Striking a Strategic Balance – Putin’s Preventive Response

23 October 2018 — The Saker

Translated by Ollie Richardson and Angelina Siard

I think that Vladimir Putin at Valdai not at all incidentally started talking about the increased danger of nuclear war, repeated the axiom about the readiness of Russia to take away the whole world with itself, and discussed the existence of the right to make a preventive strike.

Concerning the latter issue experts immediately started a discussion about whether or not the president of Russia meant a nuclear preventive strike, and if yes, then how does it correlate with his statement about not being the first to strike a nuclear blow.

We will answer briefly.

Firstly, it does match, since a preventive strike is considered by international law as a response to aggression that became already inevitable. You, however, need to prove that the aggression was inevitable. But it is unlikely that someone will be interested in proof after nuclear war. The one who wins will be the one who survives, and not many will survive (if any survive at all). And it will be individuals and/or communities, and not states or international organisations. So if the Russian leadership receives information about the inevitability in the next few hours of a massive nuclear attack on Russia, it has the right (and is even obliged) to strike a preventive nuclear blow, and this doesn’t mean being the first to use a nuclear weapon.

Secondly, this isn’t important at all, since even if a preventive blow will be struck with conventional precision weapons, it will be aimed against regions of basing where the nuclear weapon carriers and anti-missile defense systems threatening Russia are deployed. From the point of view of the military doctrines of both the USSR and Russia, a massive attack of strategic nuclear objects by non-nuclear forces is equated to the beginning of nuclear war and grants the right for a nuclear response. The Americans approach this matter in exactly the same way.

So in principle it doesn’t make any sense to discuss whether or not Vladimir Putin meant a preventive or exclusively reciprocal nuclear or non-nuclear strike by Russia. He absolutely clearly highlighted the sharp increase in the level of danger of a nuclear confrontation. And this is the most important thing, because “who started it first” won’t be important, and nobody will learn or know about it.

So the question that interests us most sound as follows: “Why did the president of Russia start talking about the threat of a nuclear catastrophe right now, when we are passing through not the deepest aggravations of the Syrian and Ukrainian crises, and on the Korean peninsula Seoul and Pyongyang show an unprecedented level of friendliness, seriously discussing the denuclearisation of the peninsula within the framework of the development of inter-Korean dialogue and economic cooperation between the North and the South?”

I am sure that it was a preventive response to the decision of the US to withdraw from the INF Treaty that was announced one day later.

Why did this decision cause such a sharp reaction? After all, the INF Treaty signed in Washington by Gorbachev and Reagan on December 8th, 1987 came into force in June, 1988, and by June, 1991 it had already been implemented. I.e., all complexes falling under the ban were destroyed by both Russia and the US. Moreover, the development of military equipment over the last 30 years allows to assign tasks that were previously being solved by complexes that were destroyed under the Treaty to other systems that, without formally violating the Treaty, are even more effective.

The Treaty forbids the production and deployment of land-based rockets with a range of 500 to 5000 kilometers. But today Russia has in its arsenal the “Iskander” complexes (up to 500 km) and the air/sea-based “Kalibr” cruise missiles have been deployed (they don’t fall under the restrictions of the Treaty, which the Americans insisted on in the past). The declared range of these rockets can reach 1500 kilometers. At the same time certain sources speak about 2000-2500 kilometers. The range of the “Kinzhal” complex (including the range of the carrier) placed on a Tu-22М3 reaches 3000 kilometers. But this is if we bear in mind the combat radius of the aircraft at supersonic. In a mixed regime [using both subsonic and supersonic – ed] the combat radius of the aircraft increases from 1500 to 2500 kilometers, respectively, thus the range of the complex together with the rocket can reach 4000 kilometers.

I.e., without formally violating the Treaty, with the help of the latest developments Russia is capable of solving tasks that last century were completable only by average-range missiles. Moreover, the latest developments that must come to troops in the next 10-12 years in general possess an arbitrary range, i.e., in principle there are no inaccessible targets on planet Earth for them.

I will also remind that Russia in the past declared the possibility of it withdrawing from the INF Treaty should the Americans withdraw from the ABM Treaty. I think that a withdrawal indeed didn’t happen because it was more effective to develop and adopt new high-precision weapons that allowed to not violate the Treaty and at the same time to not be especially tied down from a strategic point of view.

In 30 years Russia simply turned the situation on its head. At the time that the INF Treaty was concluded, the US had an overwhelming advantage in non-nuclear precision weapons that still back then were capable of striking Soviet (and later Russian) strategic missiles within the first disarming massive non-nuclear strike. The USSR countered these classes of American missiles (including air/sea-based “Tomahawks”) with its own average-range missiles, in the production of which it had a technological advantage. The US withdrew sea/aviation-based cruise missiles from the Treaty (having promised that they would only be a part of the armaments of non-nuclear equipment), but at the same time they completely deprived the USSR/Russia of a whole class of strategic armaments in exchange for the elimination of their analogous intermediate-range nuclear forces, which weren’t important for them.

I.e., at that moment the US could resolve strategic issues without using average-range missiles, but Russia couldn’t, therefore it was favorable to Washington to destroy these missiles. Now, to the big chagrin of the Americans, it became clear that concerning high-precision weapons (including cruise and ballistic missiles) Russia seriously surpassed them and will increase this superiority in the near future. Moreover, Moscow can do it without formally violating the INF Treaty.

Thus, Washington needed the restoration of armaments in the class of average-range missiles only so that its technological lag behind Moscow didn’t turn into a factor of its strategic helplessness. After all, you and I understand that the T-90 tank can destroy the T-34 tank, even without coming within range of its aimed turret fire (not to mention effective blows). And this applies to missiles too. It’s not just the missile that is important, its tactical-technical data is also important.

But just like how an outdated tank can destroy its super modern counterpart if it appears to be in rather close proximity for an effective strike, the shortcomings of the missile weapon can be compensated for by the proximity of its placement.

And it is indeed here that the danger lies. If the US hasn’t yet lost the production technology of those average-range missiles that served in their arsenal during the 1980’s, then they can rather quickly mass-produce hundreds of this same “Pershing II”. The next question: where will they be deployed? They won’t reach the territory of Russia from the territory of the US. There are three options: Europe, Japan, and South Korea. It’s not a fact that Seoul will agree to participate in a new round of the arms race, taking into account its honeymoon with Pyongyang and the frank fears of being thrown by the US into the line of fire of North Korean or Chinese retaliatory missile strikes. And from the Korean peninsula and Japanese islands it is only possible to shoot at the Far East, where targets for these missiles are, frankly speaking, few and far between but very well covered.

Last time, the main regions of basing of average-range missiles were deployed by the US in Western Europe (Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and Denmark). Back then the flight time of “Pershing” to Smolensk was 6 minutes, and to Moscow — up to 10 minutes. This sharply reduced the time for decision-making in a crisis situation and increased the probability of a conflict incidentally appearing. It is precisely for this reason that back then the Soviet leadership, like today’s Russian one, warned that the US had started a dangerous game fraught with slipping into an uncontrollable conflict that can instantly develop into a full-scale nuclear war.

Now it’s far from being a fact that the Americans will succeed to base missiles in the same countries that they were based in during the last century. So far it is only Great Britain that has unambiguously supported the US, having stated that it doesn’t consider itself as being tied down by the INF Treaty any more. Germany and Italy won’t be thrilled if they will receive such a proposal. Besides this, Trump started an economic war against the EU, the spearhead of which is aimed precisely at Old Europe.

But there is a New Europe. Who can guarantee that Poland, the Baltics, and the Ukraine that joined them will longly deliberate after receiving from the US the proposal to base “Pershing” (or something similar) on their territory? But after all, then the flight time of missiles to Moscow will total no more than 3-4 minutes, and even less to St. Petersburg – 1.5 minutes.

It is indeed a situation where any fortuity can provoke a preventive strike. Moreover, in a situation when a strike is applied to the launching sites of American nuclear missiles, it is possible without philosophising to immediately launch intercontinental missiles at Washington too. Anyway, the sliding of the conflict into a full-scale nuclear exchange will be a matter of a few minutes, or in the best-case scenario – several hours.

And it is this that Putin spoke about at Valdai, when he promised aggressors that we will enter paradise, and they will simply die.

The system of international treaties designed to ensure nuclear stability relied on the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, SALT I and SALT II, START I, START II, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, START III, and the INF Treaty.

The Missile Technology Control Regime and the Non-Proliferation Treaty practically turned into meaningless pieces of paper. Having spat on them, India and Pakistan obtained nuclear weapons. Israel, the possibilities of which are estimated at 100-200 tactical nuclear warheads, informally is also a nuclear power, but the “civilised world” pretends that it isn’t aware that permanently warring country is violating this Treaty. Well, and after the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was not only able to realise its nuclear program, but also with the help of the technologies that it received from Ukraine it was able to create all classes of missiles, including intercontinental ones, it’s senseless to speak about the efficiency of the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Everyone whose international weight is somewhat larger than Swaziland’s or Lesotho’s will be able to do what Kim Jong-un managed to do. As is known, the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

SALT I limited strategic arsenals at the levels reached by the end of 1972 (and this is tens of thousands of carriers). SALT II didn’t come into force, because the US Senate blocked its ratification in connection with the entrance of Soviet troops in Afghanistan. START I and the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty aren’t actual, because they were replaced by START III, which slightly reduced the total number of deployed carriers in comparison with the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty. START II (which forbade the equipping of missiles with separable individually guided warheads) was signed in 1993, ratified by the State Duma in 2000, and in 2002 Russia withdrew from it in connection with the US’ withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Thus, today after the US declared its withdrawal from INF Treaty, from the entire system of international treaties that regulate the system of strategic potentials, only START III actually works, but it means little in the context of the developing arms race.

Perhaps the US wants to repeat its successful blackmail attempt that took place in the 1980’s, which forced the USSR to make concessions and finally assisted in its final collapse. But the situation now differs radically. Firstly, Russia has the corresponding experience and knows that it must take a gentlemen’s word and the contracts that they sign at face value. Secondly, if Russia so far has moved along the line of ascent both in politics and in the economy, then concerning the US it is possible at best to speak about stagnation. However, Trump prefers to speak about a crisis that he wants to overcome and to “make America great again”. Thirdly, in respect of military technologies, during the last century the USSR was catching up with the US, but now it is the US that plays catch up. Fourthly, stories about 5th generation fighter jets, as well as the latest destroyers and littoral ships, demonstrate the blatant inefficiency of the US’ military-industrial complex, when huge money is being spent but results are absent. Fifthly, over the past century all the world’s centers of force (the US, the EU, China, and Japan) were against the USSR, which was forced to stretch its meagre military, political, financial, economic, and diplomatic resources to cover its standoff with all. Now even Japan doesn’t absolutely unconditionally support the US. In Europe the US only has Great Britain – which is torn apart by internal contradictions – and some of the destitute limitrophes. The US’ confrontation with China is tougher than the one it has with Russia, and now America starts to also speak about imposing sanctions on India.

In general, if to proceed from the US’ actions being a blackmail attempt, then this attempt is doomed to fail. But this doesn’t cancel the military danger of such games. If to fry shish kebabs on a barrel of gunpowder, it will sooner or later explode. So there will be an obligation to develop a new system of international treaties for the purpose of restricting, reducing, and, ideally, disposing of nuclear arsenals. But to start with the US needs to realise its place in the new world and to accept it.Cross posted with

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