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STRATFOR: Nuclear Threats and Russia's Place

January 17, 1999

The Putin Doctrine: Nuclear Threats and Russia's Place in the World

Summary

Russia's acting president, Vladimir Putin, last week reversed his country's vow never to use nuclear weapons first. The announcement sent shock waves around the world. And it should have. Russian nuclear warheads are not about to rain down on the United States but Putin is doing more than rattling sabers. A new Russian national security doctrine has emerged over the last few months and Putin's announcement is intended to round out that doctrine, affecting the war in Chechnya, and re-ordering relations both with Russia's neighbors and the United States.

Analysis

Until a few months ago, Russia had no clear-cut national security policy. Since the end of the Cold War, Russian security doctrine had devolved into Russian economic policy. Russian economic policy consisted of intensifying relations with the advanced industrial, capitalist world in order to create the financial structures and relationships needed to jump-start the economy. Russian national security doctrine consisted primarily of doing nothing to disrupt those economic relationships while, within the framework of the first imperative, maintaining the territorial and institutional integrity of the Russian Federation.

Thus, the most important aspect of the new Russian national security doctrine is that it exists at all. Putin's announcement on first strike has as its primary purpose the elevation of national security issues to the same level as national economic issues. In other words, Putin's announcement on nuclear weapons represents the death of the preceding national strategy, which relegated national security issues to a distant second place behind national economic concerns. It was intended to stun a number of audiences into realizing that the post-Cold War world is gone.

The choice of the nuclear issue served a number of purposes and spoke to a number of audiences. The first audience was the United States and its allies. As our readers know, it has been our view that the West's decision to bomb Iraq in December of 1998 - followed by the war in Kosovo, both in direct opposition to Russian wishes - generated a revolution in Russian policy. Those two actions convinced the Russians that the United States intended to reduce Russia to the status of a tertiary power. Washington's systematic indifference to Russian wishes convinced the Russian national security community that without leverage against the United States, Russia would have no traction whatsoever. Economic relations with the West had effectively collapsed in the financial crisis of August 1998, so the Russians felt they had little to lose.

Putin's announcement is perfectly designed to drive home the price and risks of U.S. economic and strategic policy. It systematically accomplishes what Yeltsin tried spasmodically when he reminded Washington that Russia had nuclear weapons and was prepared to use them. First, the Putin doctrine reminds the United States that Russia is the only nation in the world with sufficient nuclear weapons of sufficient range to conduct an annihilating attack on the United States. To put it bluntly, Russia could choose to kill a large percentage of the American public if it is prepared to endure the same.

Second, Moscow's new stance poses a practical problem for the United States, which must now at least consider Russian responses. No matter how unlikely a Russian first strike is, there is a huge difference between a negligible threat and a non-existent one, particularly at the orders of magnitude involved. During the Cold War, the threat of a Soviet nuclear response was in the back of every policy maker's mind when dealing with issues from Nicaragua to Angola to India. That threat disappeared with Glasnost. Putin intends to resurrect it.

Third, this is a meaningful threat because of the relative weakness of Russia's conventional forces. Consider Western nuclear strategy, particularly during the Cold War. The United States and NATO never renounced a possible first strike; indeed, it was explicitly understood that a massive Soviet attack on Western Europe would trigger the use of tactical nuclear weapons and, if necessary, higher levels of nuclear response. Russia, on the other hand, had long called for a no-first-strike commitment by the West and in fact adopted that stance in 1997. Russia, with a conventional weapons advantage, was always more interested in exploiting that advantage and saw the use of nuclear weapons as undermining it. Nuclear weapons were the critical equalizer to the superior numbers of Russian conventional forces.

But to create strategic parity beyond the battlefield, doctrine had to be married to unpredictability. It was never clear to anyone that the United States would in fact launch a first strike against the Soviet Union upon the invasion of Germany. No one knew what the U.S. president would order at the critical moment. That was precisely the advantage. The very uncertainty of the American response limited the Soviets' room for maneuver and imposed severe limits on Moscow's willingness to take risks. Putin is now trying to reverse the equation. Russia now has a substantial disadvantage in conventional forces. By renouncing the no-first strike rule, Putin has placed Russia in the position of the United States during the Cold War.

In turn, the threat will force the United States and Europe to reconsider the risk of adventures like Kosovo. Obviously, the Russians are unlikely to use nuclear weapons. but the term "unlikely" does not mean impossible. It means low probability, or possibility. The mere possibility that another Kosovo could trigger a nuclear response changes the calculus of Western intervention. Since the direct benefit to the intervening powers is minimal, the corollary must be equally low cost and low risk. Since no nation is entirely predictable, the risk of a nuclear response can easily shift the decision from "go" to "no-go."

This is particularly true for European members of NATO and for Japan, whose proximity to Russia and appetite for risk-taking is substantially less than that of the United States. At the very least, the mere threat of a nuclear reaction makes it impossible to treat Russia with the contemptuous indifference shown during the Iraq and Kosovo affairs. With this announcement, Putin has bought himself not only a seat at the table, but, in all likelihood, the demand by U.S. allies that Russia buy into future military intervention.

There is a second audience: the other members of the former Soviet Union, many of whom are members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which, not coincidentally, is holding a summit one week from today. One of the outcomes of the collapse of the Soviet Union was that, with intense U.S. urging, all nations other than Russia gave up their nuclear weapons. Whatever the wisdom of that policy, the result was that Russia is the only former Soviet republic with nuclear weapons.

Russia has always been first among equals in the CIS, but Putin's announcement will immediately help Moscow re-order its relationships closer to home. First, the war in Chechnya will be affected. With some reason, Russians are convinced that outside forces - backed by the United States - are supplying Chechen rebels through neighboring Georgia. The situation in Chechnya reminds many Russian military men of Afghanistan, where a great power created logistical support systems and sanctuaries in a neighboring country, bleeding Moscow's forces. Putin is now reminding the United States that the survival of the Russian Federation - intact - is a fundamental national interest. Therefore, any aid to the Chechens threatens an interest so profound that the use of nuclear weapons might be rational. This must trigger a re-evaluation of U.S. policy.

Second, the Georgians themselves, who have felt relatively secure as an American partner, are being reminded that forces are at play beyond their control. If the Georgians' entire calculus has been that the war would be one of conventional force on conventional force, the Georgians should guess again. The willingness of the Russians to use tactical nuclear weapons to disrupt lines of supply into Chechnya cannot be discounted. By doing this, the Russians are transforming the war, putting Georgia's security - instead of Russia's territorial integrity - in jeopardy.

Third, the Russians are delivering a message to the Chechens. The Chechens are seeing this conflict just as they did during the 1994-1996 war. They are fighting on their terrain and are prepared to take serious losses for national independence. Russian conventional forces cannot seal off the lines of supply from Georgia, nor can they occupy the mountainous terrain south of Grozny. Indeed, given the costs of urban warfare, they cannot easily take Grozny itself. Therefore, the theory goes, extended warfare favors the insurgent nationalist group. Time is on the side of the Chechens. Putin just indicated, however, that he has the means to sharply increase Chechen casualties without increasing Russian ones. That is a sobering thought, to say the least.

This is a matter of general concern for all the countries surrounding Russia. So long as the security equation is stated in purely conventional terms, the West can help neighboring nations, from the Baltic Sea to Central Asia, pose a serious problem to the Russians. Once nuclear weapons are introduced into the equation, a very different outcome occurs. First, the conventional supplies provided become unimportant. Second, the risks involved in providing or accepting conventional weapons soar.

The final audience for this announcement is perhaps the most important: the Russian public. Putin has been enormously popular for taking vigorous action to end his country's declining world status. The announcement intrinsically satisfies Russians and helps boost Putin's popularity on the verge of his campaign for the presidency. As winter grips Chechnya and large-scale military operations, particularly air operations, become more difficult, the emergence of the nuclear threat suggests an end to the war even if conventional forces fail. . Putin's announcement on nuclear weapons is therefore an attempt to re-order Russia's relationship with the United States, the rest of the West, the former republics of the Soviet Union and ultimately, to reconcile Russia's own self-image. It is a clever move similar to the U.S. strategy of using nuclear threats to limit the maneuvering room of other players. But it must be remembered that the United States was primarily fighting for the global balance of power. The Russians today are fighting for the very survival of their federation. That means that the threat to use nuclear weapons, an element of war games in the United States, has some very serious possibilities when used by the Russians.

It is not inconceivable that the Russians, frustrated by their inability to seal their frontier with Georgia and by Georgia's inability or unwillingness to work with them, would use tactical nuclear weapons. Putin remembers Afghanistan well. He is not going to be drawn into another Afghanistan, nor is he going to withdraw from Chechnya. In the extreme case, anything is possible. And that is precisely the ambiguous situation Putin wants to create. He wants Russia's antagonists to peer into the abyss and see the worst. He is calculating, quite rightly we think, that this will dramatically increase the caution and respect with which Russia is treated. That will yield an international payoff for Russia - and a massive domestic payoff for Putin.

(c) 1999, Stratfor, Inc. http://www.stratfor.com/

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