Russia, Pakistan, North Korea: Nuclear Powers at Play

Russian President Putin engaged in a bit of saber rattling when he announced that Russia would field more than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles this year. Most news services interpreted the statement as a riposte to NATO’s announcement that it would pre-position heavy armored equipment in NATO’s Baltic members so as to deter Russian poaching.

A quick review of the unclassified authorities on arms control issues shows that Russia has been working to modernize its strategic forces since 1997, but otherwise is in compliance with arms control agreements. The pace of modernization has been slowed significantly by the decline in the price of crude. The requirement, however, is becoming more urgent owing to the ageing of the systems. The Russian strategic triad is declining, say the experts at the Federation of American Scientists.

One could say, Russia’s strategic position has similarities with North Korean and with Pakistan.

It is similar to North Korea because both states have the capability to start a war, but lack the capability to win it. In the case of Russia, the war could span a continent. The Europeans are the least of Russian worries, which explains President Putin’s boldness. Europe is effete, increasingly aged and averse to confrontation. Its will to fight was squandered in Afghanistan.

China is Russia’s existential threat. Russian doctrine makes clear that tactical nuclear weapons would be used to defeat a Chinese attack. The willingness to use nuclear weapons to stop a conventional attack is the key insight from Putin’s statement.

NATO and the US announced that they will position heavy equipment for armored cavalry or armored infantry units in the Baltic members of NATO. The stated purpose is to deter and defeat Russian aggression against NATO members. The US can move soldiers much faster than heavy equipment. In this solution, the major delay is the time it takes civil airliners to fly from the US to Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn.

With reasonable and old fashioned intelligence warning, NATO could bring armored units with prepositioned equipment in the Baltics to full combat readiness faster than the Russians can field a combat attack force. NATO planners need to understand that in every race to mobilize, NATO beats Russia, provided US equipment is prepositioned.

That leads to the second part of the discussion. If the US and NATO are clever enough to find a way to stop Russian conventional forces, Russia has few military options other than nuclear escalation, tactical or strategic. That makes Russia’s strategic position much like that of Pakistan.

After three general wars and two crises that approached general war, it is now clear that Pakistan cannot defeat India in a general conventional war. US intelligence analysts need to understand this as settled lore from decades of US intelligence experience: Pakistan cannot win a conventional war against India.

In the near-war crises of 2001-2002, India achieved full combat readiness in less than three weeks, while the Pakistan Army, under President General Musharraf, failed to achieve full combat readiness. Pakistan’s failure to generate its conventional military power meant that its leaders thought they had no alternative to activating Pakistan’s strategic nuclear missile forces to stop an Indian conventional attack.

That is the significance of Putin’s message. Russia cannot defend the national territory without using nuclear weapons. Pakistan and North Korea are in precisely the same position. That position does not imply that a conventional confrontation must go nuclear. It means that such a confrontation could go nuclear.

Russia’s nuclear threats are serious because of the weaknesses of Russia’s conventional forces. A key question is how will NATO respond.