Russia’s nuclear strategy: It’s a trap!

Of late, Russia has not been a particularly good neighbor. Since Vladimir Putin reclaimed the presidency in 2012, Russia has annexed Crimea, invaded eastern Ukraine, and sent a steady stream of its warplanes to probe NATO airspace. Just last week, a Russian fighter jet made a “simulated attack run” at the USS Donald Cook, coming within 30 feet of the destroyer. Perhaps most troublingly, Russia has started making not-so-subtle nuclear threats against NATO.

The response has been predictable. Chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), recently said that the United States must “increase the credibility [of] NATO’s nuclear deterrent” in order to counter Russia’s aggressive behavior. 

{mosads}This is a grave misinterpretation of Russia’s nuclear saber rattling. It assumes that Russia is brandishing its nuclear sword from a position of strength, forcing the United States to beef up its own nuclear arsenal to counter Russia’s aggression. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Putin’s nuclear belligerence is a sign of weakness, a desperate attempt to remain relevant in a unipolar world.

During the Cold War, the United States invested heavily in nuclear weapons to compensate for NATO’s conventional inferiority in Europe. Today the tables have turned: America’s conventional strength far outstrips that of Russia, and the Russians have little prospect of changing the status quo.

The United States allocates roughly $600 billion for its defense budget, over 10 times what Russia spends. And no amount of spending or technological development by Russia is going to alter the fact that the NATO alliance represents more than 900 million people and spends more than $1 trillion on its defense annually.

In the nuclear realm Russia also lags behind the United States. Although the size of Russia’s and America’s nuclear forces are roughly the same, the United States plans to spend $350 billion on its nuclear forces over the next decade. During the same period, Russia will spend roughly $50 billion.

As Ambassador Steven Pifer recently pointed out,“if there is a senior American military officer who would like to swap U.S. strategic nuclear forces for those of Russia, he (or she) has yet to speak out.”

Despite this, Putin has somehow managed to generate the illusion that America’s nuclear forces could become inferior to those of Russia. Responding to this illusion with a more aggressive nuclear posture in Europe would be a losing strategy for the United States.

report by the RAND Corporation found that NATO’s nuclear forces have almost no credibility in deterring Russian aggression. If Moscow were preparing to invade parts of Eastern Europe, it would likely be unfazed by the threat of nuclear force, because Russia would find it “highly unlikely” that “the United States would be willing to exchange New York for Riga.”

Investing additional billions in nuclear weapons systems that we will never use detracts much needed funding from conventional capabilities that are otherwise lacking in the European theater.

Recent events support this analysis. The United States has deployed B61 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe for decades, but the presence of these weapons did not prevent the Russian incursion into Georgia, the annexation of Crimea or the invasion of Ukraine. Yet upgrades are underway to modernize the B61 at an estimated cost of $12 billion.

NATO would be better served, according to the report, if the United States deployed more of its formidable conventional strength in Europe. A force of 35,000 troops, including three heavily armored brigades, would be far more effective at protecting NATO’s eastern flank. Although such a force wouldn’t be enough to win a sustained war with Russia on its own, it would “fundamentally change the strategic picture as seen from Moscow,” deterring a war from breaking out in the first place.

RAND estimates that fielding a force of this size would cost $2.7 billion annually to maintain. That is no trivial sum, but placed in context it’s a sound investment. The cost of the B61 upgrade program alone is enough to pay for 4 years of actual deterrence in Europe.

Russia is all too willing to lure America back into the mindset of the Cold War. But as Vikram Singh and Christine Parthemore of the Center for American Progress recently argued, our near-and short term strategy should not be to mimic Putin’s bad behavior. Instead of falling into Putin’s trap and wasting our resources on nuclear weapons, we should be playing to our strengths in the conventional realm.

Saetren and Williams are the Roger L. Hale Fellow and Research Assistant at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. 

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