So, in honor of the April 22 commemoration, I have been posting exclusively on chemical weapons. Today, for a change of pace, I wanted to talk about something more immediate: nuclear weapons. Specifically, I'm going to talk about Russian nuclear weapons and what the hell is going on in the Baltic Sea.
There is a great post over at FAS by Hans Kristensen on some of this, I highly encourage you to take a look at it. As Kristensen shows, the Russians have actually increased their number of deployed nuclear forces (the US, slightly so). In other words, the New START treaty is now headed in the wrong direction. As Kristensen is quick to point out, "The increase results from the deployment of new missiles and fluctuations caused by existing launchers moving in and out of overhaul. Hundreds of Russian missiles will be retired over the next decade. The size of the Russian arsenals will most likely continue to decrease over the next decade." So this isn't necessarily a huge deal, at least in that context. Yet there is another reason to worry.
When the US ratified the New Start Treaty, we had not built a nuclear weapon or nuclear weapon delivery vehicle since the Cold War. The same is not true of the Russians. While their modernization program has suffered any number of setbacks, their strategy is clear under New START: reduce and replace. Namely, shed Soviet era stockpiles of dubious utility with their expensive maintenance, and replace them with new weapons, especially delivery vehicles like missiles and subs to launch them. While this is taking place as part of a broader military modernization program, nuclear weapons remain the center piece of Russian defense strategy. The Russians see nuclear weapons as a deterrence not just against nuclear attack, but invasion of Russian soil. This is worrisome since the idea of what is "Russian territory" is increasingly an elastic concept to the Kremlin, given their statements on Crimea, Ukraine, and the Baltic Republics.
One hundred and one years ago, a series of treaty alliances linked many of the nations of Europe together. We all know what happened after a Serb shot the Archduke in Sarajevo. The Baltics could be a flashpoint today in the same way Serbia was in 1914. Their NATO membership is not in doubt, and while the US and Brussels have done everything they can think of to reinforce that view on the Russians from the Dragon Ride to this, the Russian response has been, well, this and this. Which is generating all sorts of activity in the area, driving Sweden and Finland into the arms of NATO. The scary thing is, one incident, one miscalculation, and the set of alliances triggered by an event in the Baltics (unlike what happened in the Ukraine) could quickly put the world on the edge of a nuclear war, a situation arguably more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis as it would include deployments of NATO and Russian ground forces in close proximity and possibly in open conflict. In other words, the old Fulda Gap scenario is being rewritten for the Balts.
Meanwhile, the Russian arsenal is clearly departing from the US and NATO nuclear arsenal which is aging rapidly and struggling to fund even modest refurbishments of old weapons like the B-61 and replacements for the Trident in Britain. Meanwhile, Putin is parading new tanks through Moscow and deploying new nuclear missile boats (Borei), new SLBMs (SS-N-32 Bulava), new mobile ICBMs (SS-27 Mod 2/RS-24) and making sure that as they reduce the overall number of their nuclear arsenal, they make qualitative upgrades. Essentially the Russians are adopting some of what the US did throughout the later part of the Cold War into the early 1990s - quality over quantity. The Russians are attempting to build a new military force, and not just in their nuclear forces. While that attempt has been two steps forward one step back, it is moving forward, and that is troublesome.
In a way though, Kristensen and others are right - this isn't a new arms race based on quantity. In fact it isn't an arms race at all. Only Russia is participating in it, well, and China, which is pursuing a similar strategy. The Russians (and Chinese) are attempting to catch up to and surpass American and European military technology. But the Russians (and Chinese) are reforming their structures too, including reforms to their army that include building a stronger NCO corps and improving the professionalism of their force.
All of this troubles NATO leaders, and it should. Putin has shown a predilection for using force to achieve territorial aims, and has no respect for (and little fear of)the West. That makes the current situation more dangerous than the Cold War, as there are no set of norms for this new military kabuki dance. Putin is expansionist, something the Soviets largely abandoned after Stalin.
Given all that, I will be posting on US/Russian nuclear arsenal today and tomorrow as well as some other nuclear weapons issues, and related items of interest. So, dust off your copies of Red Storm Rising, watch some Red Dawn (the original, not that horrifically bad remake), and lets get that new Cold War feeling going on.