The successful test of Russia’s new submarine-launched Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile on Wednesday is being treated as yet more fuel on the already burning Russia-West relationship. Headlines such as “Russia Proves Nuclear Muscle With Ballistic Missile Launch” or “Russia developing new nuclear weapons to counter US, NATO,” as well as statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding the linchpin role of a “guaranteed nuclear deterrent” certainly convey the idea of an expanding confrontation. And yet, while events and statements seem to indicate ever-greater danger, it is important to keep in mind the mechanisms of deterrence and implicit bargaining between nations. While conventional escalation and expansion of the current conflict are not out of the question, we do not suddenly now stand on the brink of nuclear conflict.
First and foremost, it is important to keep in mind the extensive lag time involved in the development of equipment such as the ballistic missile. The Bulava – capable of traveling 5,000+ miles and holding 6-10 nuclear warheads – has been in development since the 1990s, and has been undergoing (not terribly successful) testing since at least 2004. In other words, it’s not exactly new. The Russians did not develop an SLBM in response to the Ukraine crisis. Granted, the timing of the test is certainly interesting, coming on the heels of NATO’s announcement of a new “spearhead” rapid reaction force and intentions to pre-position equipment in Eastern Europe. The decision to conduct a test now is most likely (at least in part) a result of the current political climate, rather than despite it.
But it looks like Russia is attempting to reinforce and expand deterrence, rather than literally prepare for a nuclear exchange – it is trying to dissuade the West from engaging in conventional action by demonstrating its nuclear capability. This is in keeping with statements made by Russian officials last year indicating that Russia could respond to conventional attacks with nuclear weapons. The message is clear: do not interfere, or you risk nuclear repercussions (you are not promised them – an important distinction). On a fundamental level, the Russian government and military are attempting to influence Western decision-making: they hope to make even the consideration of conventional interference in its affairs too risky. This, as Thomas Schelling notes in his seminal “Arms and Influence,” is what deterrence – and thus nuclear weapons – is all about: influencing an enemy’s actions and intentions.
Furthermore, we have to wonder if Russia would truly be willing to end the “nuclear taboo” over Ukraine, especially given that the latter’s membership prospects in both the European Union and NATO now appear more or less nonexistent (and will remain so for the foreseeable future). 60+ years of non-use (in war) is an impressive record, but it is also part of the power of nuclear weapons. At the end of the day, some argue, the threat of an undetonated nuclear weapon is greater than that of a detonated one. Once you have destroyed a city, that target has no value for your enemy, and you have one less weapon with which to threaten him. And you may have invited nuclear reprisal.
We must also attempt to evaluate some of the more implicit messages Russia is sending, which can be directly linked to their weapons modernization program and even the development of the Bulava missile. First of all, while the 2016-2025 weapons modernization program does include the above-mentioned “guaranteed nuclear deterrent,” it also includes developing high-precision conventional weapons. As Schelling notes, investment in conventional weaponry is itself significant, because it suggests that Russia wants to be sure it can fight a non-nuclear war (by having a sufficient non-nuclear capability). The West (and the U.S. in particular) holds a significant conventional advantage over Russia in terms of both existing capabilities and in the competencies of their defense industries (consider, for instance, Russia’s purchase of French Mistral class vessels). The emphasis on nuclear weapons could almost be interpreted as a rhetorical stopgap measure – a stalling technique, if you will, that must serve until conventional capabilities are built up.
Moreover, the fact that the Bulava missile is submarine-launched is significant. SLBMs are more expensive to build than the land-based ICBMs. If Russia wanted an ability to simply launch a nuclear assault in response to a conventional attack, there are cheaper and more efficient ways to go about this. (Granted, it can get a bit messy here in terms of what is permissible under various arms agreements and related treaties, but the point stands). SLBMs are particularly suited to deterrence specifically because of their survivability. They are second-strike weapons (which is not to say they cannot be used in a first strike, but rather to argue that if Russia anticipated initiating a nuclear exchange they may have chosen to reveal that possibility differently).
Finally, we cannot ignore the possibility that ongoing Russian efforts to modernize their nuclear capacity are not the result of an unfortunate feedback loop (another issue that Schelling’s book addresses). Remember, for example, that NATO decided it would incorporate former Warsaw Pact states in the 1990s – a choice that likely encouraged the pursuit of improved nuclear capabilities as a formerly hostile alliance approached Russian territory. Additionally, the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 and began working towards establishing a missile defense system in Europe. While this system is not directed against Russia, Russia complained (and continues to do so) that such measures are destabilizing in terms of the nuclear strategic balance. Finally, the only way Congress allowed the New Start Treaty to be ratified in 2010 was to attach amendments to the treaty calling on the U.S. to pursue missile-defense and the modernization of the American nuclear complex. These latter two actions would seem to suggest that the U.S. continues to see nuclear weapons as a key element in our military strategy. It should not surprise us that Russia also continues to play up the importance of those weapons. Looking ahead, then, one course of action could very well be to take advantage of this feedback loop and formulate our own policies with an eye towards pushing Russia onto a more preferable path (just as Schelling suggested back in the 1960s).