Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Doomsday aircraft — the two modernized Ilyushin 96-400M’s that Russia is developing as part of а special project codenamed “Zveno-3C” (Component-3C) — are not museum mockup displays or some props for a Dr. Strangelovian thriller. The specially outfitted planes will serve as Putin’s flying command and control center, from which the Russian spymaster can direct his forces into combat in the event of a nuclear war. The recent development is yet another step in Putin’s preparation for a “shooting” conflict with the United States, which Moscow believes is unavoidable.
U.S.-Russia relations have been on a collision course since the collapse of the Soviet Union driven by two diametrically opposed worldviews — democracy v. authoritarianism — and the dispute over the future of the former Soviet states, such as Ukraine. Having officially declared the United States an “unfriendly state” and Russia’s preeminent security threat, Moscow is prepared to fight a nuclear war over its perceived sphere of influence, on which Russia has relied for centuries as its strategic security perimeter.
Putin’s government has been modernizing its nuclear weapons and forces because it is not confident in its conventional, precision-guided weaponry’s ability to win a high-stakes conflict with the United States. In 2020, Putin updated Russia’s nuclear doctrine to ensure that Russian forces have the upper hand over the U.S. military in a Doomsday scenario.
Putin’s warfighting doctrine is even more dangerous than the one that the Soviets relied on during the Cold War. Although during the dark years of communism, Moscow was preparing for Washington’s decapitation and total annihilation in a mass nuclear strike, the USSR’s vast atomic arsenal ultimately became a psychological weapon that was never used in combat. In contrast, today Russia’s doctrine is more grounded in “reality”— Russian reality, that is. The nuclear option for Putin is not a theoretical doctrine. It is a battlefield-ready capability, to be deployed in a “limited use” scenario. Putin’s purpose for the atomic weapons is, counter-intuitively, to de-escalate a rapidly evolving conflict with a technologically superior United States. The Kremlin envisions fighting a limited nuclear war with Washington, over contested areas such as Ukraine and Crimea, the latter of which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.
Non-strategic nuclear weapons, in which Russia holds advantage over the United States, are also viewed by Moscow as a reliable way to establish what’s called “escalation dominance.” Putin realizes that, once started, a kinetic conflict between the U.S. and Russia, the world’s two atomic superpowers, would be hard to contain. Putin’s war planners, therefore, conceptualized the employment of Doomsday weapons to compel Washington to concede by demonstrating a superior position, so that U.S. forces perceive any further escalation as a losing bet. Simply put, Russia believes it can out-escalate a conflict, continuously upping the ante of hostilities.
An example of the effect of Russia’s escalation-dominant posture on U.S. leadership’s decision-making is the failure to prevent or forcefully respond to Moscow’s cyberwarfare. Washington has yet to respond to Russia’s cyber intrusions into the U.S. government and military systems, including critical infrastructure, the disabling of our food and energy reserves with ransomware, and the Kremlin’s covert-influence operations to sabotage the last three U.S. elections. U.S. leaders’ concern has been that Putin would launch a destructive cyberattack on the United States — which is much more dependent than Russia on technology for daily existence — crippling the U.S. economy and daily activities.
Putin’s decision to upgrade his nuclear command and control (NC2) center in the sky stems from the concern that he and his designees with nuclear release authority — the defense minister and chief of the general staff — may need to be evacuated in the event that the ground and space segments of the NC2 are destroyed by the adversary’s strike. Even in such a scenario, Putin still wants to be able to wage devastation on America, having full control of all the three legs of Russia’s nuclear triad — bombers, submarines and road-mobile, as well as silo-based, missiles. To operationalize its wartime nuclear doctrine, in early 2017 Russia deployed, in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a land-based cruise missile designated the SSC-X-8. Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Paul Selva warned that this missile “presents a risk to most of our [U.S.] facilities in Europe” and is “part of a wider deployment by Russia of sea-, air- and ground-launched nuclear-capable missiles.”
Putin systematically invests in the modernization of Russia’s nuclear arsenal and the training of its nuclear personnel, the Strategic Rocket Forces. Although live nuclear testing is not permitted under the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Russia has been found by the U.S. intelligence community to violate the accord. According to the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, Russia was “likely violating the treaty by secretly carrying out nuclear tests with very low explosive power … creating nuclear yield.”
Russia periodically deploys strategic bombers on overflight missions close to U.S. borders to practice and test U.S. responses to its breaching of the U.S. air-defense identification zone (ADIZ). Moscow also has conducted mock nuclear attacks on the U.S. homeland. The Russians regularly practice nuclear launches in simulation exercises, with Putin “pressing the button.”
Russia is the only country that possesses the capability to devastate the U.S. homeland by destroying numerous targets through nuclear strikes that can be delivered from land, sea and air. There is no question that Russia is preparing for a nuclear conflict with the United States and NATO. The only question is whether this conflict can be deterred or fought.
Rebekah Koffler is a former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) intelligence officer and the author of the new book, “Putin’s Playbook: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America.” Follow her on Twitter @rebekah0132.