One Consequence of the Ukraine War: Nuclear Saber-Rattling - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
One Consequence of the Ukraine War: Nuclear Saber-Rattling
by
Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin in 2019 (Kremlin:ru/Wikimedia Commons)

It might be too early to draw specific tactical and operational lessons from the war in Ukraine but one strategic trend has already emerged. In its wake, nuclear saber-rattling has become an almost daily event. Indeed, it could be hypothesized that the bigger a nation’s arsenal of conventional Soviet/Russian arms, the greater its tendency to engage in nuclear brinkmanship or its incentives to go nuclear.

The first and foremost example of this practice is Russia itself. Apparently alarmed by the abysmal performance of its military in Ukraine, key Russian leaders have increasingly resorted to opaque nuclear warnings. In fact, Putin himself has acted as the main choreographer of this danse macabre.

Russia’s military setbacks in Ukraine have occurred precisely as Tehran was working hard to establish strong strategic and military ties with Moscow.

For instance, in late April on the occasion of Russia test-launching a new ICBM named Sarmat (after the nomadic barbarian Sarmatian people of the 4th and 5th centuries known for their fights against the Romans and Attila the Hun), Putin declared that the new weapon would have no analog in the world for a long time to come and would make those “who, in the heat of frenzied aggressive rhetoric, are trying to threaten our country, think twice before acting against Russia.” He went on to stress that “the new complex has the highest tactical and technical characteristics and is capable of overcoming all modern anti-missile defense systems.”

Within a week, his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, stated in an interview on Russian state TV that the risk of nuclear war between Russia and the West is now “considerable.” While claiming he did not want the danger of nuclear war to be “artificially inflated,” he nevertheless warned that it was “serious,” “real,” and “cannot be underestimated.”

A day later in an address before Russian lawmakers, it was again Putin who said on April 27, “If someone decides to intervene in current events [in Ukraine] from the outside and creates unacceptable strategic threats for Russia, then [they] must know that our response, our retaliatory strikes, will be lightning-fast, quick,” according to the Ukrainian paper Ukrayinska Pravda. He warned: “We have all the tools for this — such that no one else can boast of right now. And we won’t brag — we’ll use them if needed! And everyone should know about it! All decisions in this regard have already been made.”

Putin left it purposely unclear if he was referring to the newly developed Kinzhal (Dagger) hypersonic missile, which Russia used for the first time in March to hit a Ukrainian target armed when the missile was armed with a conventional warhead, or to the new nuclear-capable Sarmat ICBM slated to be operationally deployed later this year. However, the U.S. quickly called Putin’s comments dangerous, escalatory, and totally unacceptable. President Joe Biden reacted by saying, “No one should be making idle comments about the use of nuclear weapons or the possibility of using them. It’s irresponsible.”

Yet, as if to dispel any doubts about Putin’s intentions and in a transparent effort to infuse credibility into the barrage of recent warnings, the Russian defense ministry on May 4 announced its forces carried out simulated nuclear missile strikes in Kaliningrad, a territory sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. The exercises included simulated “electronic launches” of the nuclear-capable Iskander mobile ballistic missile system (NATO designation SS-26). Accordingly, the forces practiced multiple strikes at targets imitating launchers of missile systems, airfields, protected infrastructure, military equipment, and command posts of a mock enemy. Military personnel also maneuvered to avoid “a possible retaliatory strike” — as well as “operated in conditions of radiation and chemical contamination,” the ministry said.

Just in case these warnings were somehow ignored, the Russian defense ministry announced two days later that this year’s Victory Day Parade held on May 9 in Moscow would include a rare flight of the Ilyushin Il-80, an airborne command and control plane designed to serve Putin and other top officials in the event of a nuclear war. Known as the “Flying Kremlin,” it has not been seen at a Victory Day commemoration since 2010, and its comeback is likely an indication that Putin was bent on transmitting yet another ominous nuclear signal to the West. (READ MORE from Avigdor Haselkorn: Putin’s Dangerous New Strategic Doctrine)

Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling is meant to accomplish five goals. First, it conveys the Kremlin’s concern that its military’s conventional capabilities have proven critically deficient. The nuclear warnings are thus meant as a stopgap measure to ward off any aggressor who might (erroneously) believe Russia can be militarily overpowered. Moscow is in effect reverting to its practice in the wake of NATO’s 1999 air campaign in Kosovo where the effective use of precision-guided munitions forced Yugoslav forces to withdraw and drove the Russian leadership to come up with the concept of de-escalation. The new doctrine, which was in effect until about 2013, embraced the issuance of a threat of a limited nuclear strike to force an opponent to accept a return to the status quo ante. To that end, and in an effort to gain credibility, all large-scale military exercises that Russia conducted beginning in 2000 featured simulations of limited nuclear strikes. Interestingly, it was Putin, then secretary of the Security Council of Russia, who supervised the development of the new doctrine. By the time the doctrine was adopted in the spring of 2000, it was Putin who signed it under his new capacity as president.

Second, Moscow is exercising nuclear brinkmanship fully aware that while the West has increasingly supplied Ukraine’s war machine, the United States and its European allies have avoided direct involvement in the conflict for fear of provoking a Russian nuclear escalation.

Third, the Russians could be trying to back coercive diplomacy with the “madman theory” of threatening excessive force, which includes the specter of resorting to nuclear weapons, now that their war plan has been largely foiled. The nuclear threats demonstrate to the West that Putin will not back down until he achieves his goals in Ukraine.

Fourth, Russia aims to reassure its friends and allies of its immense capabilities so as to squelch any nascent thoughts of switching sides.

Lastly, the Kremlin is acting to maintain its prestige on the global scene and to warn anyone tempted to write it off as a superpower to think again. Undoubtedly, the Russian leadership has its domestic audience in mind as well. After all, the Putin regime is built on the notion that a strongman leader can revive the glory of the Russian empire.

Another example of this trend is provided by North Korea. Evidently, its leader, Kim Jong-un, has been seriously perturbed by the Russian military failures in Ukraine. To judge by his recent declarations, Kim seems increasingly doubtful that the Korean People’s Army’s conventional capabilities provide adequate defense. He may have concluded that the Soviet-supplied main weapon systems of the KPA are no match for the high-grade Western arms used by the Ukrainians to devastating effect in the war. In response, there has been a noticeable intensification of the North’s nuclear saber-rattling.

For example, the North Korean Central News Agency on April 25 quoted Kim on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s armed forces as expressing a“firm will” to continue developing “at the fastest possible pace” the nuclear arsenal of the KPA so that it could “preemptively and thoroughly contain and frustrate all dangerous attempts and threatening moves, including ever-escalating nuclear threats from hostile forces, if necessary.” He vowed that the North’s nuclear weapons would “never be confined to the single mission of war deterrent” in situations where the North faces external threats to its “fundamental interests.”

Kim’s threat to use his nuclear forces to protect his country’s ambiguously defined “fundamental interests” suggests the adoption of a “first strike” nuclear doctrine. At a minimum, his pronouncement officially expands the role of his nuclear force beyond the mere deterrence of an existential threat. Rather, the country’s nuclear arsenal is now readily available to offensively thwart other ill-defined inimical circumstances. This way, Kim apparently believes he will compensate for the growing gap between the KPA’s conventional capabilities and those of its potential enemies.

Finally, there is Iran. Although Iran may have other reasons for its steady progress toward achieving a nuclear weapons capability, it certainly feels more vulnerable in the wake of the war in Ukraine.

After all, Russia’s military setbacks in Ukraine have occurred precisely as Tehran was working hard to establish strong strategic and military ties with Moscow.

In August 2021, newly installed Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi described efforts to enhance and strengthen relations with Russia as a top priority in his administration’s foreign policy. He went on to assure his Russian counterpart of Tehran’s “serious resolve” to finalize a comprehensive cooperation deal with Moscow.

Two months later, Iran’s Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, arrived in Moscow on a four-day visit. Addressing a meeting at Iran’s embassy in the Russian capital on October 18, Bagheri said that following the lifting of the UN arms embargo the year before, the Iranian government signed deals with Russia for the purchase of fighter and training aircraft along with attack helicopters.

In a meeting with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, Bagheri said that “the military and defense relations have grown remarkably in recent years,” adding that he hopes that “the growing course of cooperation would continue.” Baqeri also referred to Iran’s 25-year strategic partnership deal with China, saying that establishing a similar agreement with Russia would be “beneficial.”

Subsequently, reports indicated the two countries have concluded a $10 billion deal to supply arms to Iran, including artillery systems, armored vehicles, and T-90 tanks. In January 2022, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi himself traveled to Moscow where he handed over Iran’s draft proposal for a 20-year cooperation agreement with Russia.

Thus, in view of the Russian military’s dreadful performance in Ukraine, the recent surge in tough talk by the Iranian leadership, including open advocacy of nuclear weapons as an essential element of Iran’s national security, could have been expected.

On March 10, in a speech to Iran’s Assembly of Experts, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei openly described Iran’s development of nuclear capabilities as part of its “arms of power.” He declared, “I believe that [compromises in ongoing nuclear negotiations] are mistakes. If, over the years, the people who want to chop off some of those arms of power had been given permission to do so, our country would be facing great danger today.”

The Kayhan Daily, the mouthpiece of the Iranian regime, wrote on February 28: “An important lesson of the Ukrainian war is that, in order to dispel threats, one must be strong. Disarming and handing over one’s sources of strength is the deadliest mistake.”

On April 9, in a speech marking the country’s “Nuclear Technology Day,” Iranian President Raisi stated: “For more than the 100th time, our message from Tehran to Vienna [where negotiations were being held on curbing Iran’s nuclear program] is that we will not back off from the Iranian people’s nuclear rights … not even an iota.”

There should be little question that the war in Ukraine has caused leaders of Russia, North Korea, and Iran great worry that the conflict will result in a shift in the global balance of power in favor of a resurgent West. They likely reacted with great trepidation over the prospect that Washington will actually achieve its strategic goal in the war and, in the words of U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on April 25, “have Russia weakened.” North Korea and Iran must now also harbor grave doubts about the likelihood of Russian military support in case of war. Additionally, Russia’s role as a source of new advanced weaponry is increasingly in doubt given Western sanctions, which reportedly have already caused some arms manufacturers to stop production for lack of essential imported components. Worse yet, the three countries face daunting uncertainties about the combat efficacy of some of their key conventional military capabilities.

In sum, in the aftermath of Russia’s military failures in Ukraine, the three regimes surely feel more vulnerable. However, as a result, the nuclear taboo that has held for decades is now ever closer to being broken.

Avigdor Haselkorn is a strategic analyst and the author of books, articles, and op-eds on national security issues.

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