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Arms Expert: Russia Quick to Threaten Nuclear Strikes in Regional Conflicts

Military parade in Red Square in Moscow on May 9, 2016. Kremlin Photo

Military parade in Red Square in Moscow on May 9, 2016. Kremlin Photo

The Soviet Union’s old doctrine was: You deter World War III with nuclear weapons. Now Russia’s new doctrine: Threaten to use nuclear weapons against any major power that may try to block Moscow from having its way in a regional conflict, a specialist in Russian nuclear strategy said on Monday.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Nikolai Sokov said, “The targets are military.” A slide he used at the presentation before the Washington, D.C., think-tank, showed the targets could be reached by medium or heavy bombers and include bomber bases in the United States; aircraft carrier battle groups in the Baltic and Pacific; as well as those in the Indian Ocean and Black Sea-Mediterranean.

“Bases are platforms,” said Sokov, who is now affiliated with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. He noted Russian exercises in 2003 carried out a simulated nuclear strike against Diego Garcia, and in 2007, against Guam.

What changed in Russian leaders’ minds after the collapse of the Soviet Union was “a perception [that] the United States will go around using force in promoting democracy and human rights.”

Sokov said that Russia began looking to a new strategy out of fear that the United States would intervene in its second war with Chechen separatists, demonstrated by its intervention in Kosovo. In addition to the change in Kremlin strategy, there was a new buildup of its long-range dual-mission forces—bombers capable of carrying nuclear or conventional weapons, as well as its nuclear forces.

Russia made those moves believing that this show of strength would cause the United States to back off from using force close to Moscow’s borders. It was “going back to the Fifties and Sixties flexible response” strategy in addressing crises involving major powers but with limited goals.

He cited the first Gulf War as an example of how “the United States used military policy to support foreign policy” in removing Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army from Kuwait.

“Last fall, we got the second” when Russia sent military aircraft and personnel to Syria to support Bashar al-Assad in its civil war.

That’s a sea change for the Kremlin in projecting power far from its borders.

In the case of Ukraine, Sokov said “a lot of rhetoric” about possible use of nuclear weapons in support of the separatists in the eastern part of the country was “directed at the domestic audience.” He added, “Generally speaking, Russian love nuclear weapons. . . . If you don’t have nuclear weapons, that’s when you lose sleep.”

Pavel Podvig, director of the Geneva-based Russian nuclear forces project, said, “Strategic forces play a role supporting whatever moves Russia makes,” including Ukraine, Crimea or Georgia. The threat of escalation in a regional conflict is “a deliberate policy of Russian leaders because nobody wants” to engage in nuclear conflict for limited stakes.

As was the case in Soviet days, Russian nuclear defense industry keeps making its case for more money by saying this new weapon increases Moscow’s retaliatory capability—even if it is expensive and of limited value. “If you present your project in that light, you get funded.”

That feeds on the Kremlin’s goals of “we need to maintain credibility” in nuclear deterrence, missile defense and conventional forces,” he added.

Neither Sokov or Podvig believe there will be much interest in a new arms-control talks even when the administration in Washington changes in January. Podvig said Moscow remains committed to talks covering nuclear issues to include hypersonic gliders, missile defense and conventional forces, while Washington wants the talks limited to nuclear issues, from numbers to launchers.

  • Curtis Conway

    Aegis Ashore (a rock solid defensive system) is the counter to the threats. The threats speak for themselves, shows true motive, lack of integrity by the Russian government, and shows the true nature of the government apparatus in Russia. Russia is broke, getting desperate, and acting like a wounded animal, not a coherent responsible government. Aegis Ashore takes the sting of the threats away, and provides a solution that negates the threat. Can’t gen them operational fast enough. Need them in more places.

    • Karl Pershing

      What are you smoking? Russia is broke? Russia has just stopped the Yinon Plan of Greater Israel Project in Syria. The Secular Dictator Assad has remained. The EU is falling apart and that may follow by the disintegration of NATO. While you are worried about Russia, Muslims are coming to your nation to behead you or shoot your dear homosexuals. Get real.

    • Ed L

      Ageis Ashore in Romania is in a perfect place stop incoming from IRAN, or North Korea, Of course the Russian’s are not going to like that if the DPRK launches at Europe. While some think Russia is broke, They have billions in reserve but in personal accounts. Hey does anyone remember the term “back pack or mini nucs” from the old cold war. Apparently there is a new study out on what some are calling the new cold war small nuclear devices.

  • Karl Pershing

    Stop surrounding Russia. Why do we have missiles in Poland and Romania? Is Russia going to occupy Berlin or Paris again? Or is Iran going to invade Prague? Netherlands? It is good that the union of the imbeciles is falling apart. NATO has been fighting the wrong battles since the fall of the Soviet Union. Libya is a perfect example. They took out the Secular Dictator and replaced it with medieval Islam and Turkey, a NATO member buys ISIS oil. Great job. You are all geniuses.

    • sferrin

      If you don’t know why there are (defensive) missiles in Poland and Romania, might I suggest you’re the last person who should be opining on it?

      • Karl Pershing

        Who are you to know that they are defensive? What rank do you hold in the American armed forces? Were the Russian missiles in Cuba also defensive?

        • Curtis Conway

          NO, they weren’t! Nor were they proclaimed to be. Those missiles had a very specific (nuclear) offensive capability. Kinda like Iskanders is Kaliningrad.

          • Karl Pershing

            That is correct

  • Andre

    The public was made aware of Russia’s more recent simulated nuclear strike against Sweden, the role of nuclear weapons in its exercises over the past few years, nuclear “de-escalation”, Russian threats to destroy Warsaw and Bucharest with nuclear weapons, and Russian targeting of any Aegis ABM and Aegis Ashore systems deployed in Europe.

    However, we were not made aware of the simulated nuclear strikes on Diego Garcia (2003) or Guam (2007). When you add in the weak response to the Hainan Island incident, weakness on North Korea, a lack of investment in high-end warfighting (e.g. F-22s), no response to China’s Great Wall of Sand and a weak response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia, it becomes evident that the GWB administration’s pursuit of low-end Middle East wars cost the United States in terms of both prestige and capability.

    • sferrin

      Only the bizzaro mentality of a Russian could possibly think nuking a place is going to de-escelate a situation. Perhaps the next time Russia gets uppity we should nuke Moscow to “de-escelate” things. See how that works?

  • Karl Pershing

    Very well said

  • sferrin

    “We are in a purposeful manner pushing Putin in a corner surrounding his
    country with offensive weapons, and this is a huge mistake.”

    Oh please. Crimea? Ukraine? Give the, “poor little Putin” nonsense a rest. If Russia doesn’t want to be surrounded perhaps they should treat their neighbors a little better. The only reason they’re trying to join NATO ASAP is because of Putin.

    • Johnny

      You forgot about that whole Georgia invasion in 2008.

  • Hugh

    Nukes are for dissuasion. Once any nuke is exploded against a significant target where will it stop?

  • Matt Williams

    Russia’s doctrine says they will not use nuclear weapons over local conflicts like Georgia. Yet Putin said Russia was ready to use them in Crimea. Russia’s doctrine says it will not nuke a nation without nuclear weapons. And yet Russia simulated nuclear war games against Sweden not long ago.

    It’s dangerous what Putin is doing if you see it through to the end result. Let’s say Russia fires on Sweden and US predictably does not come to Sweden’s defense. Every small nation in Europe and Eurasia from those in NATO to those outside its comfort will go after nuclear weapons. Instead of a few guns pointed you’ll have many. And any other outcome is worse than what I just described.