Late 2021 saw unprecedented threats of war and nuclear war from the Putin government. While Russian nuclear threats are common, the recent ones are fundamentally different for three reasons: 1) they are linked to the threat of an invasion of Ukraine backed by credible deployed military capabilities (reports of 100,000 or even 175,000 troops); 2) they are offensive in nature; and 3) they are linked to political demands that amount to the U.S. and NATO accepting the recreation of the Soviet Union and its imperial domination of Eastern Europe under the guise of “security guarantees” for Russia. Russia has not only threatened military action against Ukraine, but it has also sent troops into Kazakhstan in Putin’s continuing war against the concept of representative government. Russian Chief of the General Staff General of the Army Valery Gerasimov declared, “…any provocations by the Ukrainian authorities to settle the Donbass difficulties militarily will be thwarted.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned, “…that the ‘nightmare scenario of a military confrontation was returning’ in Europe, accusing NATO of inching its military infrastructure closer to Russia’s borders.”
The Russian support of the war in Eastern Ukraine has already resulted in 13,000 Ukrainian deaths because of the Russian desire to annex these territories. Russia is now contemplating a vastly more lethal war.
President Putin’s December 2021 address to the Russian Defense Ministry Board was unusual. It usually involves an attack on the U.S. and NATO and a lot of bragging about Russian military accomplishments in the preceding year. This time, except for his statement that Russian strategic nuclear modernization had reached 89% and that it had reached 71% in the “troops” and a passing reference to two of Russia’s new hypersonic missiles, Putin’s speech was mainly a diatribe against the U.S. and NATO. Putin declared, “In particular, the growth of the US and NATO military forces in direct proximity to the Russian border and major military drills, including unscheduled ones, are a cause for concern.” Putin threatened, “…if our Western colleagues continue their obviously aggressive line, we will take appropriate military-technical reciprocal measures and will have a tough response to their unfriendly steps.”
According to Russian Defense Minister General of the Army Sergei Shoigu, the great NATO troop buildup threatening Russia was the deployment 8,000 U.S. troops in Eastern Europe. This was a response to Russian aggression against Ukraine and various threats against NATO border states starting in 2014. It is a ridiculously small force to portray as a serious threat to Russia. The announced number of Russian troops involved in the Zapad-2021 exercise against NATO nations was 200,000. During this exercise, Russia reportedly conducted a mock nuclear strike against Poland. In an April 2021 Russian exercise near Ukraine, Russia announced the involvement of 300,000 troops. This is much larger than any NATO exercise that Russia is complaining about.
After the public announcement of Russia’s demands for “security guarantees,” President Putin personally declared, “You should give us guarantees. You! And without any delay! Now!” Reuters observed these “security guarantees” would drastically alter the post-Cold War order in Europe.” According to Konstantin Gavrilov, a Russian diplomat in Vienna, relations between Moscow and NATO had reached a “moment of truth” and, “The conversation needs to be serious and everyone in NATO understands perfectly well despite their strength and power that concrete political action needs to be taken; otherwise the alternative is a military-technical and military response from Russia.” In late December 2021, Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin told NATO military attaches that, “Lately, the alliance opted for direct provocations, fraught with a great risk of developing into an armed standoff.” TASS, Russia’s main official news agency, interpreted his statement as meaning, “Systematic provocations by NATO near Russia’s borders are fraught with major risks of developing into an armed conflict.” Also, in late December, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said, “…we would find forms to respond, including by military and military-technical means [if NATO ignores Moscow’s concerns again].”
Former CIA officer Rob Dannenberg has summed up Putin’s “security guarantees”:
In the aggregate, if accepted, the Russian proposals would create a massive “buffer zone” or [Russian] “sphere of influence” from Finland in the north to Turkey in the south, in some ways replicating the 1945 Yalta Agreement.
The manner in which the Russian proposals have been presented and subsequent comments from senior Russian officials suggest the two draft treaties are not proposals subject to negotiation and discussion but rather demands. Per Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov: “If the West does not deliver a constructive answer [to Russia’s demands] within a reasonable time frame…then Russia will be forced to use all necessary means to ensure the strategic balance and to eradicate threats to our security,” adding that “Russia will not allow never-ending discussions” on its demands.
Reuters reported that “Russia said…it wanted a legally binding guarantee that NATO would give up any military activity in Eastern Europe and Ukraine, part of a wish list of security guarantees it wants to negotiate with the West.”
Despite the extreme nature of the Russian demands, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, after a meeting with U.S. officials in Geneva, declared that “radical changes” were necessary in the Russia-NATO relationship and that Russia “absolutely must receive legal guarantees on the non-deployment of the relevant strike systems and why we are raising the question about NATO abandoning, by and large, the [military] development of the territory of states which joined the alliance after 1997.” He also said Russia would continue the exercises that NATO had complained about. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “…the movement of our armed forces on our own territory should be of no concern to anyone.” (Emphasis in the original.) Ryabkov seemed upbeat about the meeting, which is not a good sign. Russian “equal security” involves no restriction of Russian troop deployment, exercises and the number of tactical nuclear weapons on Russian territory but restrictions on all of the above for NATO territory II well as restricting the composition of future NATO membership. It must emphasize that Russia has a massive advantage in non-strategic nuclear weapons and won’t limit them.
Threats of Nuclear War
While Russia was making war threats, it was also making nuclear threats. This is not new. Russian nuclear targeting threats date back to 2007. However, this is the first time Moscow used nuclear threats in support of an offensive political agenda and there were a lot of them.
Russia has previously used nuclear threats in support of its aggression against Ukraine, including the deployment of nuclear-capable systems near Ukraine. In September 2014, then-Ukrainian Minister of Defense Colonel General Valeriy Heletey wrote, “The Russian side has threatened on several occasions across unofficial channels that, in the case of continued resistance, they are ready to use a tactical nuclear weapon against us.” In 2015, President Putin said that he would have put Russian nuclear forces on alert during the Crimea crisis if it was necessary. Nuclear threats are now being used in support of a potential invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s “ultimatum” (what Russian state media have called it, although Ryabkov characterizes it as a serious warning) concerning “security assurances.”
In November 2021, noted Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer pointed out that, “President Vladimir Putin declared that if the West deploys missiles to Ukraine that could reach Moscow ‘in five to ten minutes,’ Russia is ready to counter by deploying a ‘new naval hypersonic missile, which may reach [Western] decision-makers in 5 minutes, flying at Mach 9 speed.’ (Militarynews.ru, November 30).” The context of Putin’s statement was preparations for a Russian invasion of Ukraine, not NATO missile deployments. A purely fictitious U.S. missile deployment in Ukraine is being used as an excuse to threaten nuclear strikes against Ukraine and NATO. Numerous major news organizations interpreted his speech as saying, “…Russia will target [the] U.S. if it deploys missiles to Europe.” They did not pick up on his threat against the U.S. National Command Authority. This is important because it is something that would only be done in a full-scale nuclear war. Many of the Russian statements made in late 2021 implied that Russia would engage in an all-out nuclear war over its newly announced agenda.
Nine days after Putin’s nuclear threat, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned about a Ukrainian conflict becoming a new Cuban missile crisis. The Cuban missile crisis was the closest the U.S. and the Soviet Union came to devastating nuclear war. In effect, Ryabkov was threatening a major nuclear war if the U.S. did not agree to Putin’s demands.
In mid-December 2021, Russia began the practice of sending long-range nuclear-capable bombers on “patrols” over Belarus. This was the first time a former Soviet state was forced to engage to this extent in Russian nuclear coercion. There was no purpose for these “patrols” other than nuclear intimidation. When asked about the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared, “It’s no secret that the deployment of various kinds of weapons near our borders, which can pose a danger to us, clearly requires adequate steps to balance the situation. Various options are available.” This is one step short of saying “yes” that Russia would deploy nuclear weapons.
On December 24, 2021, President Putin announced a salvo launch of the nuclear–capable Zircon (Tsirkon) hypersonic missile. The timing could have been linked to the pattern of nuclear war threats. The Zircon was the missile Putin was talking about in the context of his threat against the U.S. National Command Authority.
Moscow state television is used in information warfare and in making nuclear threats. Taking its cue from President Putin, threats of nuclear war ramped up considerably in December 2021. Writing in the Daily Beast, Julia Davis even suggested that, taking their cue from Putin, “Russian Citizens Are Now Being Prepped for Nuclear War.” (Emphasis in the original). Dmitry Kiselyov, a Russian media mogul, threatened on state TV to “put a gun to America’s head” if NATO forces are stationed in Ukraine and warned the alliance to back off “otherwise, everyone will be turned into radioactive ash.” He indicated that Russia was prepared to accept the consequences of such actions to get what it wanted, putting his faith in Russia’s hypersonic nuclear missiles.
In December 2021, Russian military expert Colonel Konstantin Sivkov, in an interview by Russian Russia Today TV (state media), “…said … that America recently gave Germany’s air force permission to equip its planes with American nuclear weapons, and has provided Germany with America’s nuclear battle plans. Colonel Sivkov said that as a result, the U.S. has pushed the situation in Ukraine to the brink of nuclear war, and he warned that if a nuclear conflict erupts, 160 of Russia’s submarine-launched nuclear missiles could turn a country like Germany into a nuclear wasteland.” (Emphasis in the original). He also threatened nuclear strikes on U.S. territory. Colonel Sivkov was apparently cued by Putin’s statement.
In late December 2021, RT (formerly called Russia Today) described a war between the U.S. and Russia as “Hundreds of formidable tanks rolling down hills, thousands of high-caliber guns unleashing devastating artillery barrages, apocalyptic nuclear explosions, millions of deaths and indescribable suffering: that would be how any potential military conflict between US and Russia would play out.” The article ended with a discussion of the negotiations on “security guarantees.”
In mid-December 2021, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Russia “could be forced to deploy nuclear missiles in Europe as a reaction to what it perceives as NATO’s intentions to make similar moves.” Ryabkov also threatened to “deploy tactical nuclear weapons, if NATO does not guarantee an end to its eastward expansion.” (Forward deployment of nuclear missiles is a common form of Russian nuclear threat.) Ryabkov also said, “…it will be a confrontation, the next round, the deployment of such tools from our side.” (Emphasis in the original).
In December 2021, RT reported that the chairman of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada, Ruslan Stefanchuk, stated that “…signals coming from Russia indicate that Moscow could be plotting a full-blown nuclear attack against its Eastern European neighbor…”
Starting on February 1, 2022, Russia will adopt a “…new national standard for ‘Urgent burial of corpses in peacetime and wartime’,” which will include “mass graves” and “devices for the absorption and neutralization of radioactive, hazardous chemicals and biological agents formed during the decomposition of corpses.” Noted Russian journalist Alexander Golts told Novye Izvestiya, “Those who prepared these standards thought in terms of either a global epidemic or a global war, in which not only the military but also the civilian population would die. This is only possible with the use of nuclear weapons.” This is very ominous.
The combination of threats of war and nuclear threats starting in late 2021 is unusual. While many of the themes are familiar, the number of the threats and the new threats linked to an offensive agenda is unprecedented and very dangerous. As a former CIA officer pointed out, “Putin may be bluffing on Ukraine, but he has invested an unusual amount of personal capital stoking the crisis, including penning an essay in July 2021, challenging Ukraine’s legitimacy as a country and Ukrainians as a people.” While some argue Putin could not believe he could get what he is asking for, it is possible that he does. Putin’s offensive comes after a year of extreme weakness by the Biden administration, including the Afghanistan fiasco. The meetings between President Biden and President Putin may well have created an impression in President Putin’s mind that the Biden administration is weak and will capitulate. This would be a disaster. If Putin wins this confrontation, it will not be his last territorial demand in Europe. Alternatively, he may present the failure of the West to agree to his demands as the rationale for his invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s intervention in Kazakhstan may delay his attack against Ukraine. However, unless Putin is deterred, it will eventually happen. Deterrence is not something the Biden administration is very good at. All the administration is saying is that if “…Russia escalate[s] its aggressive actions against Ukraine,” the U.S. will “impose significant economic and political costs.” That has not stopped Putin yet.
Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions. He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.