Aaron SteinPutin’s Nuclear Threat

Did Vladimir Putin just threaten the West with nuclear weapons? Could nuclear weapons be used in Europe? What is Russia’s nuclear doctrine? Does a nuclear balance make the world safe for conventional war?

Today, Aaron and Jeffrey talk about Russia’s nuclear weapons and the recent chatter about them in Moscow.

Jeffrey and Aaron discussed a number of articles during the podcast:

Jeffrey Lewis, “The Sources of Putin’s Conduct,” Foreign Policy, July 15, 2014.

Пятая колонка, kasparov.org, August 8, 2014.

Meeting with members of political parties represented in the State Dumа, August 14, 2014.

Vladimir Putin visits the Seliger 2014 10th National Youth Forum, August 29, 2014.

Anne Applebaum, “War in Europe is not a Hysterical Idea,” The Washington Post, August, 29, 2014.

Jeffrey Lewis, “A Boy and His Toys,” Foreign Policy, September 5, 2014.

As always, you can subscribe to the (now better sounding) Arms Control Wonk Podcast on iTunes.


  1. George William Herbert (History)

    I think the meta-observation is that Arms Control as a field exists within a continuum of conventional deterrence, geopolitical tension, multiple sets of internal political goals, etc.

    The *serious* practitioners most likely disagree over prioritizing the fundamental goals of one or the other subfields, or in not being aware enough of aspects of other subfields. Being open to scope of vision expansion and other goals is important.

    I don’t think Putin is any more serious about firing a weapon than Obama is, but the other issues in play have led to him more or less blowing one of “traditional arms control”s core values out of the water – we don’t just want to avoid nuclear war, or even active threats of nuclear war, but want to put nuclear war outside of discussion as something to consider threatening people with. Put it off the table, as a useful tool of geopolitics, other than as an abstract deterrent to others’ use.

    I see four paths. One, ignore it as hyperbole. Two, take it somewhat seriously and respond with conventional military strengthening to deter. Three, take it somewhat seriously and respond with nuclear posturing of our own. Four, take it really seriously, and privately and then if needed publicly and strongly make the statement that transgressing the “Don’t even consider threatening people with it” puts one outside the bounds of acceptable international society, and that if he won’t retract it and back off then it’s Cold War 2.0 and we’re on. Three and four are more or less polar opposites.

    Jeffrey makes a case for two. I think the Poles are around there, maybe more towards Four. I see a lot of Europeans tacitly making a case for one, but not coming out and explaining why in depth. I haven’t seen any serious party bring three into play, though non-serious parties have. Four requires a lot more will, but is the only one that could re-establish the norm that You Just Don’t Do That.

    So, where’s the line on the norms we’re willing to seriously stand up for. One, two, or four? Or, heaven forbid, WE give up on You Just Don’t Do That, and three?…

    What, as people interested in Arms Control or Nonproliferation (writ large, with Major Problems in Iran and North Korea and significant ones in another five, six places) can we say about what framework of norms and behavior can we stand behind and make work?

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I would distinguish doing something about nuclear threats, per se, and doing something about Russia’s travesty in Ukraine. Because of what Russia has done, it makes sense to respond with some form of overt or covert military aid to Ukraine, in addition to sanctions on Russia.

      I see little sense in “punishing” Russia for nuclear threats, because it is obvious that Ukraine is low stakes (for both the U.S. and Russia) that it does not merit starting a nuclear war. Making nuclear threats under these conditions is juvenile behavior. At least when I was young, school kids often threatened to kill each other, but nobody thought there was a real chance that murder would soon follow.

      Ostensible grown-ups should not be making such nuclear threats. We should act like grown-ups in our response. Options 3 and 4 are out of the question. Option 2 is acceptable as our response to Ukraine, but only option 1 seems appropriate to absurd nuclear threats per se. Option 1 does not preclude making the moral case against such threats, or ridiculing the juvenile threatener.

  2. J_kies (History)

    I don’t read anything terribly profound there other than in our Post Warsaw Pact world the CCCP wanna-be is so much weaker conventionally than NATO that the shoe is on the other foot. In the bad old days of the Fulda gap scenario with mass Soviet invasion of Europe; NATO was pretty plain spoken as to the nuclear escalation strategy in response to the tank armies.
    When facing a nuclear armed adversary that is applying conventional forces in a subversion role; you have 3 choices, 1) direct military conflict (risking escalation as Mr Putin expressed), 2) acceptance of subversion, and 3) indirect military responses (surrogates such as paramilitaries / mercenaries in deniable operations).

    Welcome back to the savage wars of peace, perhaps Ukraine can join Vietnam in the 1960s/70s and Afghanistan in the 1980s as places where imperial hubris experienced reality.

  3. Alexis TK27 (History)

    One of the main factors leading to outbreak of WWI was inability or unwillingness by many of the great powers to enter into the world of the other side, see his point of view, and at least try addressing his legitimate concerns.

    Even though the existence of several second-strike-able, therefore stable nuclear deterrent forces is a most serious obstacle to starting a new world war, outbreaks of less destructive wars – which is not to say small wars – are certainly still possible.

    Modern examples of the consequences and risks of behaviour which frightens the other side are several:
    – “Star Wars” SDI on top of Pershing II… leading the Soviet Union to create and put in service Perimeter “Dead Hand” semi-automated nuclear reprisal system
    – NATO attack on Serbia 1999… leading Russia to update its nuclear doctrine in May 1999 giving a greater and earlier role to nuclear weapons to stop a conventional attack
    – Open support to demonstrators in Kiev calling on them to destroy the democratically elected Ukrainian government and immediate recognition of the government installed by force of their militias in spite of extended role of neofascist Svoboda in that government (1/3rd of minister posts)… leading Russia to secure Crimea through forced organization of a plebiscite for reunion with Russia
    – Support to the new Kiev government for military crackdown on rebelious Ukrainians as a solution to its contested legitimacy issue… leading Russia to organize and arm some of those rebelious Eastern Ukrainians into a coherent figthing force

    We’re presently in a phase of cooling down the tensions, with a serious possibility for permanent agreement between the Kiev government and the Donbass insurgents enabling peaceful maintaining of Ukrainian sovereignty on that region.

    Putin’s comments about “no one (thinking) of unleashing a large-scale conflict with Russia (because) Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers” are both part of the cooling down phase – reminding Russians that they are safe – and signal to the other side that cooling down is in everybody’s interest.

    They also are nothing extraordinary, on the face of them. Any leader of any of the five official nuclear weapons states could say the same, and Israeli, Indian and Pakistani leaders might too.

    The most important condition to avoid repeating the errors of end 2013-summer 2014 in Ukraine, and first to quell their consequences, is to be able to see the other side’s point of view. A French can imagine how he would feel if the Ukrainian troubles had happened in Belgium. An American may try to imagine them happening in Mexico or in Canada.

    The price for behaviour frightening the other side, in this case Russia, has been paid directly by Ukrainians, in blood, no matter whether they died as civilians under artillery fire or as soldiers in a civil war supported by external powers. But it doesn’t mean Ukrainians are the only ones to pay.

    European nations are deprived of many cooperation opportunities by estrangement from Russia, while the USA find their competition with China and their control on Persian Gulf complexified when Moscow strikes a strategic entente with Beijing and supports Teheran’s ambitions – both of which are happening right now.

    • J_kies (History)

      I suspect the problem is that people understand Mr Putin’s behaviors all too well and disbelieve he has any legitimate concerns.

      While Mr Putin believes that the collapse of the USSR was tragic (as a romantic from the security services would) many peoples held hostage by the Red Army and KGB had a different viewpoint. Given the historic abuses and attendant suppression of the non-Russian minorities by Stalin anyone around Russia could have reasonable concerns as to Mr Putin’s objectives in territorial expansion.

      The SDI was known by Soviet scientists to be non-viable; Pershing II made any nuclear conflict rather personal for the Kremlin and resulted in their logical agreement to eliminate short time of flight ‘decapitation’ weapons.

      Did not the Serbians indulge in ‘ethnic cleansing’ less than a decade prior to 1999? Avoiding a repeat of the mass graves wasn’t a bad motivation for NATO’s intrusion.

      Putin made clear his plans to insert Yanukovych when he introduced him as the future president of Ukraine to the US ambassador at Putin’s dacha. Since the current government is alleging up to 70 Billion (dollars) transferred from the Ukrainian treasury to foreign accounts and the current freezing of Yanukovych’s family accounts in multiple foreign countries; mass embezzlement looks to be legitimate rationale for removal.

      By instigating and fomenting ‘revolt’ via Russian army regulars with their heavy equipment on ‘leave’ in Crimea and now the Donbass; Mr Putin is directly applying the historic techniques and stated motivations of Mr Hitler in Austria, the Rhineland and the Sudetenland.

      The mass murder of MH-17 is on Mr Putin’s hands as well – he provided the weapons, troops and instructions that ignore the usual laws of war and the tragic results were ultimately his fault.

      We understand his real concerns; how can he restore the brutal Soviet empire without the excuse of the economic system as a means to unite labor?

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I see nothing in Alexis’ remarks that justify Russian military intervention into Ukraine. A Ukrainian (or Russian) government that can’t survive protests from its own people probably deserves to fall.

      The alleged military crackdown on rebels against a new government in Ukraine is insufficient reason for Russian troops to cross the border into Ukraine. If Putin were merely defending the “rights” of rebels, there would be no reason to carve off Crimea and incorporate it into Russia. It is simply a Putin power display, not a legitimate military intervention.