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Nuclear disarmament and the Ukraine conundrum

Written By | Nov 14, 2014

WASHINGTON, November 13, 2014 – NATO officials have confirmed that Russian troops, tanks, and other military equipment are crossing the border into Ukraine. Fighting has picked up around Donetsk, and there have been “green man” sightings – men in green uniforms with no insignia. The invasion of Crimea was carried out in part by green men.

Moscow has denied the reports, calling NATO General Philip Breedlove an “alarmist.” Russian Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said on Wednesday, “We have stopped paying attention to NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Gen. Philip Breedlove’s unfounded statements alleging that he observed Russian military convoys invading Ukraine.”

In fact, the cease fire between Ukraine and the Russian-backed rebels began to break down from the day it was signed, Sept. 5, in Minsk. Ukraine has complained about the latest Russian incursion for several days; the only new development this week was that NATO finally reported it. Russian incursions have been too numerous to count, difficult to track, and even difficult to punish. They have been committed by “green men,” soldiers on “vacation” who decided to assist their Russian-Ukrainian brothers and sisters in their time of need, and “humanitarian convoys” that have brought no humanitarian aid.

Foreign Policy reported this week that the “cease-fire in Ukraine [is] collapsing.” A Financial Times headline reported that the “Heaviest Shelling Since Truce Renews Ukraine War Fears.” The assumption in most of these reports is that there was a ceasefire that is now collapsing. The truth is that there was never a ceasefire, but only a piece of paper. We needn’t fear that war will start again in Ukraine; it never ended. The current shelling is only the “heaviest shelling” since September 5, not the first.

If Russia is determined to take Eastern Ukraine, it will. Ukraine doesn’t have the military power to resist for long. The cost to Russia could be very high and the tangible benefits low, but there is no point pretending any longer that Russian President Vladimir Putin is approaching the situation rationally. He is playing his game very well, and he has the West’s number, but in part that is because the West can hardly believe that Putin would play this game in the first place.

Our diplomacy has failed because Putin doesn’t want what we think he should want. He isn’t thinking like an American or a German.

If diplomacy and sanctions won’t stop Putin, what would? A few hundred nuclear warheads aimed in his direction in the hands of his Ukrainian victims would do the trick, and therein lies one of the unpleasant lessons of this episode: Ukraine is in trouble because it disarmed.

When the Russian bear is roaming the taiga – and Putin believes that the world is his taiga – you should keep your nukes in good repair. You should never, ever disarm.

Western diplomacy and foreign policy have taken nuclear disarmament as a sine qua non. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were briefly three new nuclear powers – Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan – which dutifully returned the missiles and nuclear warheads based on their territory to Russia for decommissioning. Our goal has been to keep the nuclear club as small as possible, and to encourage would-be nuclear powers to abandon their ambitions, either by means of bribes or of threats. The example of Ukraine will make that harder.

America has been systematically reducing its own nuclear deterrent as required by the START treaties we’ve signed with the Russia. We’ve developed no replacements for our aging strategic missile fleet. Our Minute Man III missiles were first deployed in 1968, and current plans call for them to be incrementally updated and kept in service until at least 2030. We have reduced the total ICBM force to under 450 missiles from its Cold War high of 1,054, and cut the Naval component of our nuclear triad to 14 Ohio-class submarines.

While Russia has cut its own nuclear forces, it has for the first time since the Cold War surpassed the U.S. total of strategic nuclear warheads, and according to Russian newspaper Pravda, greatly surpassed us in total tactical nuclear forces in Europe. Russia has tested at least two new ICBMs in the last few years, and has been hard at work modernizing its sea-going missile force. Many of its operational ICBMs are over 30 years old, but it is rapidly retiring its older missiles; half its missiles were designed after the Cold War, and by 2025, all its missiles will be post-Soviet designs.

For rational men and women, these developments might be alarming, but no cause for panic. The U.S. has more than enough firepower to retaliate to a Russian attack, and our conventional forces, diminishing as they are, remain by far the most powerful in the world.

But reason in the world of nuclear gamesmanship is not quite what it is in the day-to-day world. This is a game that depends on perceptions, and perceptions of perceptions. Do you know how your opponent is likely to respond to your military moves, and does he know that you know, and do you know that he knows that you know?

Russia is rapidly modernizing its strategic forces, making them a useful tool for its 21st century military strategy. The Russian government doesn’t see its nuclear forces as just a deterrent to aggression, but as a tool of global influence, a means to preserve its status as a great power. It sees them not just as a way to keep the U.S. from attacking, but as a means to influence world events.

In conjunction with its nuclear buildup, Russia is probing our defenses and watching our responses. Russian long-range bombers have with increasing frequency violated the airspace of the United States and its allies. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has announced plans to send bombers flying over the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. “In the current situation, we need to secure our military presence in the western part of the Atlantic, eastern part of the Pacific Oceans and the waters of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.”

Russia respects force and the willingness to use it. It does not respect indecision and good intentions.

North Korea is a small, poor, cesspool of a country that should enter into no one’s calculations on the world stage. But North Korea has tested nuclear explosives and is now testing rockets that can deliver them to enemy soil. North Korea may not have earned the respect born of admiration, but it has seized the respect born of nervous concern. That is, it has its neighbors’ attention, and America’s when it wants it.

Ukraine has no one’s respect – least of all Russia’s – but only our sympathy and ineffectual diplomacy. Our diplomacy is ineffectual because Russia knows that Europe and America won’t burn for Ukraine, and Ukraine can’t make Russia burn. Ukraine and North Korea illustrate clearly why nuclear weapons matter, and why smaller countries should want them.

Russian nuclear modernization, its actions in Ukraine, and its new interest in testing the thresholds and limits of Western military response illustrate clearly why we should think long and hard about the state of our own strategic forces, and why we should want to keep them at high readiness and up to date.


Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.