Authors: Dr. Matthew Crosston & Troy Baxter
Russia’s history as a nuclear state is extensive and well-documented. It was the second country in the world to acquire nuclear weapons (after the US) and since that point it has been the world leader in stockpiled nuclear weapons. The only other nation to remain in close contention was the US and it was estimated to have some 10,000 fewer nuclear warheads than Russia at each nation’s respective stockpiling peak. Russia has historically placed a significant emphasis on nuclear power and nuclear deterrence as a primary deterrent strategy since it first acquired the capability.
This was best exemplified during the nuclear stock-piling frenzy of the Cold War, where nuclear weapons were acquired at a rate that will likely never be seen again, and more recently with its declaration that it has the capability to punch through the US missile defense system. Yet, despite Russia’s historical comfort and reliance on nuclear power as a deterrence strategy, the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century saw Russia moving away from strict nuclear deterrence. Treaties such as START I, II, SORT and the New START, which all worked to reduce nuclear stockpiles in the US and Russia, indicated that a trend towards disarmament, coordination and cooperation was the new norm taking over in place of the old one of confrontation, competition and mutually assured destruction. Happily, to some it seemed that a shift in the Russian defense ideology was taking place: from the old hat concept of nuclear deterrence to the new one of slow but steady disarmament and international cooperation. Such an assessment of Russia’s defense ideology, however, has now been all but dismissed, as it was recently revealed that Russia has already started dispersing missile defense penetrating technology throughout its military and plans on developing new types of such weapons moving forward. This declaration is saying very publicly that Russia does not consider nuclear deterrence to be an old hat concept. In fact, the nation is saying very loudly and deliberately that nuclear deterrence is as relevant as it’s ever been and that it is intent on protecting its geostrategic realm of operations, just perhaps with a leaner and meaner face that is accentuated by nuclear and non-nuclear means.
The US and NATO have been progressively encroaching further into Russia’s geostrategic areas of operation and the discussion of a NATO missile defense system has only narrowed the gap further and caused greater Russian consternation. The fear for Russia is that the installation of this missile defense system, which has largely been spearheaded by the US, would significantly reduce its nuclear deterrent capabilities in its very own backyard. However, the US claims the defense system is being put in place in order to counter the potential Iranian and North Korean nuclear threat and that it is not set up in order to defend against a nuclear arsenal the size of Russia’s. This may very well be true in logistical or strict military terms, but it fails the perceptional conventional wisdom scratch test: you cannot propose to have missiles in Eastern Europe to ‘defend against Iran ONLY’ and expect the Russian side to believe it.
Russia does, as previously mentioned, have a massive stock pile of nuclear weapons. The American limited missile defense system would be incapable of defending against an all-out nuclear warhead blitzkrieg. Moreover, it would be short-sighted of the US to believe that a nation as historically skeptical as Russia with a leader as historically Machiavellian as Vladimir Putin would blindly accept this explanation as fact and move on, particularly as Iran and North Korea continue to cooperate in nuclear arms control talks with the UN (though unevenly). It certainly appears as if the US is positioning itself to undermine Russia for reasons other than what it has stated publicly. In any event, this potential subversion is not a fact lost on Vladimir Putin and this has no doubt contributed to the continued strain in US-Russian relations.
These relations are arguably at their lowest point since the height of the Cold War. The conflict in Syria has only served to exacerbate them. Both nations are still engaged in the conflict (despite a Russian ‘partial’ withdrawal) and appear to be cooperating in the bombing campaign against DAESH. This cooperation, however, has not been free of tension and criticism. Russia appears to be engaged in the conflict largely in order to show its strength on the international stage and loosely-tied claims of stopping DAESH in Syria hurts potential radical Islamist movements in Southern Russia. Russia doesn’t just want but needs to be seen as an equal player to the US, which is why the nation wasted no time dropping bombs in Syria a mere 24 hours after it received political approval from the Russian parliament. Ultimately, Russia wants a say in what happens in the region next. It wants the ability to weaken the US presence in the Middle East. This is a higher priority than many first surmised, which was why it deployed a significant military force to Syria despite a sluggish sanctions-hit economy and subsequent depreciating currency. Russia has shown that it is willing to make significant military and financial commitments to Syria in order to protect its geopolitical interests in the area, regardless of the fact that it may be unsustainable economically over the long-term.
It is clear that Russia has not been swayed by the allure of disarmament and international cooperation to such a degree that it is willing to abandon coincident strategies that still push its national and global interests. The nation is still firmly entrenched in its belief that the US must be ‘managed’ at all times. By all indications the US firmly believes in the same strategy about Russia, as it continues to try and gain the upper hand across several different arenas and strategies. The fact that the proposed missile defense system can also be repurposed as an offensive system, if needed, only adds to the strategic concern for Russia. Russia is fully aware of the US’ geostrategic intentions to continue moving into what Russia considers its regional spheres of exclusivity. This is arguably what compelled Russia to move military forces into Syria – not just strategic objectives but PERCEPTIONAL ones.
What this says is two things. First, that both the US and Russia are still firm believers in the maintenance of old school rivalry, even under situations where they share the same objective (like defeating DAESH). Second, Russia is willing to continue to aggressively protect its geostrategic interests even if it means significant risk to itself. Some might call that the Russian penchant for irrational foreign policy behavior but it is also fueled by a strong Machiavellian logic bent on balancing American power by any, and multiple, means necessary. The apex of concern for Russia is that a world powered by American influence unchallenged is an unhealthy world for Russian visions of the future. That influence, even if it cannot be stopped entirely, has to be rivaled and compromised, whether it is politically, diplomatically, or militarily. Its deployment of a military force in Syria weakened this American influence to the point where it is almost impossible to imagine today how any Syrian conclusion will emerge that is fully endorsed or governed by American ideas alone. And that, in the end, may be the most important ‘victory’ for Russia in this. In the old days of nuclear deterrence, piercing the shield was a purely physical military consideration. Today, that concept has expanded and been enriched by new Russian thinking. And that, moving forward, may be the biggest concern for America.