Russia flexes its nuclear muscle as a deterrent against NATO
With 150,000 troops stationed around Ukraine’s borders in what looks like a pretext to a major offensive, Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to insist that he favors peace and that he has no intention to invade the former Soviet satellite state. But key aspects of Moscow’s posturing suggest that if Russia does enter Ukraine, Putin’s priority is to ensure that North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member nations do not interfere.
Putin knows – as President Joe Biden stated over the weekend – that if American and Russian troops engage each other, the outcome could be another world war. He is also aware that armed conflict with NATO would be a catastrophe for Europe.
On Tuesday, The Washington Post noted in a sobering report that “NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has made similar pronouncements about Western military intervention.”
Russia, the Post explained, may be planning to showcase its nuclear might as a warning to the West that any intervention in Ukraine could trigger the unthinkable.
“Russian state news media have reported that the country plans to hold its annual strategic nuclear exercises during the first half of this year, earlier than usual. U.S. and European officials have said they expected those drills to begin this month, potentially to coincide with an invasion of Ukraine, but thus far there are no public indications that has happened,” wrote the Post.
These drills, whenever they occur, Rand Corp political scientist Samuel Charap explained in an interview, are how Moscow can “abundantly disincentivize” NATO from meddling in whatever the Kremlin has planned for Ukraine. “The way the Russians have thought about this kind of an operation is they have two problems to solve,” he said. “One is the immediate issue of outgunning smaller adversaries along their periphery like Ukraine, and the other is deterring NATO — the U.S., really.”
A Western intelligence official speaking on condition of anonymity said that Putin’s atomic saber-rattling is designed to “send a message to the West — that ‘we have strategic capabilities, and if we’re pushed too far, we might use them.’”
Other experts, like Mathieu Boulègue, a research fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at London-based Chatham House, agreed.
“It is a signal sent to the West and to NATO in particular saying, ‘Don’t move,’” Boulègue said. “‘Don’t try anything stupid because we can quickly escalate to the nuclear threshold if we need to.’”
Putin, meanwhile, has warned that if Ukraine were to become a member of NATO – which at present is not likely – then all bets are off.
“Do you realize that if Ukraine joins NATO and decides to take Crimea back through military means, the European countries will automatically get drawn into a military conflict with Russia?” Putin said at a joint press conference alongside French President Emmanuel Macron on February 8th.
“Of course, NATO’s united potential and that of Russia are incomparable," he continued. "We understand that, but we also understand that Russia is one of the world’s leading nuclear powers and is superior to many of those countries in terms of the number of modern nuclear force components.”
Moreover, The Daily Beast’s Julia Davis reported in December that Russian state television has been grooming the population for a nuclear confrontation with the United States.
“If you put a gun to our head, we will respond in kind… The whole point is that the development of the Ukrainian territory by the [Western] bloc is not only Ukraine’s business. This is a complete breakdown of the global balance, which poses an existential threat to Russia. In other words, for Russia it is a matter of life and death… We simply will not allow it, regardless of the cost to us, and regardless of the cost to those responsible for it,” host Dmitry Kiselyov said.
“We’re holding very strong cards in our hands,” he added. “Our hypersonic weapons are guaranteed to produce a response that is so unpleasant for America to hear: being reduced to radioactive ash.”
More disturbing still, “there have also been grim signs of things to come from the Russian government,” wrote Davis. “A new national standard for ‘Urgent burial of corpses in peacetime and wartime’ has been introduced by the government in recent months. It will come into force on Feb. 1, 2022, and specifies the burial in mass graves to be dug by bulldozers, disposing of as many as 1,000 bodies in a 24-hour time period. Bodies are to be placed 'in four layers, either in bags, wooden coffins or zinc coffins, prepared in advance… and subsequently covered with dirt.' Then the mass graves will be compacted with a bulldozer, filled with ‘a mineral binder’ and equipped with ‘devices for the absorption and neutralization of radioactive, hazardous chemicals and biological agents formed during the decomposition of corpses.’”
Alexander Goltz, a military expert, reportedly told the newspaper Novye Izvestiya that “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.”
Viktor Baranets, a former military spokesman, agreed.
“It may turn out that we will have to send troops not only to Donetsk and the Lugansk regions, but also to the greater Ukraine. We have a flaming fuse in the Black Sea region. There are also dangers in the region of Belarus and concerns in the Kaliningrad region. [NATO] has grandiose plans for the immediate capture of the Kaliningrad region, even with the use of nuclear weapons. And how, then, will we bury? One by one, or what?” Baranets said. “We’re getting ready for the major crises.”
Granted, Moscow has plenty of conventional weapons it can deploy to keep NATO on its periphery. And NATO has pledged to impose draconian sanctions onto Russia and perhaps Putin himself in response to aggression against Ukraine.
Diplomacy still has a chance of prevailing, but if not, neither side can afford to be the first to blink.
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