For years, Putin has spared no effort to maintain Russia’s massive nuclear potential, to that end channeling gigantic financial and material resources. Nuclear weapons are considered Russia’s greatest asset, seen as putting the country on an equal footing with the US. It was telling that in the propaganda television documentary Crimea. The Way Home
about the military operation to annex the peninsula, Putin said
that at that time Russia could have put its nuclear forces on alert and that he had threatened leaders of other states: “we were ready to do this. I talked to my colleagues and told them that this (Crimea) is our historical territory, Russian people live there, they are in danger, we cannot abandon them.”
Later, in another propaganda film called World Order
, speaking about the use of Kalibr cruise missiles against targets in Syria, Putin emphasized
that it is proof that Moscow has powerful weapons: “Russia has the will to use them if it corresponds to the national interests of our state and the Russian people.”
At the end of the 1990s, this approach even received theoretical justification with the so-called doctrine of “extended nuclear deterrence,”
which assumed that the very fact of having a powerful nuclear arsenal should play a decisive role in resolving any international problem in line with Russian interests. And now, it seems, we are seeing a new version of “extended deterrence.”Putin’s threats not achieving the desired effect
After February 2022, the constant reminders of Russia’s massive nuclear potential and hints of its possible use reached a crescendo. As early as February 27, Putin issued the following order
: “senior officials of leading NATO countries have also made aggressive statements against our country, therefore I order the minister of defense and the chief of the general staff to put the deterrent forces of the Russian army in a special regime of combat duty.”
Only six months later did Russian diplomats find it necessary to clarify that Putin merely meant
“shifts at strategic forces command points” were to see personnel reinforcements. A few days before Russia annexed territories in eastern Ukraine, Putin announced a partial mobilization in Russia and said
that when its territorial integrity is threatened, Russia would use all means, including nuclear weapons.
However, these threats no longer delivered the results the Kremlin had hoped for. Though Western states have made weapons supplies to Ukraine conditional on Kyiv’s not using them against internationally recognized Russian territory, they have duly ignored all the other “red lines” that Moscow laid down.
More and more long-range and high-precision weapons are being supplied to Kyiv. Meanwhile, Washington has reacted directly and rather sharply to Moscow’s nuclear hints. President Biden noted
the increasing danger a year ago: “for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat to the use [sic] of nuclear weapons, if in fact things continue down the path they have been going.”
A month later, a White House official said
that CIA Director William Burns had warned his Russian counterpart Sergei Naryshkin about “the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons by Russia, and the risks of escalation to strategic stability.” After this, the Russian threats died down. But only for a while.Kremlin raising the stakes
The Kremlin calculated that the stakes should be raised. This happened on February 22, 2023, when Putin announced the suspension of Russia’s participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). In fact, it was the last surviving (and most important) of the Russia-US disarmament treaties. Putin argued
that the inspections of nuclear facilities provided for by the treaty look absurd in the context of the conflict in Ukraine and the current intentions of the West to “inflict a strategic defeat on Russia.” He also accused “NATO specialists” of helping to equip and modernize Ukrainian drones that attacked Russian strategic air bases. Still, Moscow said that it would continue to adhere to the restrictions (700 deployed delivery vehicles and 1,550 nuclear warheads) set out in the treaty, as well as give notice about upcoming missile tests.
As a result, all inspections, which had allowed the sides to check the actual composition and condition of each other’s nuclear forces, were stopped. Now, Russia can make any statement about deploying the Sarmat (in the Kremlin’s mind, this hypothetical deployment is fundamentally important to maintain the appearance of quantitative nuclear parity with the US), which no one can verify.