Putin's Nuclear Option

Would Russia's president really be willing to start World War III?

Ever the one to administer bracing doses of Geopolitics 101 to his opponents, especially those inclined to underestimate his nerve, President Vladimir Putin, at a youth forum north of Moscow last week, reminded the world that "Russia is one of the most powerful nuclear nations. This is a reality, not just words." (Indeed it is.)

Fifteen days earlier, on Aug. 14, at a conference in Yalta, the Russian president had told the assembled factions of the State Duma that he soon planned to "surprise the West with our new developments in offensive nuclear weapons about which we do not talk yet." This came as Russian strategic nuclear bombers and fighter jets have been accused of violating the airspace of the United States and Western European countries with mounting frequency, while under the surface of the world's seas Russian and U.S. nuclear submarines have been involved in confrontations recalling the worst days of the Cold War. As NATO leaders convene for their summit in Wales, Russia just announced that its strategic nuclear forces will hold exercises of unprecedented dimensions this month. And the Kremlin, for its part, just declared that it will amend its military doctrine to reflect Russia's growing tensions with NATO. What this means exactly remains unclear, but in view of the rising tensions with the Western alliance, it cannot be good.

Russia has also been purportedly breaching the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which prohibits Russia (and the United States) from possessing the sort of missiles that could be used against targets in Europe. If Barack Obama entered the White House hoping to reduce atomic weapons stockpiles and make the world a safer place, it looks like he will leave it with a Russia boasting a more lethal arsenal of nuclear weapons than at any time since the Cold War.

But Putin would never actually use nuclear weapons, would he? The scientist and longtime Putin critic Andrei Piontkovsky, a former executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow and a political commentator for the BBC World Service, believes he might. In August, Piontkovsky published a troubling account of what he believes Putin might do to win the current standoff with the West -- and, in one blow, destroy NATO as an organization and finish off what's left of America's credibility as the world's guardian of peace.

In view of the Russian leader's recent remarks and provocative actions, the scenario Piontkovsky lays out becomes terrifyingly relevant. Worse, if the trigger events described come to pass, it becomes logical, maybe even inevitable.

Piontkovsky explains the positions of the two camps presenting Putin with advice about how to resolve the Ukraine crisis. The first, the "Peace Party," as he calls it, composed of those occupying posts in influential think tanks, including, in this case, Sergey Karaganov, the head of Moscow's Higher School of Economics, urges Putin to declare victory in Ukraine now and thereby end the conflict. Having taken note of the lengths to which Moscow will go to prevent Ukraine from slipping out of its orbit, NATO will almost certainly never invite the former Soviet republic to join its ranks, the Peace Party argues. And Russia has already won tacit acceptance from the international community of its acquisition of Crimea.

Piontkovsky dismisses out of hand the possibility of Putin pursuing this solution. If Putin chose to go this route, he would look defeated, and looming before him would be the fate of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was deposed and forced into retirement following his failed, and nearly catastrophic, 1962 attempt to secure communism in Cuba by stationing nuclear missiles there.

The other camp putting pressure on Putin, the "War Party," however, gives the president two options. The first, writes Piontkovsky, is a "romantic and inspiring scenario: World War IV between the Orthodox Russian World, now risen from its knees, against the rotting and decadent Anglo-Saxon World." (World War III, in his view, has already happened: the Cold War.) This World War IV would be a conventional war with NATO -- and it would not go well. Given NATO's superior armed forces and Russia's comparative economic, scientific, and technological weaknesses, a conventional campaign would, Piontkovsky concludes, end with Russia's defeat.

That leaves Putin only one option: a nuclear attack. Not a massive launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles at the United States or Western Europe, which would bring about a suicidal atomic holocaust, but a small, tactical strike or two against a NATO member that few in the West would be willing to die to protect. Piontkovsky surmises that, in such a conflict, the nuclear-armed country with the "superior political will" to alter the geopolitical "status quo" and -- most importantly -- with the "greater indifference to values concerning human lives" would prevail. Any guesses which country that would be?

But what would trigger a Russian attack? According to Piontkovsky's scenario, it could be something as simple as a plebiscite: the Estonian city of Narva, overwhelmingly ethnically Russian and adjacent to Russia, deciding to hold a referendum on joining the Motherland. To help them "freely express their will" at the polls, Russia could send in a brigade of "little green men armed to the teeth," much like it did in Crimea in March. Estonia would thereupon invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter -- "an armed attack against one or more [NATO members] … shall be considered an attack against them all" -- and demand that the alliance defend it. Speaking in the Estonian capital of Tallinn on the eve of NATO's summit in Wales, this is just what Obama promised. "The defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London," he said.

Suddenly, the most terrifying nightmare becomes reality: NATO faces war with Russia.

How would Putin then react? Piontkovsky believes that NATO would balk at attacking Moscow over a small country remote from NATO's heartland and the hearts of its citizens. Piontkovsky imagines the course of action open to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Obama as he contemplates unleashing a planetary holocaust over a "damned little city no one has even heard of" while the American public cries out, "We don't want to die for fucking Narva, Mr. President!" Piontkovsky also cites a German public opinion poll asking what Berlin should do if Estonia enters an armed conflict with Russia: 70 percent would want their country to remain neutral.

Piontkovsky then tries to envision the situation in which Putin would find himself if NATO intervened to drive his little green men from Narva. Would Putin commit suicide by letting his missiles fly against the United States? No. Rather, he would respond with a limited nuclear strike against a couple of European capitals -- not London or Paris, but smaller ones, presumably in Eastern European countries that have only recently joined NATO. Warsaw, against which Russia has already conducted a drill simulating a Russian nuclear attack, first comes to mind. Or, say, Vilnius, Lithuania's capital. The point is, Putin would bet on decision-makers in Washington, Berlin, London, and Paris not retaliating with nuclear weapons against Russia if it had "only" hit a city or two most Westerners have barely heard of -- and certainly do not want to die for.

The outcome of Putin's putative gambit is that NATO effectively capitulates. The alliance's credibility as guarantor of security for its member states would be utterly destroyed, as would U.S. hegemony, which largely rests on the threat of using force. Putin would then be free to do what he wanted in Ukraine and anywhere else he perceived Russia's interests to be threatened.

It might all sound a bit far-fetched. On the surface, there are obvious reasons that Putin would not want to be the first to fire nuclear weapons at anyone, even his die-hard adversaries in NATO. It would be, to put it mildly, risky, and would irremediably besmirch his place, and Russia's, in history. The world would unite against him and could do more damage to the Russian economy, which is highly dependent on food imports and the export of hydrocarbons, than anyone now can imagine. And domestically, Russian anti-war sentiment is formidable. The Russian public has, throughout the crisis, adored Putin for standing up to the West and retaking Crimea, and it even supports Russia's arming the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. But Russians have shown no appetite for direct military intervention, which is one reason the Kremlin repeatedly asserts that it has no troops or materiel on Ukrainian soil.

But it's worth remembering that since 2000 Russian nuclear doctrine has foreseen the deployment of battlefield nuclear weapons to de-escalate a conflict with NATO, if Russian forces were about to suffer defeat in a conventional conflict -- which shows that the Kremlin has already been betting that neither Obama nor the leaders of other nuclear powers would push the button if they could avoid it.

The Kremlin is probably right.

Photo by AFP


How Not to Help Americans Captured Abroad

A few lines, buried deep in the 2015 appropriations bill, could be a nightmare for American detainees and the State Department.

The brutal execution of two American hostages in the last 15 days has forced the country's attention on the plight of U.S. citizens captured abroad. With the Islamic State (IS) in possession of more American hostages -- and over a dozen U.S. citizens still forcibly held from Cuba and Venezuela to Iran and North Korea -- a debate on the federal government's efforts to secure their release is heating up.

Unfortunately, Washington's latest attempt to aid Americans held in foreign countries will actually harm them. This month, the House will vote on a 2015 appropriations bill containing a provision, already approved by the Senate, called "Assistance for United States Citizens and Nationals Wrongly Detained Abroad" (AFDA). Buried in hundreds of pages of text and likely unread by those voting on it, AFDA is an attempt to centralize control over the detainee process. If ratified, it will sanction the federal government to subordinate some U.S. detainees to the interests of bureaucrats, politicians, and lobbyists, and restrict the efforts of families to lobby for their loved one's release.

In other words, it would harm the very people it seeks to help.

Sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), AFDA delegates new power to the secretary of state, making him judge and jury in the case of each American detainee. It gives him a list of nine criteria to decide which U.S. citizens have "more likely than not" been wrongly detained abroad; instructs him to submit quarterly reports to Congress determining which detainees are "deserving of enhanced legal and diplomatic support"; and authorizes an official government "resource manual" for families of the wrongly detained.

Of all the federal agencies that shouldn't be given such power to determine the level of official government support for detainees, it is the State Department. The reason is simple: American detainees are often used as bargaining chips by the foreign governments that hold them, and therefore are a liability for the executive department that manages foreign relations.

For the State Department, stable relations with foreign countries is an end itself. But, as former U.S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia Laurence Silberman observed, this approach often prevails "without sufficient regard to U.S. geopolitical and geostrategic interests." Every president from FDR to George W. Bush bewailed State's penchant for caution and restraint, which the 2001 bipartisan Hart-Rudman Commission euphemistically called "an ineffective organizational structure in which regional and functional policies do not serve integrated goals."

Hence the absurdity of AFDA's requirement that the U.S. federal agency most unwilling to upset foreign governments publicly declare whether foreign judicial proceedings are "more likely than not" a farce, dictating legal recourse to the families of detained Americans.

Consider the case of Reza Taghavi, an American businessman wrongly imprisoned for 30 months in Iran. Taghavi's family quietly hired a private lawyer and former government official, Pierre-Richard Prosper, to negotiate his release. While lobbying for Taghavi's freedom, Prosper prudently kept the case away from the White House and State Department for fear that Taghavi would become leverage for Tehran in its nuclear negotiations with Washington. Prosper secured his release in October 2010.

Would the State Department, then desperate to jumpstart negotiations with Iran, have declared to Congress, as required by AFDA, that Taghavi "presented credible evidence of factual innocence"? And that his "detention [was] more likely than not a pretext"? It defies belief to think it would have, and imagine the damage to Taghavi's family and Prosper's negotiating power had it determined otherwise.

AFDA's mandate for greater congressional involvement is also troubling. Congress, as George Kennan lamented, is responsive to "the pressures of various highly organized lobbies and interest groups" to tilt foreign policy to their own benefit. This interdependence on special interests prevents Congress from acting entirely on behalf of American detainees, the way NGOs and private lawyers do.

Take, as another example, Matt and Grace Huang, an American couple wrongly imprisoned in Qatar. With Qatar hosting U.S. negotiations with the Taliban and involved in the complex negotiations between Israel and Hamas, the secretary of state would surely be reluctant to upset the Qatari government by recommending to Congress, in the manner AFDA requires, "enhanced support" for the Huangs.

But suppose he did; a panoply of lobbyists, from the petroleum and hydrocarbons industries to companies for whom Qatar is a major export market, would then drown Congress in a flood of opposition to disrupting bilateral relations, threatening their business interests. Congress would predictably cave.

How would it appear to the Huangs, whose innocence is already proven, to watch their government solemnly agree on their ineligibility for enhanced support? Imagine, again, the damage such a demonstration of government opposition would inflict on the efforts of pro bono legal teams to win the Huangs' freedom.

The impetus behind AFDA is laudable: get the government to show more support for American detainees. In reality, however, AFDA will sideline the support they and their families rely on. The House Appropriations Committee should remove it from the bill.

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