4 March 2018

Threat assessment: Potemkin Putin versus the US Nuclear Posture Review

Sharon Squassoni

Sharon Squassoni

Sharon Squassoni is research professor at the Institute for International Science and Technology Policy, Elliott School of International Affairs, at the George Washington University. Previously,...

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Just weeks before his country's next national election, Russian President Vladimir Putin did all but set off fireworks celebrating Russia’s military might in his March 1 address to the Federal Assembly (Russia’s legislature). Putin clearly intended to fan domestic flames of nationalism and pride in advance of his certain re-election. The messages for his international audience, especially Americans who are the intended target of those new weapons systems he announced, however, were mixed.

Strategic nuclear capabilities took center stage in Putin’s morality play about a resurgent Russia. That is nothing new, since Russia never really gave up on nuclear weapons as the currency of international power and prestige, despite the end of the Cold War. Yet it’s not clear if the five weapons he described and showed “evidence” of (in some cases video footage with animated segments) are a) new; b) real; and/or c) bargaining chips.

Putin took pains to explain that the “new types of strategic weapons—are not the result of something left over from the Soviet Union ” even as he admitted that the government “relied on some ideas from … ingenious predecessors.” He also told his legislators that “everything I have said today is not a bluff—and it is not a bluff, believe me.” It’s hard to imagine an American president telling legislators who fund defense programs that new weapons systems they have (at least in theory) approved actually exist. This message is clearly meant for foreigners who have not given Russia its due in regard to military technology.

Intelligence analysts may already have a good sense of which Russian capabilities are real and which are fantasy—experts have expressed particular doubts about a nuclear reactor-powered cruise missile featured in a video animation—but the more interesting uncertainty pertains to Putin’s intentions. In the domestic half of his speech, he spoke of an accelerating pace of technological progress that would drown those unable to ride the wave. Depending on others for technology would inevitably reduce Russian security and economic growth and ultimately mean the loss of sovereignty. In this new environment, he noted, “an attractive life will develop in other, more successful countries where educated and talented young people will go, thereby draining the society’s vital powers and development energy.” This assertion may reveal his nostalgia for the days when Soviet citizens were not allowed to travel. But Putin also told his audience that “[t]he main threat and our main enemy is the fact that we are falling behind. If we are unable to reverse this trend, we will fall even further behind. This is like a serious chronic disease that steadily saps the energy from the body and destroys it from within step by step. Quite often, this destructive process goes unnoticed by the body.”

Is it possible for Putin to hold these two ideas concurrently—that Russia could be set adrift on an ocean of superior foreign technology but still manage to ride the crest of a nuclear weapons technology wave? Perhaps. If anything, his speech revealed the persistence of deeply rooted insecurities about Russia’s ability to thrive in competition with the West (“the American machine has been set into motion, the conveyer belt is moving forward”).  At the same time, the address put forward an almost delusional vision of what’s possible for his country. For example, he called upon Russia—famously a sponsor of hacking teams that have been used in espionage and coordinated cyber attacks meant to destabilize other countries, including Estonia, Ukraine, and the United States—to become a global center for the storage, processing, transfer, and reliable protection of “big data.”

Putin bluntly declared that the new strategic weapons platforms he described were created “in response to the unilateral withdrawal of the United States of America from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the practical deployment of their missile defense systems both in the US and beyond their national borders.” This is hardly a new tale; American experts in nuclear arms control know the story by heart, having heard it thousands of times from Russian experts in the last 15 years. But Putin’s retelling of it has a happy ending. Instead of being outspent by America’s “Star Wars” missile defense program, begun in the 1980s, Russia has, in Putin's assessment, made ballistic missile defenses irrelevant through technological leap-frogging.

Putin may have felt freer to beat his chest after the recent release of the US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). In his speech, he criticized the United States for lowering the threshold for nuclear use by including in the NPR the possibility of a nuclear strike “in response to conventional arms attacks and even to a cyber-threat.” Of course, Putin sees no problem with the Russian doctrine of reserving “the right to use nuclear weapons solely in response to a nuclear attack, or an attack with other weapons of mass destruction against the country or its allies, or an act of aggression against us with the use of conventional weapons that threaten the very existence of the state.”

One difference between Putin’s speech and the US nuclear posture review involves arms control. Both texts made clear that any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a nuclear response. Putin, however, followed his articulation of a Russian nuclear response by suggesting that, actually, “[t]here is no need to create more threats to the world. Instead, let us sit down at the negotiating table and devise together a new and relevant system of international security and sustainable development for human civilisation.”

The Nuclear Posture Review made no pretense that nuclear arms control was on the Trump administration’s agenda. Not even the relatively easy, five-year extension of New START—which Putin is on record as favoring—seems to be on the table. At best, the review noted, “The US does not wish to regard either Russia or China as an adversary and seeks stable relations with both.” In contrast to its policy on China—for which the United States would seek to enhance its understanding of nuclear policies, doctrines, and capabilities to manage the risks of miscalculation and misperception—the Trump administration apparently will not seek to manage such risks with Russia until “Russia engages with the United States, its allies, and partners transparently and constructively, without aggressive actions and coercive threats.”

The NPR revealed that the United States would also be seeking new nuclear capabilities, although they would be rather modest in scale when compared to the five systems that Putin described. As a short-term response to Russia’s purported lowering of the nuclear threshold, the Trump NPR would field a low-yield warhead for sea-launched ballistic missiles. A longer-term response involves development of a new nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile as a “treaty-compliant” response to Russia’s continuing violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. The Nuclear Posture Review even states that if Russia comes back into compliance with the treaty, the United States might reconsider this system.

Which public document has more potential to ratchet up an arms race? It’s a tossup. Both contain elements of Cold War hyperbole. Both amply demonstrate the need to bridge the gap in Russian and American perceptions. Whether Putin meant to leave the door slightly open to arms control talks or not, it’s pretty clear at this point that there is a lot to talk about in terms of nuclear risk reduction. But if the Trump administration knocks on that door, it will likely come as a surprise to the Russians—and to the people who wrote the US Nuclear Posture Review.