of points, Ottlib. The Soviet Union of the 70s and 80s was in a substantially different position than Russia in 2014. It had the superiority in conventional forces. That's why NATO embraced the tactical nuke option. The idea was that when Russian armour poured through the Fulda Gap we'd rain tactical nukes on them.

Back then the West wasn't threatening the Soviet Union. There was no realistic chance that NATO would attack.

Today NATO is a direct threat to Russia and Russia's conventional force is woefully inferior. That's why Russia has adopted NATO's Cold War tactical nuke policy.

I think you're misreading this situation.

Anyong said...

It doesn't matter why, how or when. Should conflict arise with Russia at the helm; coupled with environmental problems as of the present time, where there isn't any action being taken, it will be one long road back from the almost total destruction of civilization. People like Putin don't seem to think in terms of the world as a breathing living mass that supports human life. It seems to be the opinion our living space is here just for us to manipulate especially people like Putin. Then, there is Ebola which could finish us off. The earth can then sigh a sigh of relief and rebuild itself without a bunch of mostly woodenheaded men thumbing their noses at the environment and population. Or, it could be that only one third of the population is left with intelligence enough, to change the present system for the betterment of future people. What is taking place at the present time, just pains me.

Purple library guy said...

Of course, what makes it even scarier is that, lest we forget, the US has for over ten years now had an official military doctrine of nuclear first strike under a rather vague set of circumstances. Combine that with their apparent dedication as a high priority to siting anti-missiles as close to Russia as possible, and it's not that surprising that Moscow is generally under the impression that the US has the medium term goal of starting World War III as soon as they're confident they can break Mutual Assured Destruction.

If I were the Russians, you can be damn sure I'd be making my missiles harder to stop; I'd be loading them with decoys and hardening them and stealthing them and who knows what all.

On the less-scary side, I really doubt Putin wants a first strike. He wants to sell oil and gas. But he also wants to somehow beat it into the Americans' heads that there are limits beyond which their aggression is dangerous--that Russia is not Yemen. Unfortunately the US Beltway solipsism field seems to have reached a point where they are incapable of registering any limits.

The Mound of Sound said...

PLG - I think you really nailed it. Thanks for your very helpful contribution to this blog.