Russian Nukes and European Security

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Over the past 22 years, the world has grown accustomed to thinking of the Russian military as a decrepit relic of the Cold War. For those who are watching carefully, there are growing signs that the bear is stirring from its post-Soviet hibernation. A recent naval deployment to the Caribbean, resumed long-range bomber patrols, and the conflict in Georgia several years ago are signs that Russia seeks to once again wield a respectable sword.

Part of that sword is Russia’s nuclear arsenal, now considerably smaller than that sported by the USSR, but substantial nonetheless. In 2010, the Russian armed forces laid out a doctrine under which such weapons would be used in the defense (broadly defined) of the motherland. That Russian leaders are once again contemplating the use of such weapons in combat has put Europe on alert.

In Nuclear Deterrence in Europe: Russian Approaches to a New Environment and Implications for the United States, James Quinlivan and Olga Oliker examine Russia’s new nuclear doctrine in the context of how Russia sees itself and its interests in modern Europe. In a post Cold War environment, the nuclear tripwire in Europe is no more as sensitive as it once was, and arguably it rests much further East. At the same time, as the authors point out, Russia sees its interests extending well beyond its geographic borders to countries with which it has “historic” ties.

The questions seem esoteric, but they define the extent to which a conflict with Russia in or around Europe would deteriorate into an atomic slugfest, even of a mere “tactical” nature. Does Russia see its interests extending into the former republics of the USSR, or indeed further into Europe? What is more, as Russian conventional forces are little match for its possible opponents, does this make it more likely that Russia will employ nuclear weapons in a future conflict?

The authors offer no easy answers, but they provide a path forward that makes it possible to act without seeing into the minds of the Russian leadership. Winston Churchill once wrote that, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

To their credit, Quinlivan and Oliker recognize that the formulation of Russian policy and action is no more transparent today than it was in Stalin’s Russia. By eschewing an updated version of the Kremlin-watchers craft from the Cold War and focusing instead on Russia’s stated interests, the authors begin to frame Europe’s response to a revived bear.

One final quibble I have with the authors is in their limiting the scope of their report to Russia’s policy vis-a-vis Europe. While they did so in order to keep the scope of the book manageable, or to ensure they did not venture beyond the ken of their own expertise, in so doing they create the illusion that Russia calculates its interests and actions one hemisphere at a time.

That is not the case. Russia and its leaders see themselves as much an Asia power as a European one, and the economic importance of Siberia, the Pacific, and the ‘Stans is now at least on a par with that of Europe. Russian irredentism is as strong in Asia as it is in the Black Sea, and even at the height of the German invasion of the USSR during World War II, Stalin never calculated his next move against Hitler without taking the situation in Asia into consideration. As such, a more encompassing study is in order, one that offers a full appreciation of why Russia sometimes sees itself as beset from all sides, and the strategic calculus that has developed as a result.

This is, however, a quibble. What the authors have wrought is the first of many studies we are likely to see of a re-emergent Russia and the new role it will play on the world stage.

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