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Putin Rattles His Saber

Russian President Vladimir Putin engaged in some saber rattling this week, saying that he is ready for another Cuban Missile Crisis with the United States and that he would win.

The United States and the former Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987; Russia is the successor state to the Soviet Union for purposes of treaties and international obligations. The treaty called for the elimination of “all of their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.” The U.S. first accused Russia of violating the treaty in 2014, an accusation which has been repeated every year since. On February 2nd of this year, President Trump suspended the U.S.’ treaty obligations and announced the intention to withdraw from the treaty, due to Russia’s violations. Putin, in response, announced Russia’s suspension of its treaty obligations.

This suspension of the treaty and its likely death has led to noises by the U.S. that it may place nuclear missiles in Europe and by Russia that it may place missiles on naval ships near American shores. Putin spoke about missile flight times and maintained that Russia would have an advantage in a nuclear first strike, because its sea-based missiles would hit the U.S. before the U.S.’ European-based missiles hit Russia.

There are a few things to note about all of this.

First, the INF Treaty was able to be signed because each side had begun to favor sea-based nuclear missiles anyway. That is to say, the elimination of one class of missiles (i.e. land-based intermediate range missiles) provided the funds and ability to focus on more advantageous types of missiles (particularly sea-based). The United States used to have nuclear silos in remote locations in the continental U.S. (you can even buy one), and the Soviet Union had an extensive rail-based nuclear missile platform. The idea behind the U.S.’ silos were that they were hardened and could, potentially, survive a nuclear first strike (it was largely assumed that the Soviets knew the locations of the silos); the idea behind the Soviet rail network is that they could keep their missiles mobile so as to ensure survivability.

The end goal of the Cold War nuclear weapons programs, by both sides, was to be able to survive a nuclear first strike by the other side so as to be able to launch a response strike. Thus, the U.S., for instance, implemented the “Nuclear Triad” – land, sea, and airborne nuclear weapons systems. This ensured that a potential Soviet first strike could be responded to in kind. The Soviets had a similar capability.

This “Second Strike Capability” was essential the the Cold War doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction” or MAD (the acronym is appropriate). The idea was that neither side, American or Soviet, could destroy the other side’s ability to respond to a first strike by the other side. Thus, the initial attacker would be hit by the nuclear response of the other side. It, in turn – due to its own second strike capability – would be able to launch another strike.

This brings us to the second point. Regardless of whether it takes 10 minutes for a missile to hit its target or 20 minutes (Putin seems fixated on flight times), the end of the world as we know it would happen in about half an hour. Both the United States and Russia already have an extensive submarine-based nuclear ballistic missile capability and likely have subs just off the coast of the other side all the time right now. The U.S. placing missiles in European territory therefore doesn’t give it a capability it doesn’t already have.

Thus, the third point. The placing of missiles in Europe by the U.S. would be a political statement more than a military one. That is, it demonstrates the resolve of the U.S. to protect its allies as well as U.S. power and influence in the region. This is why Putin does not want this to occur. Russia has been trying to gain back its influence over Europe through economic, political, and military means (e.g. Crimea and Eastern Ukraine). If the U.S. places missiles in the countries over which Russia seeks to exercise influence, this puts a damper on Russian plans.

In addition, Putin’s popularity in Russia has been falling lately. Rattling the saber against a foreign adversary has worked for politicians of all ages to increase their domestic support. Putin is doing the same.

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