Putin's nuclear posturing part of effort to win back displeased public

Putin's nuclear posturing part of effort to win back displeased public
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Vladimir Putin served up his election platform for his perfunctory March 18 re-election in his annual address to the two houses of Russia’s parliament on Thursday. Putin addressed two audiences — the Russian people and his external enemies, namely the U.S. and NATO. 

Putin promised his domestic audience that, with him in the Kremlin, they can enjoy both guns and butter. He will maintain a strong military that can withstand any threat from the West, which Putin’s propaganda has convinced the Russian people is real.

Some three-quarters of Russians consider the U.S. a threat, and almost 60 percent fear NATO. True, military spending is up, but, with Putin’s wise leadership, living standards will rise, inflation will be dampened and poverty rates will fall.

Russia voters should be thankful to their president (according to him) for restoring Russia to its rightful status as a superpower, even though it meant a cost in terms of living standards.

Per Putin, the era of economic crises is over, and good times lie ahead thanks to his plans: He said he has not accomplished “our highly important task of guaranteeing people’s quality of life and prosperity. But we must do this, and we will do this.”

Putin then launched into a seemingly endless list of programs that he intends to implement to improve the economy, wages, health, employment and education. Of course, with the Russian economy's continued stagnation, few, if any, can be carried out. Ex-finance minister Aleksei Kudrin calculates that Russia would have to grow at a rate similar to China in order to fulfill Putin’s promises. 

Putin reserved his most stern message for his foreign adversaries — the United States and NATO countries: Don’t mess with Russia, he warned. The Russian military is strong; it has developed or will develop weapons systems that can rain terror on its enemies. Russia’s nuclear arsenal can defeat any missile defenses that the US and NATO can deploy in Europe or in North America.

As part of his show-and-tell, Putin displayed animations of new weapons in Russia’s nuclear arsenal — the  RS-28 Sarmat ICBM, the Kanyon nuclear undersea drone and a new nuclear-powered intercontinental cruise missile with unlimited range.

Although military experts doubt that the weapons systems of Putin’s animations have actually been developed, the show of Russian missiles striking Florida near Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort provided effective imagery. 

Putin seemed to neglect the possible effect of his missile saber-rattling on his foreign audience. He promptly sent out his press secretary to deny that Russia was starting a new arms race. Russia, he said, had been forced into such weapons development by the U.S. withdrawal from international agreements on missile defense. 

Putin’s most ominous message was that Russia’s nuclear delivery system cannot be stopped, and he, as president, is authorized to launch a first strike if Russia’s enemies threaten the Russian political system.

Putin’s assertion of the president’s right to call a first strike is a direct quote from the official Russian Revised Military Doctrine of 2014. 

Note that Russian military doctrine calls for a first nuclear strike to save the “Russian state,” not the Russian people. Under this rule, if a foreign government is seen as being behind an action to overthrow the Putin regime, perhaps to the benefit of the Russian people, Putin is authorized to launch a nuclear strike.

By combining domestic and external threats, the Kremlin could theoretically decide that any number of threats call for a nuclear response.

Putin and his ruling circle have not hesitated to rattle the nuclear saber: At the height of the crisis over Crimea in 2014, Putin ominously declared: “It's best not to mess with us … I want to remind you that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers.”

Putin’s spokespersons have also engaged in nuclear saber-rattling, warning that “impudent behavior” — such as NATO troops in the Baltic — might have “nuclear consequences.” Russia’s military doctrine also calls for the use of tactical nukes in a conventional war to “de-escalate” hostilities.

Under a normal democracy, Vladimir Putin would stand little chance of being re-elected. The Russian people have suffered substantial declines in their living standards since Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine.

The euphoria over the Crimean annexation is over; the Russian people care little about the war in Syria and Russia’s involvement. The economy today produces less output than five years ago. The people realize they have paid for Putin’s foreign escapades via lower pensions and wages, sanctions and higher inflation.

Although Putin faces only nominal opposition on March 18, he feels it necessary to convince the Russian people that in his new seven-year term, he can offer them both guns and butter, which he cannot. 

Throughout its history, both as the Soviet Union and then as the Russian Federation, the Russian leadership has justified its existence by internal and external threats.

Stalin justified bloody purges on the grounds that internal and external enemies conspired to bring down his regime. Most Russians executed during the Great Terror were accused of being spies for Japan, Poland or Germany. 

Putin has come full circle. He claims that Russia has internal enemies who are intent on bringing him down. They are backed by external enemies with the same goal.

Putin’s message to the West: “Do not mess with us. If you do anything that threatens the Russian state (namely me), you will be subject to devastation. Russia’s nuclear arsenal can defeat any missile defense system that the U.S. and NATO can deploy.”

Putin enjoys needling his opponents. He surely has not missed the fact that the U.S. can do little against a weak and dysfunctional North Korea, whose deliverable nuclear arsenal is scarcely measureable compared with Russia’s.

Whereas Kim Jong Un threatens nuclear retaliation if attacked, Putin threatens nuclear annihilation if his enemies meddle with his regime, and he decides what, how and when.

Paul R. Gregory is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The holder of a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University, he is the author or coauthor of 12 books and more than 100 articles on economic history, the Soviet economy, transition economies, comparative economics and economic demography.