Theatrics or threat? Putin leans on nuclear hysteria to mask insecurity

Theatrics or threat? Putin leans on nuclear hysteria to mask insecurity
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The only thing that could have made Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech about Russia’s nuclear arsenal better is if he had given it wearing a Mao jacket and stroking a white cat, like the evil character Blofeld from a James Bond movie.

Putin’s theatrics represented a farrago of theater, fantasy and bluster. For some reason, Putin said he was unveiling a nuclear-powered cruise missile with virtually unlimited range. This is a strange thing to claim, for several reasons. It is technologically difficult to do (which is why the Americans never built one, even after considering it more than 50 years ago), but more to the point, it serves no purpose. Why build a cruise missile that takes hours to reach its target when intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or submarine-launched ballistic missiles can reach the same targets in minutes?

Putin presented animation of the new missile, mostly consisting of computer graphics that looked like it could have been a cheap 1980s game called “Microsoft Cruise Missile Simulator.” The video showed a cruise missile flying a long distance while following terrain and avoiding obstacles. In other words, it was doing what we’ve known cruise missiles can do for more than 40 years.

Even if the Russians can build this nuclear white elephant, it’s not clear what it’s supposed to do. Like the “invincible” hypersonic missile that Putin claims can evade all defenses, it’s a solution searching for a problem: Russian ICBM warheads, like all ICBM warheads, already land at hypersonic speed, and there are no functioning missile defenses in the United States that have any real chance of stopping them.

Putin is unveiling this next generation of weapons from Drax Industries for two reasons. Most important, Putin is running for reelection, and while he has no chance of losing, he needs to gloss over his regime’s economic failures by legitimizing his rule in the militaristic themes he knows best as a product of the Soviet system.

Whatever hopes people might have had about Putin as a new kind of leader back in 1999, he has turned into a standard-issue Soviet kleptocrat leading a comical (but nonetheless lethal) cult of personality. The man who began his time in office with a candid assessment of Russia’s future challenges is now a whining autocrat who blames all of his country’s misfortunes on sinister forces in the “West” and particularly the United States and NATO.

Second, Putin embodies a gnawing and well-deserved insecurity at the root of the Russian defense establishment. The Russian military still relies on conscription and is still a nightmare of poor training, hazing and dodgy equipment. It is improving quickly — which should actually reassure the West, since a military in free-fall is more dangerous than a professional and competent force — but it is so weak that Putin knows he must rely on nuclear threats to punch above its weight.

Part of this make-believe is to invoke the defense of a nonexistent Russian alliance system. Putin promised nuclear retaliation for any use of nuclear weapons against Russia or “its allies.” Russia’s allies? Who would they be? Russia, at best, has clients like Syria. Putin’s stab at a NATO-like extended deterrence is both laughable and pitiable, as Russia has no real friends over which to extend it.

Even more revealing, the weapons Putin claimed to unveil are meant, apparently, to overcome Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, a massive missile defense system that was supposed to include space-based lasers. It was never built and likely never will be. In his recent interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly, however, Putin made bitter reference to the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty more than 15 years ago. This is mostly a propaganda point, but it does reflect Putin’s fear — one characteristic of people raised in the Soviet era — that the Americans have an almost magical ability to pull technological rabbits out of a hat at will.

Nonetheless, there is real danger in Putin’s attempt to lean on the crutch of nuclear hysteria. Whether these new systems exist is secondary to the problem that Putin feels the need to rule by constantly pressing the raw nerve of Russia’s incurable inferiority complex. Russia is a major power in world affairs, and yet Putin complained as if the Kremlin was the forgotten runt of the international litter. “Nobody listened to Russia,” he said in his speech. “Well, listen up now.”

The response all of this deserves was best summed up by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, when she dismissed Putin’s views as “absurd.” President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE could have shown a similar confidence by criticizing the Kremlin leader’s theatrics and reassuring Americans that the men and women who serve in the forces of the U.S. strategic deterrent are on the job.

Unfortunately, only one rock-solid policy is followed consistently in the White House: Never criticize Vladimir Putin. The rest of us, however, should see this bluster for what it was, and dismiss it accordingly.

Tom Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor at the Harvard Extension School. His latest book is “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.” You can follow him on Twitter @RadioFreeTom. The views expressed in this column are his own.