At times, there is something of the predictably petulant teenager in Russia’s strategic responses. NATO lets it be known that it is considering pre-positioning US armour in the Baltic States (as I’ve said, this is “heavy metal diplomacy” aimed at reassuring the Balts and warning off the Russians more than because there is any serious expectation of war). And in knee-jerk response, Putin announces that
“More than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles able to overcome even the most technically advanced anti-missile defence systems will be added to the make-up of the nuclear arsenal this year.”
Perversely and paradoxically I find something faintly reassuring about this. Bizarre? Let me explain.
First of all, Russia is updating its nuclear arsenal anyway. Putting aside whether these fabled BMD-beating missiles would anyway work as intended — the miserable development history of the 3M30 RSM-56 Bulava (SS-NX-32) is a cautionary tale against assuming Russia can deliver world-class technologies these days — this is essentially Putin repackaging existing deployment plans as if it were some new initiative. In other words, he hasn’t anything new to offer.
Secondly, nuclear weapons are that contradiction in terms, an unbeatable weapon that cannot be used. Unless Putin seriously intends to risk global thermonuclear armageddon (something that would have even his generals and cronies thinking twice), of which there is no credible hint, then they are essentially (a) to protect the homeland against existential threat and (b) for posturing. Given that there is no threat of any invasion (no, InfoWars, it is not the case that “Mounting evidence suggests US-dominated NATO heading for direct confrontation with Russia”), this is rather an attempt to worry the West.
Putin knows that using the n-word — nuclear — gets us sitting up and paying attention. But essentially, this is just a bit of martial PR, rattling a sabre that he cannot use and which will have no effect unless the West allows itself to be rattled.
How is this encouraging? In comparison with possible alternatives. Had Putin instead announced something that was both new and usable, such as moving a Spetsnaz unit close to the Estonian border, or offering a thousand scholarships to Russian-speaking Balts to come study in Russia (where they could be indoctrinated, recruited, and trained), then I would have been more worried.