Vladimir Putin and others in the Russian government have mentioned nuclear weapons a lot recently. Yes, guys, we know you’ve got them.
At the Valdai International Conference in October, Putin said
With the appearance of nuclear weapons, it became clear that there could be no winner in a global conflict. There can be only one end – guaranteed mutual destruction. It so happened that in its attempt to create ever more destructive weapons humanity has made any big war pointless.
This echoes the statement by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan at Reykjavik in 1985:
A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.
At that meeting, Reagan and Gorbachev almost agreed to eliminate nuclear weapons by the year 2000.
However, in that speech, Putin brings up other nuclear-related issues. He is concerned about Prompt Global Strike, which uses conventional weapons but could be extremely devastating. He sees that as connected to US missile defense in Europe, which was for the purpose of deterring possible Iranian missiles and therefore, Putin argues, made unnecessary by the nuclear agreement with Iran. He accuses the United States of wanting to prepare for a first nuclear strike.
In the context of terrorism, he also mentions something he learned in the streets of Leningrad:
if the fight is inevitable, be the first to strike.
Over the past few months, Russia has leaked details of a planned thermonuclear underwater drone designed to radioactively contaminate something like the east coast of the United States; Putin has said that they will field 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles, that he considered using nuclear weapons if anything went wrong with his seizure of Crimea, and that he hoped that the cruise missiles Russia has been using in Syria wouldn’t need to be fitted with nuclear warheads. Russia’s military doctrine allows for “de-escalatory” nuclear strikes, the reasoning being that one small nuke would warn Russia’s enemies off.
Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States were fully aware that the other had nuclear weapons enough to destroy them several times over. It wasn’t much said. President Barack Obama has not responded to Putin’s nuke-rattling in kind; in fact, his public statements mostly ignore it.
Russia has been improving its military over the past few years, and they have some shiny new weapons like those cruise missiles. But they are far from matching the United States in conventional power. Some of Putin’s nuclear bragging is about weapons that do not yet exist; it’s not clear Russia can do all it might want in its current financial state.
Brian Whitmore, a Russia-watcher for RFE/RL, suggests that that disparity in conventional weapons and Putin’s desire for Russia to be recognized as a major world power are the reasons for Russian nuke-rattling. I think that’s about right. The disturbing thing is that Putin has seemed to act out of emotion in the seizure of Crimea and when a Russian SU-24 was shot down by a Turkish fighter plane. Would that emotion extend to using nuclear weapons? We don’t know.
The Kremlin recently showed off its fancy new military command center, containing visual references to “Doctor Strangelove” and 1984. Lots of photos here. But where is it? A few miles up the Moscow River from the Kremlin (photo at top). The war rooms are reported to be hardened, and underground structures are reported to be part of the complex. But really? At a likely ground zero for nuclear war? Does this mean that Putin doesn’t expect nuclear war any time soon, that he believes Russia can deal the ultimate first strike, or that he is just a really poor planner?