This article was originally posted in EU Today.
Just recently, the Russian state channel Russia-1 listed US military facilities that would become possible Kremlin targets in the event of a nuclear strike. In particular, the TV host Dmitry Kiselev threatened to aim the Zircon hypersonic missiles at the Pentagon and several command posts, including the control center for US nuclear forces.
At first glance, there is nothing new in yet another instance of the “nuclear swagger”. Such rhetoric has been voiced by the Kremlin for the past several years. One of the first threats on this topic was Dmitry Kiselev’s famous statement that “Russia is capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash.” The next case of exacerbation of direct nuclear blackmail was observed before the presidential elections in the United States. Then, the leading propaganda media openly stated that a nuclear war in the case of Hillary Clinton‘s victory would be almost inevitable.
For example, in October 2016, Russian programs, one after another, showed TV specials devoted not only to the quality of bomb shelters, but also to the technology of anti-missile defense. On the official channel of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, a twenty-minute story was released under the loud title “Obama threatens Russia!”, in which it was directly stated that the USA is “the enemy of humanity”. At the same time, the famous Russian journalist Alexander Sotnik published on his page in social networks a post from a woman claiming that children in a Moscow school were being scared with the prospect of a nuclear war with the USA and death in case of Hillary Clinton’s victory in the presidential election.
Penultimate vivid example of blatant nuclear blackmail is the threat voiced personally by Vladimir Putin in the World Order-2018 film devoted to him. To the direct question of the leader Vladimir Solovyov about the possibility of using nuclear weapons, Putin replied that he was ready to deliver only a “retaliatory strike”. However, he acknowledged:
“Yes, it will be a global catastrophe for the world, but why do we need such a world if Russia is not there?”, in effect openly stating that he is ready to destroy the planet in a nuclear war if he feels a similar threat to his country. It is significant that the film included, as an afterword, the notorious excerpt from the message to the Federal Assembly, in which Putin demonstrates new types of weapons as a “response to the United States on their withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.
In his latest message to the Federal Assembly, Vladimir Putin also did not forget about the nuclear arsenal. In particular, he called the deployment of US missiles in Europe a threat to world security and promised to respond with “mirror and asymmetric actions.” At the same time, during this performance, the launches of the new Sarmat strategic missile and a nuclear-powered cruise missile were demonstrated on the screen. It would seem that there is nothing new in these threats; moreover, now for the first time at least some formal reason has emerged for them – the US withdrawal from the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Short-Range Missiles (INF). However, everything is not so simple.
Back in October, the well-known Russian political scientist and publicist Andrei Piontkovsky noted that the desire of the US President Donald Trump and his adviser John Bolton to withdraw the United States from the INF Treaty was a test step in the direction of the “grand bargain” between Moscow and Washington, and any outcome of this initiative would be beneficial for Russia. In particular, Piontkovsky predicted that in the event of the Americans withdrawing from the treaty, “Putin will now be able to openly deploy ground 9.9729 cruise missiles, banned by the United Republican Maritime Peace Treaty, in Kaliningrad and Belarus and at the same time talk about the new arms race imposed by the hated “pindoses”.
In December, the same thoughts were voiced by senators-democrats while appealing to President Donald Trump to take into account the negative consequences of the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty. In particular, they called the US withdrawal from the agreement a “political and geo-strategic gift to Russia,” noting that it would allow Russia to expand the production and deployment of its missile systems that threaten Europe. Note that this is not the first time that Trump’s actions fully coincide with Moscow’s wishes. Russian analysts themselves have repeatedly pointed out that the attacks of the US president on the American intelligence community, as well as his attitude towards NATO allies and the EU, as well as creating chaos and confrontation within the United States, certainly play into the hands of the Kremlin. Moreover, all these actions were carried out by Trump on his personal initiative, without any nuclear blackmail from Moscow. In addition, some of the official Russian media continue to support Trump in his fight against his opponents, portraying him as going against the American system. Putin himself occasionally repeated the same thesis.
In short, against this backdrop, it’s very difficult to assume that Russia currently sees in the Trump administration a real threat to itself, and even more so a serious opponent in the new arms race. The question that comes up is this: who is the target audience for the new round of the demonstration of power personally by Vladimir Putin and also by the media controlled by him? In my opinion, three goals of the new “nuclear escalation” can be identified here.
First, it is, of course, the internal Russian audience. Putin’s last message to the Federal Assembly was devoted to social policy. It was important for Vladimir Putin to emphasize his image as the “father of the nation”, capable of caring for the poor and disadvantaged, for children and old people, paying attention to the “working people”, ready to stand up for oppressed entrepreneurs and, of course, to protect his “loyal subjects” from external threats. The protector and the savior are the main features cultivated by Putin in creating his image in the eyes of the Russians, and it is for these features that his followers are ready to forgive him for all the other shortcomings.
Secondly, the illusion of the confrontation between Russia and the United States is equally beneficial for both Putin and Trump. For Putin, as already mentioned, it becomes an ideal excuse for starting a new arms race and deploying his missiles with an eye to Europe. Trump has the advantage of positioning himself inside the United States as a tough opponent of Moscow, especially against the background of the continuing investigation of Russian interference in the American elections and the alleged collusion, which, by the way, has already entered its final stage.
There is also a possibility that the message from Moscow is addressed not so much to Donald Trump as to his opponents. Indeed, very few people in the American political establishment and even Trump’s inner circle supported the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty. Not only Democrats, but many Republicans also understand that the Kremlin’s militaristic ambitions must be contained, and these people, unlike Trump, do not intend to “play giveaway” with the Russian leader. It is also possible that, in the light of the completion of the investigation by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, the Kremlin is afraid of the possible impeachment of Trump or, at least, of a substantial limitation of his powers. Therefore, it is highly likely that the addressees of these aggressive messages are no longer the current White House administration, but those who, according to the Kremlin, may come to replace it or at least have a significant impact on the US foreign policy.
A couple of years ago, Russian opposition politician Vladimir Milov noted that the issue of cooperation with Russia on nuclear nonproliferation holds a special place in national security policymaking, and that large stratum within the American establishment are willing to forgive any of Moscow’s excesses so long as there is continuing cooperation in the nuclear arena. Putin himself hopes to drive them into the trap of his nuclear blackmail, and, it must be admitted, this trap is built quite cleverly.
Pacifist democrats are unlikely to embark on a new arms race; moreover, such a race would indeed become a threat to the security of the whole world. Therefore, Trump’s opponents would rather try to curb Moscow’s aggressive behavior by making a new treaty, and thus would look like “peacekeepers” who “have restrained Russia” and “prevented a new world war provoked by Trump”. However, since the initiative to make such an agreement in this case will come from Washington, the negotiations will obviously be carried out on the terms of the Russian side, and the new treaty will benefit Moscow much more than the previous one. It is also possible that the Kremlin will allow Trump to come up with the initiative of a new treaty – of course, on its own terms. In any case, the current situation, of course, is beneficial to Putin.