Backing up nuclear blackmail
Leon Aron—February 22, 2023—
In his much-postponed annual state-of-Russia speech, Putin was chewing the same toxic cud: The war in Ukraine is part of the West’s long-term plan to destroy Russia. Egged on and armed by the West, the “Nazi regime” in Kyiv had been readying an attack Russia in early 2022. America is bent on world dominance at the cost of millions of human lives.
In this context, the “suspension” of Russia’s compliance with the New Start strategic nuclear arms treaty should not come as much of a surprise. Putin called the US attempts to enforce the inspection regime — while seeking to “deal Russia a strategic defeat” — the “apex of cynicism and hypocrisy.” It was bred, he added, the Russian for drivel, delusion, lunacy. He would not allow the inspectors to “poke their noses” into Russian strategic arms bases!
Of course, there was more to Russia’s exit from the final remaining element of bilateral U.S.-Russia arms control than Putin disclosed in his vulgar outburst. The departure symbolized the severing of the last vestige of the post-Stalin détente with the West. Relegated to the ash heap of history have been 60 years of bilateral nuclear cooperation: from the 1963 nuclear test ban to the Nixon-Brezhnev 1972 SALT, the Carter-Brezhnev 1979 SALT II, the Reagan-Gorbachev 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Obama-Medvedev 2010 New Start. Instead, Putin repeatedly extolled “Yalta and Potsdam” – the 1945 summits of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt that solidified the Soviet Union’s lordship of East-Central Europe – as the bulwark of European stability and Russia’s security, which he accused the U.S. of relentlessly undermining.
The most disturbing aspect of Putin’s decision is its contribution to nuclear blackmail. He has deployed it since at least 2014, when he claimed to have put the Russian nuclear force on high alert during the seizure and occupation of Crimea. He reprised the threat three days after the second invasion of Ukraine a year ago, when he ordered the “forces of nuclear deterrence” be switched to “a special regime of a war-fighting alert ” in a videoed conversation with his Minister of Defense and Chief of General Staff. In today’s speech, too, he revealed that he had recently signed a similar order on the readiness of “new land-based strategic systems.”
The timing of the termination of the treaty is hardly accidental. Notwithstanding Putin’s glowing report of the state of Russia’s economy and society, his regime cannot indefinitely sustain the expense, in blood and treasure, of the war of attrition that the past year inaugurated. Likely no longer expecting a resounding victory, Putin is almost certain to bet on the West’s growing weary of supporting Ukraine and pressing Kyiv to seek “peace” largely on Russia’s terms.
Yet should the West hold the line, a threat of a confrontation between Russia and NATO – and an implied escalation to nuclear war – may emerge as Putin’s sole means of extricating himself from Ukraine without admitting defeat, which could be politically lethal to his regime.
In such a scenario , ending the verification regime (and later perhaps shutting down the ballistic missiles early warning system as well) would add significantly to the West’s perception of vulnerability, making it – or so Putin might hope – more pliable to his ultimatum.
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This article originally appeared in the AEIdeas blog and is reprinted with kind permission from the American Enterprise Institute.