Russia's Vladimir Putin brandishes the nuclear option

While the West fixates on the nuclear negotiations with Iran, Russia's Vladimir Putin has been openly talking about putting his nuclear arsenal on alert. Must we go back to living with the bomb?

Fresh from low-grade rebel war in Ukraine, Putin bolstering his nuclear arsenal

A woman pushes a bicycle past a destroyed house in the town of Debaltseve, northeast of Donetsk last week. Residents are hoping UN rations will keep them until gardens are ready. (Reuters)

To visit Nikishino is to see the effects of almost total war. This could be the road to Berlin in 1945. It is, in fact, the road to Debaltseve, in eastern Ukraine, in 2015.

Debaltseve is a small city and a railway hub, and was the prize in bitter fighting, which ended with Russian-backed separatists seizing it from Ukrainian forces five days after a general ceasefire was supposed to come into effect last month.

Not a house, not a building in Nikishino, a small town of 900, is undamaged. Ninety percent are all but completely destroyed.

To the outsider they look uninhabitable. Yet just days after the February ceasefire, negotiated in Minsk, residents were coming back to camp in the ruins.

When we arrived with a UN aid convoy, there were almost 200 residents waiting. The food, along with the hygiene and shelter kits, would help them make it to spring and warm weather.

Then, several said, as if reading lines from the same script, they would plant their vegetable gardens and, with a little help and good weather, they would have enough to eat in the summer and to pickle for the winter.

This was their home, and their parents' and grandparents' home. They had nowhere else to live.

Military spending on the rise

There is a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, but shells keep falling — we heard them in Donetsk near the airport, and along the battle line and right down to the villages near the sea of Azov and the port city of Mariupol, a prize in the hands of the Ukrainian government and coveted by the Kremlin-backed separatists.

"We never thought we would see fighting again in Europe, right where we live, in our lifetime," said Elena, one of the refugees we came across here. She and her mother had to flee her village in the south, which is still being shelled by the separatist forces and the Ukrainian army.

These people are victims, but most we met saw themselves as victims of the Ukrainian government and its forces, not of the separatists and its Kremlin backers.

Russian President Vladimir Putin resurfaced Monday, after a 10-day absence. In a documentary that aired the previous night he said Russia was ready to put its nuclear arsenal on alert over Crimea last year. (REUTERS)

Yet it is Vladimir Putin's Kremlin — first in Crimea (which the Russian leader now openly acknowledges going after), and now in eastern Ukraine (which he so far refuses to acknowledge) — that has been supporting, indeed has largely directed, the offensives, according to NATO.

The Kremlin has hardly been secretive about its overall strategy. Two years ago it unveiled a new military doctrine of what it called asymmetrical warfare, in effect high-tech guerrilla fighting alongside unrelenting technological and propaganda offensives against smaller, less militarily able neighbours.

That so many in eastern Ukraine see themselves as victims of Kyiv and not of Moscow is testimony to the success of the propaganda offensive.

Along with the doctrine came a vast increase in Russia's military budget.

According to the World Bank, it stood at over four per cent of Russia's gross domestic product in 2014 and was due to climb by almost 25 per cent in 2015.

When it comes to its military, Russia far outspends its European neighbours and now even spends more than the U.S., at least when measured as a percentage of its GDP.

'No more illusions'

Putin has been equally open about his regime's goals.

After annexing Crimea in 2014, he delivered a triumphant speech saying the Kremlin reserved the right to intervene to protect and defend Russians wherever they lived.

Within weeks Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine had begun a military offensive, setting up Soviet-style local regimes with Soviet names — the Donetsk People's Republic and the Lugansk People's Republic.

In the following months, according to Western intelligence, these rebels were heavily armed by Russia, which has also provided hundreds, if not thousands of troops.

The Putin doctrine simply thumbed its nose at two international agreements, the Helsinki accords of 1974 signed by Russia's predecessor state, the USSR, and the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, signed by Russia.

The first guaranteed the inviolability of all borders in Europe and the second specifically guaranteed Ukraine's borders and independence in return for handing over to Russia 1,900 Soviet-era nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil.

Thanks in part to these Ukrainian weapons, Russia now has the largest nuclear stockpile in the world, 8,400 warheads to the 7,500 controlled by the U.S.

Crimea's pro-Russian leadership flank youth performers celebrating the first anniversary Monday of Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula. At least locally Russia is winning the propaganda war. (Reuters)

And the Kremlin has committed a third of its rapidly-increasing military budget to modernizing that arsenal.

More disturbingly, Putin and others in and near the Kremlin, regularly brandish the nuclear threat.

The most recent example involved Putin himself in a Russian documentary broadcast on state television on Sunday about the annexation of Crimea. He said Russia was ready to put its nuclear forces on alert last year to ensure the Crimea takeover.

"We were ready to do this ... [Crimea] is our historical territory. Russian people live there. They were in danger. We cannot abandon them."

Russian military exercises now regularly include simulated limited nuclear strikes.

And while the official Russian military doctrine published late in 2014 hews to the line that Russia would not use nuclear weapons in a first strike, the unofficial bluster from a Kremlin favourite, Dmitry Kiselyov, appointed by Putin as the head of the government news agency, sounds dangerously different.

''During the era of political romanticism, the Soviet Union pledged never to use nuclear weapons first," Kiselyov said on state television. "But Russia's current military doctrine does not. No more illusions."

'Madman' gamesmanship

Forty-five years ago, then U.S. president Richard Nixon developed what he called the "madman" approach to international diplomacy.  

The U.S. was stuck in a losing war in Vietnam and he wanted the Vietnamese to be so unsettled by his rhetoric and behaviour that they would come to believe he might use nuclear weapons to escape defeat.

Putin and his henchmen appear to have revived this approach and are using it with enthusiasm.

What is surprising is how little is said publicly in the West about this tactic.

Compare the relative silence to the table-thumping over Iran's apparent desire for the bomb. And Iran doesn't yet have a nuclear capability, let alone more than 8,000 nuclear weapons.

Is it because of a fear that the Russian bear has become rabid? Or the resigned realization that little can be done about Putin's gamesmanship?

Meanwhile, back in Ukraine, the ride in and out of the separatist enclave takes you past six checkpoints, three on the Ukrainian side of the ceasefire line and three on the separatist side.

And on the line itself — two customs posts, one Ukrainian, one separatist. The Ukrainian government appears to have bowed to the facts on the ground and is already treating the people's republics on the other side as separate territory.

The 'madman' in the Kremlin appears to have taken another trick.

About the Author

Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.


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