By Paul Goble
At the Valdai Club this week, Vladimir Putin said Moscow would not use a preventive nuclear strike but would “launch on warning” of such an attack on Russia, a position that is not new as such but that given the Kremlin leader’s constant talk about nuclear weapons recently, is nonetheless worrisome, Aleksandr Golts says.
“Strictly speaking,” the independent military analyst says, Putin didn’t say anything “new in principle” at Valdai. Russian military doctrine makes no provision for a preventive strike, despite the efforts of some to include the notion (openmedia.io/exclusive/pochemu-putin-vse-chashhe-napominaet-o-yadernoj-moshhi-rossii/).
And the idea of launch on warning is not new either, Golts says; but Putin “unfortunately forgot to mention (or his military advisors forget to inform him in this regard) that such a model of using nuclear weapons has long been considered the riskiest and most destabilizing” given the possibilities for error.
The US Center for Defense Information reported that between 1977 and 1984, the American missile attack warning system “generated 20,784 false reports about an attack on the US.” In 1983, the Soviet system reported at attack that was ignored only because Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, at great risk to himself, decided it was false.
“Both Russian and American experts have repeatedly called on Moscow and Washington to begin talks about a mutual rejection of the launch on warning concept,” lest mistakes in the monitoring system lead to war.
And that is why Putin’s remarks are so worrisome: Together with those just cited, Putin displayed a disturbing “fatalism” when he said that since Russia would never be an aggressor, those who died as the result of an attack by others “would land in paradise” while the aggressors would “burn in hell,” anything but “an adequate way” of talking about this issue.
Golts devotes a significant portion of his article to a listing of all the times in recent months that Putin has talked about nuclear weapons and nuclear war, an indication that it is very much on his mind. The reasons are not far to seek: In the new military confrontation with the West, Russia lacks the resources that the USSR has except for “the nuclear card.”
But there is “one problem,” the military analyst continues. “It isn’t enough to have thousands of nuclear warheads. Nuclear arms become an effective element of foreign policy only if the person in charge is viewed as irresponsible” and thus capable of using them. The West viewed the Soviet leaders as such, but until recently, they didn’t view Putin in that way.
The current Kremlin leader “initially created for himself the reputation of a completely rational man,” useful for some purposes but not if he wants to be thought capable of launching a nuclear war, Golts says. But that shift suggests Putin is capable of using nuclear weapons as a bluff and constantly raising the stakes given his relative weakness.
That process of threat and responding to the threats of others by making more oneself is “how World War I began.” Now, Golts concludes, the risks are much greater as a simple thought experiment about what could happen shows.
“Let us imagine that in the course of the next political conflict with the West, Moscow, wishing to demonstrate the seriousness of its intentions, could declare about raising the state of readiness of its nuclear forces. Washington under Trump would respond in exactly the same way,” the Moscow military analyst says.
“God forbid that at that moment, the missile warning systems of one of the countries would make a mistake. Were that to happen,” Golts says, then there remains the hope that some cool-headed Lt. Col Petrov will be around” and ready and able of preventing things from getting out of hand.