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Russian BMD-4M Sadovnitsa infantry fighting vehicles roll at Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2016. (VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Nuclear Deterrence in the Crim Put-in Era Must Be Personal

Andrei A. Piontkovsky

“The risk of confrontation with the use of nuclear weapons in Europe is higher than at any time since the 1980s.”

Igor Ivanov, former Russian foreign minister (1998–2004), Brussels, 18 March 2016

The most hard-core nuclear maniac among the Kremlin chiefs is the man behind the “Ryazan’ training exercise”,1 Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Platonovich Patrushev.2

In an interview with the Russian media on 14 October 2014, Patrushev bragged that the new Russian military doctrine being developed under his watchful eye now allowed Russian armed forces to initiate a preventive nuclear strike in regional and even local conflicts: “There has been a modification in the terms for using nuclear weapons in deflecting conventional-weapons aggression, and not just in large-scale conflicts, but also in regional and even local wars.”

2015 was a kind of introduction to the “Patrushev doctrine”, with blatant nuclear blackmail now a mainstay of Russian foreign policy.

The blackmail was multi-level, multi-pronged and creative. It involved, first of all, Putin himself—apparently inspired by the success of Kim Jong-un, a hereditary nuclear blackmailer who created headaches for the West with his paltry bucket of nuclear waste. When the head of a nuclear superpower shows off his readiness to use nuclear weapons to achieve a local geopolitical objective (and this was precisely the purpose of Putin’s Crimean film memoirs), such behaviour can be explained two ways.

First, Putin is a fanatic prepared to decimate millions of people and die together with millions of his compatriots in the resulting counter-strike.

The other explanation (much more realistic in our case) is that he is a reckless player, not quite sane but certainly not suicidal, either. A nuclear blackmailer is a terrorist who has no plans to die. The blackmailer threatens to use nuclear weapons, expecting that the other side, even if its nuclear arsenal is just as large, would be horrified by the thought of millions dying and will therefore concede in a specific conflict and pay whatever political price the player demands.

It was deemed obvious for over half a century that, when it came to nuclear arms, Soviet (Russian) and US behaviour was governed by the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD). A full-scale nuclear war would result in unacceptable damage for all, and was therefore out of the question. This nuclear chess has kept the peace between the major powers for decades. That is, until a new player showed up and tossed aside the chessboard that ensured Russia’s military security. Instead, this player offered the West a game of dizzying nuclear poker.

In his famous Crimea (read “Sudetenland”) speech,3 Putin incorporated the Russian political elite’s murky collective geopolitical complexes and phantoms into clear concepts: a divided nation, a gathering of ancestral lands,4 the Russian World.5 This is how the World War IV agenda was shaped. And this is not an agenda for preserving the status quo. Even the most modest practical implementation of the ambitious idea of “gathering ancestral Russian lands” would require redrawing the national borders of at least two NATO member states – Latvia and Estonia.

No nation or regime would embark on a war it knows it will lose. Both the leader and his general staff must have some strategic plan which they believe would ensure victory. Let’s try to make sense of this plan. Aside from its famous “spirituality,” what tool could a state use to confront the NATO bloc successfully and annex the territory of its member states, if it is inferior to NATO in economic, scientific and technology terms and from the point of view of conventional armed forces potential.

Putin’s junta made a “breakthrough” in the area of nuclear strategy. The MAD doctrine is not universal. Even if weaker in both conventional and nuclear arms, a country wishing to change the status quo – if it has a strong enough political will, and is indifferent to the value of human lives (even those of its own citizens) – can achieve impressive foreign-policy results by simply threatening to use nuclear weapons, or by using them on a limited basis.

After all, nuclear strategy is not some dry mathematical analysis of possible nuclear exchange scenarios – to a great extent, it’s an intense psychological duel. Putin’s WWIV agenda does not seek to destroy the much-hated US (the only way to do that today would be to pay the price of mutual suicide in a full-scale nuclear war).

For now, there are much more modest items on the agenda: the largest possible expansion of the Russian World, a breakup of NATO and discrediting and humiliating the US as a guarantor of the West’s security. This is generally payback for the West defeating the USSR in WWIII (the Cold War), just as WWII was, for Germany, an attempt to exact revenge for losing WWI.

Immediately after the famous speech by the “good Hitler”,6 I proposed to the expert community a possible WWIV scenario which is being widely discussed. With a view to implementing the inspiring concept of gathering Russian ancestral lands announced in Putin’s historic speech, passionate Russian-speaking residents of Narva (Estonia), driven to despair, hold a referendum on joining the Russian World. In order to organise the expression of these Russian-speakers’ free will, polite little green men,7 with or without insignia and armed to the teeth, are sent to vacation in Estonia, where they begin to install new border markers in a no-nonsense way. How would NATO’s aggressive bloc react in such a scenario?

According to the key Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty,8 all NATO member states would immediately have to provide Estonia with military assistance. A refusal by Estonia’s allies to fulfil their obligations would be of earth-shattering historical significance: it would mean the end of NATO, the end of the US as a world superpower and guarantor of the West’s security, and the total political dominance of Putin’s Russia on the European continent. And yet it’s far from clear whether NATO would protect Estonia if a nuclear superpower neighbour tried to occupy it—especially if Putin said that he would have to use a very limited nuclear strike (for example, annihilating just two European capitals) if NATO’s superior conventional forces threatened the sacrosanct new borders of the Russian World.

Does the West have a way out of this nuclear trap? The first attempt to find an exit was made in September 2014, in response to intense discussions of the “Narva paradox”.

The collective Western Chamberlain9 took the first slow step in response to Moscow’s looming nuclear blackmail. The Kremlin’s nuclear rhetoric that sought to undermine NATO’s Article 5 was heard, analysed and taken into account. Members of the Alliance agreed to send symbolic permanent NATO contingents (including US servicemen) to the Baltic States. The size of these contingents is not of determining significance (they are incapable of offensive action, and NATO presumed it wouldn’t have to take part in defensive operations either); what is important is the mere presence in the Baltic States of a handful of American soldiers and officers—a human shield of deterrence; hostages, if you will.

After all, the Kremlin blackmailers, by bringing polite little green men into the Baltic States and swinging a nuclear bat, are banking on intimidating and paralysing Europe and the US with the question: “Are you prepared to die for Narva?” The symbolic presence of US servicemen near Narva turned the tables, however. Now the first polite little armed man appearing there would automatically mean that the Russian Federation was embarking on a war with the US, which is precisely what the Kremlin sought to avoid through its blackmail. So the sacramental question from the 1930s of whether or not you are prepared to die would today be addressed not to the West, but, instead, to Putin and his closest business partners: “Are you really prepared to die for Narva?”10

Many observers, including yours truly, thought at the time that this step would stop the Kremlin hotheads. But no; after a brief lull, the psychological hybrid war resumed with renewed vigour. Moscow is now showing off its ability to seal off the Suwalki–Kaunas corridor11 that connects the Baltic States with the rest of NATO territory.

In spring 2015, very serious polite little men in civilian clothes—Russian and Soviet intelligence veterans—initiated psychological warfare. At the meeting of the US–Russia Elbe Group,12 the veterans, who never age in spirit, gave the “weakling Obamie”13 a three-point ultimatum: “Moscow’s first rule: ‘Don’t help Ukraine get Crimea back. It’s ours … and we reserve the right to drop a nuclear bomb if you even try.’ The second rule is: ‘NATO must stay away from our “backyard”. No arms for Ukraine, otherwise we’ll exacerbate the conflict.’ And the third ‘rule’ is: ‘Don’t think we’ve given up on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania just because NATO sent a handful of soldiers there.‘”

In any case, the handful of American soldiers did not stop the hybrid offensive against the Baltic States. It turns out that the Baltics may be occupied before NATO can amass sufficient conventional resources in the conflict region.

A chillingly realistic recent BBC film, “WW3: Inside the War Room”, shows the dynamics of such a potential conflict. Deterrence doesn’t work, and Moscow delivers a nuclear strike in response to NATO’s conventional forces supporting Latvia. The film is unique in that the characters inside the War Room are not actors, but well-known former diplomats and experts. The main protagonists are Putin apologist Sir Tony Brenton (former British ambassador in Moscow) and his opponent Ian Bond, former British ambassador to Latvia. Both are very convincing in defending their points of view. I know both of them well, and had they ended up inside the War Room for real, I assure you they would have proposed the same solutions as they did on film.

The poker player openly tells the West: I plan to win this hybrid war against you and to bring you to your knees, despite being inferior to you in every way, because I have one critical edge over you: I am prepared to use nuclear weapons in my aggression, but you are not prepared to use them for your defence. I am prepared to kill hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people in cold blood, and you are not. That’s why you will retreat and capitulate.

There was nothing about such Crim Put-ins in classical nuclear strategy textbooks, so we’ll just have to write a new paragraph. The deterrence of Crim Put-in must be targeted and personal:

If the Russian Federation uses nuclear weapons when invading a NATO member state, Russia’s highest political and military leadership will assuredly be annihilated by a limited nuclear strike in response.

This new NATO military doctrine formula (let’s call it Article 5A) may seem macabre, but it’s actually markedly humane and would save millions of lives, including those of the hedonistic Kremlin chiefs topping Forbes’ shadowy lists. Wars start when people don’t fully understand the consequences of their own decisions for themselves.

As a clear and unequivocal signal to the Kremlin regarding its “earnest decisiveness”, “Article 5A” would not just prevent a nuclear war in Europe—it would ensure that the polite little green men were never seen again, and Moscow would forever forget such words. General Gerasimov’s14 entire infamous concept of a hybrid war is built on underhanded tricks from the word go, and it only makes sense as a consistent escalation of villainy—from polite little green men behind the backs of women and children to nuclear blackmail behind the backs of millions of people.

Take away the opportunity to engage in nuclear blackmail, and “little Zaches”’15 entire WWIV strategy will collapse like a house of cards.

“Article 5A” will become a very effective educational measure for the Kremlin’s “geopoliticians”. I submit it as a recommendation to be examined at the 2016 NATO Summit (Warsaw, 7–9 July).

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