October 2016 – MOSCOW – Russia deployed nuclear-capable missiles this month to its territory in the Baltic Sea, its latest aggressive move with nuclear weapons that alarms the West. Worrisome signs include increased talk about using nuclear weapons, more military maneuvers with nuclear arms, development of advanced nuclear munitions and public discussion of a new war doctrine that accelerates the use of such weapons.
“Russia is exercising its military forces and its nuclear force more offensively than it used to do,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. How to respond “is hotly debated in NATO,” he said. “Eastern European countries want a robust response, even on the nuclear side,” Kristensen said. “Western countries want NATO to take conventional steps. There’s a lack of appetite in NATO overall to go too gung-ho in the nuclear realm right now.”
Though the United States and Russia have comparable arsenals of long-range nuclear weapons, the United States has eliminated all but 500 low-yield warheads in its short-range arsenal. By contrast, Russia has modernized its short-range weapons in recent years and accumulated about 2,000 low-yield warheads, according to a study by Kristensen. The temporary deployment in Kaliningrad, which Russia retained after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, was part of a training exercise, according to Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite called the deployment an “open demonstration of power and aggression against not the Baltic States but against European capitals.” A senior Obama administration official told USA TODAY the United States and its European allies are closely monitoring the situation in Kaliningrad and encouraged Russia to refrain from actions that increase tensions with its neighbors. The official did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter. The official pointed out that last month, Russia pulled out of a joint U.S.-Russian agreement to monitor each other’s disposal of plutonium fuel from dismantled nuclear weapons. Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling risks creating miscalculations and misunderstandings in a crisis, the official said. Senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have complained about Russia’s lack of compliance with its obligations under the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The treaty bars the production, testing or deployment of ground-based missiles with a range of 300 to 3,400 miles.
Russian officials have employed similar nuclear threats since the seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea province in 2014. In March 2015, while Denmark considered participating in a NATO missile shield, Russia’s ambassador to Copenhagen, Mikhail Vanin, told the newspaper Jyllands-Posten that Danes should consider that such a move would prompt Russia to target Danish warships with nuclear missiles. In August 2014, after the Crimean invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin reminded an audience at a youth camp “that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers,” and “it’s best not to mess with us.”
Analyst Peter Doran of the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington said Russia’s foreign policy and war-fighting strategy are “evolving faster than our responses can keep up.” Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said NATO officials and other observers disagree on whether the rhetoric and surge in nuclear activity is a bluff to counter superior NATO forces, or part of a new Russian strategy that combines nuclear threats, conventional warfare and low-yield nuclear weapons in the battlefield against NATO forces that are more numerous and technologically advanced. “If you’re Vladimir Putin, you’re making an effort to portray Russia as a superpower,” Pifer said. “The only asset Russia has as a superpower is lots of nuclear weapons.” –USA Today