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The last argument

What stands behind Putin’s nuclear threats?
06 March, 12:05
Sketch by Viktor BOGORAD

On March 1, exactly four years after the Federation Council of Russia had approved the use of arms in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin delivered an annual state-of-the-nation address. His statements were of a boastful and even threatening nature. He had no scruples about intimidating the US and the Western world, saying that the Russian armed forces have adopted a small-scale heavy-duty nuclear energy unit that can be installed in a cruise missile which is invulnerable to missile defense systems. Speaking on national television, Putin demonstrated Russian intercontinental missiles, cruise missiles, and other weapons on video and animated trailers. He said Russia had made considerable progress in this sphere on the basis of designs by Russian scientists only.

He said, among other things: “We started to develop new types of strategic arms that do not use ballistic trajectories at all when moving toward a target and, therefore, missile defense systems are useless against them, absolutely pointless… One of them is a small-scale heavy-duty nuclear energy unit that can be installed in a missile like our latest X-101 air-launched missile or the American Tomahawk missile – a similar type but with a range dozens of times longer, dozens, basically an unlimited range.”

Putin issued direct threats in his speech: “I hope that everything that was said today would make any potential aggressor think twice, since unfriendly steps against Russia such as deploying missile defenses and bringing NATO infrastructure closer to the Russian border become ineffective in military terms and entail unjustified costs, making them useless for those promoting these initiatives.”

“You did not listen to our country at the time. Listen to us now,” Putin said, claiming that some of these weapons are already being tested. So, Putin has in fact announced a new wave of the arms race.

It will be recalled that as far back as February 16 NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on Russia to be open about observation of the 1987 USSR-US Treaty on the Elimination of their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles. Stoltenberg pointed out that, unfortunately, NATO is forced to remain a nuclear bloc to counterbalance the threat from such countries as Russia, China, and North Korea. Tellingly, the USSR-US arms race was based not only on the desire to dominate in the world, but also on ideological differences between the capitalist and the socialist worlds. In 1991 Russia declared an opposite path – towards democratization, free trade, freedom of speech, etc. But Russia has remained de facto a totalitarian state with simulated democratic institutions. The latter aspect continues to relax, to some extent, the vigilance of some Western politicians. They remain prepared not only for a dialog with the Kremlin (a dialog with a dangerous potential enemy is necessary), but also for cooperation. The proof of this is the recent statement of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz who supported Russia’s construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

In this situation, consolidation of the Western world is of dire necessity in spite of all the existing array of sanctions. Obviously, every time Putin makes such a harsh and blackmailing statement, he resorts to intimidation in response to increased pressure on him.

The Day has asked some military experts what Putin’s aggressive statement really means. Is it blackmail of the West or an attempt to use his old pre-election ploy of flexing muscles?


Valentyn BADRAK, director, Center for Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Studies:

“What Putin is saying and doing is a mix of populism and the threshold of adventurism which is higher than that of Western leaders. Owing to this higher threshold, he acts quite actively and sometime achieves his goal. His current statement on strategic nuclear armaments is the reaction of a beast at the end of its tether. For he can see that the Western world began to knit together for obvious reasons and is correcting its mistakes in spite of problems, such as Trump-Merkel relations and different views of the current US administration and European capitals on the solution of some problems. Putin is aware that this situation works against him. But he knows no other ways of influence than intimidation, blackmail, and bribery. A time is coming when an anti-Putin coalition may be formed. On the other hand, we can notice a grave problem of Russia in terms of technology. All grand projects, such as the PAK DA next-generation strategic bomber and the PAK FA fifth-generation jet fighter, are failing and have achieved no tangible success. In reality, Putin has not a single weighty argument except for nuclear weapons. Therefore, he is undoubtedly insisting on this aspect and hinting that he can resort to the last arguments. The abovementioned statements were caused by a series of Russia’s defeats, particularly in Syria. On the Ukrainian territory, he may be increasing attacks in the battlefield but is unable to prevent Ukraine from receiving technical military aid, which means that Ukraine is getting stronger. But time is no longer playing in favor of Putin, for the West has begun to awaken and draw proper conclusions after his aggressive actions. The current presidential race is his last ‘swan song.’ That’s why he is using all the possible arsenals to make his voters respect him. Hence, the very fact of this speech shows that Putin is very much nervous. On the other hand, this cannot help causing alarm because, in a condition like this, Putin may resort to any destructive measures, including raising the quality of attacks against Ukraine. The latter fact is particularly dangerous to us. Ukraine has so far nothing to counterbalance Putin in a 5th-generation war. And he knows that, under these circumstances, the West will be unable to offer military support.”


Galia ACKERMAN, chief, Russian bureau, journal Politique Internationale; Paris:

“Russia is rife with military hysteria. The regime is trying to convince the Russians that they are standing almost on the brink of World War Three. Sanctions are interpreted as not a punishment for Ukraine but a wish to curb the rise of Russia. So, the only thing he [Putin. – Ed.] can boast of is weapons.

“Indeed, he said they have totally new types of weapons, for example, non-ballistic missiles which he alleges cannot be spotted by air defense systems. If this is the case, the air defense system loses some of its advantages. He can boast of supersonic weapons and submarines that can dive to a hitherto inaccessible depth.

“Clearly, Russia is arming to the teeth and, owing to military superiority, wants to become a major player on the international stage. As a matter of fact, the operation in Syria showed this.

“I think this is important, above all, in the context of the election campaign. As there are no great economic successes, it only remains to set hopes on the object of national pride – ‘we are the strongest of all.’

“These statements show that Russia is becoming a more dangerous player on the international stage. Essentially, it is nontrivial blackmail of the West.”

Does the West have any grounds for alarm and how should it respond to these statements of the Russian president?

“There may be grounds for alarm, especially in the US, because relations are very tense now. America is imposing new, sectoral, sanctions. For example, it became known yesterday that Exxon Mobil is cutting ties with Russia because of these sanctions. In other words, Exxon Mobil, as an American company, no longer has a right to this kind of cooperation. All these measures are dealing quite a painful blow to Russia, so the latter must have adopted the strategy of relying on military force, which will force the West to reckon with Russia and meet its demands in order to avoid a confrontation.

“It is difficult to say how the West will respond. They will take it into account, but NATO and other entities will hardly make any statements in reply.”


Leonid POLIAKOV, former Deputy Minister of Defense, Ukraine:

“Putin’s statement on the nuclear weapons shows that he got into a very difficult situation due to his Cheka-style subversive activities. Suffice it to recall interference into US elections, the recently exposed drug traffic, terrorism, bombings in Syria, and many other things. On the eve of the elections, he must rehabilitate himself in some way as a strong international leader capable of exerting worldwide influence. But he is trying to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of his potential voters. Sanctions as well as criminal cases are pushing Putin to an ignominious end – either through a court action or through a Kremlin plot. That’s why it is extremely necessary for him to be reelected and thus remain a legitimate leader, for his legitimacy has been considerably undermined. As for the essential side of the matter – whether Russia really has an arsenal that poses a threat to the world – it is known that it really was and still is developing this kind of weapons. But, in reality, there is no convincing evidence that these weapons (especially hard-to-intercept hypersonic missiles) arouse serious concern in the West. If this posed a serious threat, then, judging by the way the Americans react to such things, this would have been common knowledge long ago. I think Putin is so far exaggerating the real danger of his weapons to the West, and his statements are, first of all, intended for the domestic consumer.”

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