Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling: What is he compensating for?

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited  a new “military-patriotic recreation park” near Moscow. His speech there made headlines, and not because the park is what one Western reporter called a “military version of Disneyland,” where kids can fire rocket-propelled grenades. (Sounds like the kind of park that I would have wanted to visit as a kid.)

Rather, President Putin used the odd venue to declare that the Russian military would add 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles to its inventory. Putin’s announcement is nothing new. When he returned to the presidency in 2012, he approved a military modernization program calling for building 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles by the mid-2020s. His Tuesday statement simply reflects this year’s installment of that program. In fact, he may even have downsized the goal for this year—last December he said Russia would get more than 50 missiles in 2015. Many question whether the Russian economy, stressed by low oil prices and Western sanctions, can fulfill the Kremlin’s ambitious plans for modernizing its nuclear and conventional forces. 

The United States has no particular reason for alarm about the missiles, provided that Russia remains within the limits of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). That treaty limits the United States and Russia each to no more than 700 deployed strategic missiles and 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. Both sides are on track to meet the limits, which fully take effect in February 2018.

As the Russian military receives new missiles, it will retire a lot of old missiles. For example, nearly half of Russia’s deployed strategic warheads currently are on SS-18, SS-19 and SS-25 missiles, all of which are approaching or, in some cases, well past the end of their planned service life.

In fact, Russia now is well below the limit of 700 deployed strategic missiles. As of March 1, it had 515 deployed missiles—compared to 785 for the United States. 

More worrisome than the new missiles is the fact that Putin, once again, seemed to feel a need to rattle his nuclear saber.

Late last summer, the Russian president said that people should remember that Russia has a large nuclear arsenal. What? Did he think that Washington somehow had missed that fact? 

This March, in a television documentary, Putin said that, during the Russian military’s seizure of Crimea, he was ready to put nuclear forces on alert. Huh? Ukrainian military units in Crimea stayed in garrison and did not oppose the Russian forces. Moreover, Ukraine had no nuclear weapons. It gave up the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal in the 1990s—based on an assurance from Moscow that it would respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. And there was no external threat. NATO modestly increased its military presence in Poland and the Baltic states only well after Russia had annexed Crimea.

Putin’s loose talk encouraged others in the Russian government. Just days after the documentary aired, the Russian ambassador in Copenhagen threatened to target nuclear missiles at the Danish navy

Why the nuclear chest-thumping?

The Russian president’s apparent infatuation with nuclear weapons could stem from several factors, some more troubling than others. 

First, Putin seeks to project the image of Russia as a superpower. But Russia is not the Soviet Union, has a vulnerable, resource-dependent economy, and offers little ideological appeal. Lots of nuclear weapons provide the only thing that makes Russian power “super.”

Second, although Russia is modernizing its conventional forces, NATO maintains qualitative and quantitative edges, while China has greatly increased its conventional capabilities. Nuclear weapons offer an offset for conventional force disadvantages. 

Third, Putin may see benefits in making the world think he is a little crazy when it comes to nuclear arms. That intimidates others, which seems to be one of his preferred tactics.

Fourth, and more alarmingly, the Russian president may see nuclear weapons not just as tools of deterrence, but as tools of coercion. That would be new and potentially dangerous. 

Whatever Putin is trying to compensate for, one certainly hopes that the Russian president understands the awesome and dreadful power of nuclear arms and the consequences of their use.

His nuclear chest-thumping, on top of Russia’s seizure of Crimea and support for the conflict in eastern Ukraine, has consequences. Five years ago, many in NATO questioned the need to keep U.S. nuclear bombs in Europe. Today, that debate has largely gone silent, and plans are moving forward to modernize the bombs and their delivery aircraft.

Washington and NATO West should not be intimidated. That would only invite more saber-rattling. Western leaders should not let Putin’s comments go unanswered. He wishes to be treated and respected as a responsible world leader. Russia’s aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine make that hard enough; he ought to be called out when he speaks irresponsibly about the most dangerous weapons in the world.