Strategic Procrastination: What’s Russia’s Game With Nuclear Signaling?


Putin has made it clear that the Kremlin hopes to end the “special military operation” as soon as possible. If Zelensky is unwilling to halt his counteroffensive and resume talks, then the Kremlin thinks it must convince its Western partners to force him.

Moscow desperately needs to stop Ukraine’s counter-offensive. Russian troops lose their combat effectiveness, barely cling to the territory they control, and are increasingly forced to “retreat to more advantageous positions”. It is essential for the Kremlin to avoid obvious military losses: another resounding failure could lead to large-scale destabilization.

The only solution is to stop or suspend hostilities on all fronts. Russia has neither the reserves nor the resources to change the situation on the battlefield: partial mobilization is not enough to resist the Ukrainian counter-offensive, and heavy losses could tear apart the Russian armed forces.

The key point of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s September 30 speech was therefore his call for Kyiv to immediately cease all hostilities and return to the negotiating table, but taking into account “new territorial realities”.

The warning that Moscow is ready “to defend Russian land by any means available”, the massive bombardment of Ukrainian cities and the hint of the use of nuclear weapons are meant to motivate Kyiv and, in Putin’s words , his “true masters in the West”. ” to cease fire and resume negotiations on Russian terms.

Moscow wants to return to negotiations as they were before they collapsed in mid-April. On March 29 in Istanbul, Russia and Ukraine coordinated the key parameters of a peace agreement. These included a neutral, non-nuclear status for Ukraine (it has technically been since 1994) in exchange for certain security guarantees from a “group of ruling powers”, including Russia – and potentially even Belarus. . The security guarantees did not extend to Crimea or the self-proclaimed Donbass republics, whose ultimate status was to be decided later. In other words, Kyiv was de facto accepting new borders for Ukraine.

The parameters also included military elements: a ban on foreign military bases in Ukraine, Russia’s right to veto military exercises with third countries on Ukrainian territory, and restrictions on the size of Ukrainian armed forces and types of weapons. weapons used (including banning ballistic and long-range cruise missiles).

As advantageous as the Istanbul formula was for Russia, it would have forced Russian troops to fall back to the positions they occupied on February 23. This was not acceptable to Putin, whose goals were more ambitious than simply preventing Ukraine from joining NATO. Moscow therefore called on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to accept the new “territorial realities” and rejected demands that Russia withdraw its troops. The “new realities” were apparently contained in the Russian draft settlement submitted to Kyiv in mid-April.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has also hardened its position, probably following consultations with its Western partners, which may have made Zelensky realize that Russia’s role as one of the guarantors of security offered Moscow new opportunities to restrict Ukraine’s sovereignty, turning it into a “mandated territory”. guarantor states. Kyiv rejected Russia and Belarus as guarantors of Ukrainian security and opposed Moscow’s right to veto military exercises involving third parties in Ukraine.

The package of recommendations on security guarantees for Ukraine published by the task force led by Andriy Yermak and Anders Fogh Rasmussen in September no longer included such excesses. Russia was not among the guarantor states, and the section on limiting Ukraine’s military potential was replaced with a full-scale expansion plan.

The biggest challenge to the resumption of negotiations today is the territorial issue, which could take decades to resolve. Keeping the newly annexed territories within Russia is now almost the only way to prove that “all the objectives of the special military operation have been achieved”, which makes negotiations impractical for Russia. But pursuing military action that could result in the loss of acquired territory is also impractical.

If Zelensky is unwilling to halt his counteroffensive and resume talks, then the Kremlin thinks it must convince its Western partners to force him. The Kremlin must persuade US President Joe Biden’s administration of the threat of a nuclear conflict between Russia and the United States that will affect the continental United States, not just Europe or Ukraine.

The Kremlin hopes the nuclear threat will force Washington to step in and “freeze” the conflict with Russia’s current territorial gains, although there does not appear to be unanimity among Russian leaders on whether the conflict must be temporarily frozen, until Russia can regain its strength, or forever.

Moscow has also changed its rhetoric on US military assistance to Ukraine. It is now being called “direct participation in hostilities” and the Kremlin is warning that this could lead to an inevitable military conflict between the United States and Russia – although all the actions of the Biden administration have been aimed at avoiding a such conflict. conflict, and the provision of arms and intelligence was common practice even during the Cold War.

The Kremlin is also sending Washington other signals that it is serious. In particular, the Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy organized a conference to mark the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, emphasizing lessons learned from the crisis, such as “respecting the red lines of others country” and resolve conflicts through covert channels.

Simultaneously, Moscow is taking steps that can be interpreted by the United States as increasing the state of readiness of its nuclear forces: broadcasting images of a train transporting the equipment of a directorate of the Ministry of Defense responsible for the Russian nuclear arsenal; announcing military exercises using Iskander missile systems in Kaliningrad; preparing to test a Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile in Novaya Zemlya; closure of airspace to test the launch of a Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile from Plesetsk to Kamchatka; and surface the nuclear submarine Belgorod, carrying Poseidon nuclear torpedoes, in neutral waters, where it is safe to be seen.

All of the above are routine exercises, although grouped more closely. Even if the Ministry of Defense starts to shuttle between trains equipped with nuclear warheads, it is a common practice for Russia and the United States, and it could increase the level of nuclear threat, but will not disconcert Biden. Moscow could take a page from the Cuban Missile Crisis playbook and continue to maximize the combat readiness of strategic nuclear forces, with bombers armed with nuclear cruise missiles on full alert or even in the air, and sub -sailors deployed to patrol areas. However, it would be easy to get carried away and make a fatal mistake.

For the moment, Moscow is not taking extraordinary steps, and the Pentagon is not taking the bait. This means that Washington is not motivated to rush in and stop Kyiv on the battlefield.

Despite the frenzied television coverage, Moscow is unlikely to seriously consider using nuclear weapons. The detonation of a nuclear warhead over Novaya Zemlya, the Black Sea or the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone will not scare Kyiv. What he will do is destroy any vestige of Russia’s reputation as a signatory to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and deprive Moscow of the amicable neutrality of Turkey, India and from China.

Unlike the Cuban Missile Crisis, Moscow and Washington are not currently in a direct nuclear stalemate. To artificially create this stalemate would be a difficult and dubious undertaking, because for the moment the United States is quite capable of ignoring the signals from Russia and avoiding a nuclear conflict. Ukraine is not Cuba.

Russia must act, however, because strategic procrastination is becoming more and more costly. Among the lessons learned from the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most obvious is the need to create and maintain channels of dialogue.

Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, recently said the US administration had communicated its concerns and warnings about any use of nuclear weapons to the Kremlin “directly, privately and at very high levels.” He may have been referring to his phone calls with Putin’s foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov. Yet even this type of communication is not enough. Moscow and Washington need a permanent channel of secret diplomacy to discuss the indisputable.

In May 2022, the Biden administration notified the Kremlin through an intermediary that it was ready to create such a feedback channel. CIA Director William Burns was to oversee these communications from the American side. At the time, however, Moscow was not interested.

A key aspect of the Cuban Missile Crisis was that Moscow and Washington initially created a secondary channel along intelligence lines. Robert Kennedy (then Attorney General and younger brother of President John F. Kennedy) first communicated with Alexander Feklisov, the KGB station chief in Washington. Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin joined the dialogue only after the KGB confirmed that Robert Kennedy’s information was accurate and that he was speaking on behalf of the US President. Repeating this feat of behind-the-scenes diplomacy would be constructive, but after all the diplomatic ousting, there are no good candidates left in Moscow and Washington.



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