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A measured response to Russian nuclear saber-rattling

3 March 2016
Darya Dolzikova

Darya Dolzikova

Darya Dolzikova is a master’s candidate in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, focusing on proliferation and Russian security policy. She is also a graduate research assistant...

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Hollywood may think nothing of casting heavily accented Russian bad guys in its blockbusters, but Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev does not believe it is a coincidence. Speaking at the recent Munich Security Conference, Medvedev—whose rare public commentary on international affairs usually lacks President Vladimir Putin’s penchant for militancy—suggested that the West’s habit of regularly pointing to Russia as the greatest threat to NATO’s security, and to the typecasting of Russian characters as villains in Western films, as symptoms of the dawn of a new Cold War. He mused, “Sometimes I wonder: Are we in 2016, or 1962?”

In October 1962, the world came the closest it has ever been to a large-scale nuclear war, as the two Cold War powers faced off in a dangerous game of chicken over the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles to Cuba. In Russian collective memory, the episode is remembered as the time that the Americans sent medium-range nuclear ballistic missiles to Turkey, the Soviets responded in kind, and they still came out as the bad guys.

Medvedev’s 1962 reference is indicative of the residual Cold War mentalities that, despite the perceived warming of the Russo-American relationship at the start of the current decade, were never really eradicated from the Kremlin or from Russian foreign-policy making circles. Medvedev’s comments also reveal Russian attitudes toward the growing NATO buildup in Eastern Europe, and the role that nuclear saber-rattling should play in the Russian response.

Putin and his military officials have been anything but shy in showing off Russia’s nuclear guns. Russia has been regularly testing strategic and tactical missiles in military exercises (including the new Iskander-M—a battlefield-range, multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) ballistic missile, capable of delivering a number of nuclear payloads at once), and conducting nuclear strike simulations over Europe. In 2014 Putin warned potential adversaries to think better of a large-scale military engagement with one of the greatest nuclear powers, and a year ago he revealed that, at the height of the Crimean crisis, he was ready to deploy Russian nuclear weapons to the peninsula.

In light of Moscow’s increased nuclear brinkmanship, Cold War flashbacks are understandable, and calls by many, in both the West and in Russia [link in Russian], for NATO to re-engage in large-scale nuclear deterrence are an expected knee-jerk reaction. Critics rightly note that Russia’s tough nuclear talk is a way of compensating for inferior conventional forces. The United States had adopted a similar doctrine of “massive retaliation” under the Eisenhower Administration, when Soviet conventional forces far surpassed those of the United States and its allies, and threats of nuclear retaliation to a conventional Soviet attack were seen as the only effective form of deterrence.

While such evaluations of a Russian sense of inadequacy with respect to NATO’s conventional forces are correct, they have led critics to the wrong conclusion: that the only way to avoid a nuclear war with Russia is for NATO to flaunt its own nuclear might. In fact, Russia’s response to an excessive buildup and nuclearization of NATO’s deterrence policy is likely to be an escalation of aggression. A closer evaluation of Russian motives and intentions for bolstering nuclear deterrence is critical for the formulation of a responsible Western response.

Reconciling an identity crisis. Ironically, critics tend to underestimate Russian feelings of vulnerability, or misinterpret their implications. The serious deterioration of the Russian economy as a result of Western sanctions and plummeting oil prices, the loss of allies in the Middle East following the Arab Spring and the current conflict in Syria, and the encroachment of NATO forces into what Russia sees as its permanent and indisputable sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, have put Russia on its back foot—a position it is not used to, nor willing to accept.

Russia’s perception of itself as a permanent great power is at the core of Russian self-identity. Schoolchildren are taught from an early age of the glories of the Russian empire, and are reminded often that the first man in space was a Soviet. That self-identity is now very much at odds with Russia’s position on the international stage, and Moscow is painfully aware of that. As a result, approaching Russia with unnecessary threats of military action, conventional or nuclear, is bound to provoke increased Russian aggressiveness, as Moscow tries to prove—both to NATO and to its own people—that Russia cannot be bullied so easily.

Regaining a place at the table. Russian aggression does not constitute an existential threat to the United States or NATO, as it did at the height of the Cold War. Thus there is no need for the West to respond with a nuclear military build-up. Russian national security strategies [link in Russian] and military doctrines [link in Russian] over the past two decades have repeatedly expressed a need to return Russian international influence to parity with that of the United States; at no point has Russia suggested that it wants to unseat the United States as a global power, to break apart NATO, or to become a pariah state. Instead, Moscow is desperate to once again find itself on equal footing with the United States in terms of influence.

For a myriad of political and historical reasons, Moscow has chosen to resort to a display of its military might to prove its worth. At the same time, it has not shied away from diplomatic engagements in cases where Moscow thinks it can stake out its interests—for instance, during the Iranian nuclear negotiations, or in the potential resolution of the Syrian crisis. Offers of international cooperation that may be perceived by some as rhetorical, empty, or self-interested in fact demonstrate a genuine desire to be included at the table and to influence critical international decisions. This should not, however, be mistaken for a Russian willingness to concede to Western demands or meet Western expectations. Moscow will continue to pull in its own direction, in favor of policies that first and foremost benefit its own interests and security—as can reasonably be expected of any state.

Avoiding alienation. Russia has constantly stressed the deterrent nature of its nuclear arsenal; it has made no suggestions that it might use unprompted nuclear force, except in cases of existential threat. Understandably, such assurances may be hard to take at face value. After, all, Russia’s definition of an existential threat is extremely liberal; it includes critical threats to its economic stability, to its political system, to Russian populations living outside its borders, and to the Putin government itself.

Russia will undoubtedly continue to test Western resolve with conventional military operations and nuclear saber-rattling. However, threatening to use nuclear weapons and actually pushing the button are two very different things. Moscow understands that a nuclear strike, no matter how limited, would cross the threshold of acceptable force, and would do nothing but isolate it from the international community. This would be fundamentally counterproductive to Russian objectives. Whatever remnants of Cold War thinking may have persisted in Moscow, the country has no desire to reorganize the world order, or to take any actions that would irreparably deny it its rightful place of influence at the international decision table.

Formulating a measured Western response. Responding to Russian attempts at power-balancing in the same way one would respond to an existential threat—by bolstering nuclear deterrence—is bound to result in what neorealist theorists of international relations refer to as the security dilemma. A state’s increase in its military capabilities—even if for defensive purposes—will be seen by other states as a sign of aggression, and will elicit a reciprocal military buildup, eventually leading to an arms race.

Russia’s acute feelings of vulnerability make it especially likely to overreact to perceived threats, and to feel the need to assert its ability to defend itself. An excessive buildup in Russia’s immediate vicinity, or nuclear threatening from afar, will only incite further aggression. Now is not the time for NATO to pull out its big guns. This is not to suggest that NATO should forgo a strong military deterrent in Eastern Europe, or that the United States should retire its nuclear arsenal. Instead, deterrence should be managed cautiously, in order to avoid an overreaction to Russian nuclear posturing and unnecessary escalation.

Medvedev is not incorrect in his assessment that the international circumstances today are increasingly reminiscent of the standoff that put the world on the brink of nuclear war back in 1962. What makes today’s situation more volatile is the acute sense of vulnerability plaguing Moscow, and the country’s determination to prove itself as an international power to be heeded. Permitting Moscow to play a critical role in the Iran nuclear negotiations was a great step toward reassuring Russia that it can still exert considerable influence over critical international decisions. The opening-up of dialogue between Russia and the United States over the Syrian conflict presents another such potential opportunity, if handled properly. Moscow will continue to look for openings where it can prove its sway in the international arena. Without forgoing effective military deterrence, the West must present Russia with opportunities to do so diplomatically, instead of baiting it to prove its worth in nukes.