Last week, the annual gathering of the Valdai International Discussion Club was held in Sochi, Russia. Today, this conference does not deserve the attention such events used to have a decade ago, when many Western experts saw it as a unique opportunity to gain access to Russian policy-makers, particularly President Vladimir Putin.
The only topic touched upon during the conference that stood out from the wishful thinking about the resilience of the Russian economy and the platitudes on the shifts in world order was the pronounced emphasis on the nuclear theme.
Nuclear reassurances and capabilities
A special session was dedicated to the role of nuclear weapons, and Putin opted to take a question on possible changes in the Russian nuclear doctrine during his lengthy presentation. He sought to combine sober reassurances with the promotion of Russian capabilities, generally leaning toward nuclear bluff rather than blackmail (Kommersant, October 5; Izvestiya, October 5).
The privilege of leading the nuclear debates was claimed by Sergei Karaganov, a veteran of Moscow’s foreign policy discourse-making, who, back in June, published an article arguing for the usefulness of nuclear escalation in the Ukraine war (Globalaffairs.ru, June 13). Several mainstream Russian pundits found it necessary to express reservations against such a proposition (Russiancouncil.ru, June 21; Kommersant, June 21). Karaganov elaborated on his argument at the Valdai session, and challenged Putin with a question on the apparent need to lower the threshold of limitations for using nuclear weapons to scare Western adversaries, who, allegedly, tend to discount Russian nuclear might (Republic.ru, October 6).
An outdated doctrine?
Putin disagreed with the point that Russian nuclear doctrine had become outdated and disapproved of Karaganov’s “joyful” tone, but confirmed that he had read some of his memos (Kremlin.ru, October 5). Refraining from any nuclear threats, Putin used the situation to make two attention-catching points: on a possible withdrawal of Russia’s ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and on the ongoing modernization of the Russian nuclear arsenal.
Regarding the former, he noted that the CTBT had not gone into effect because the United States had not ratified it (omitting the fact that China has not yet ratified it either). The Russian State Duma is ready to move quickly on Putin’s “theoretical” (in his words) proposition and cancel the ratification formalized in June 2000 (Meduza.io, October 7).
This does not necessarily mean that Russia will prepare a nuclear test, even if Mikhail Kovalchuk, the director of the Kurchatov Institute and Putin’s loyal sycophant, has alluded to its usefulness (Istories.media, September 28).
What is established is the fact that preparations are underway on the Novaya Zemlya test site for launching the prototype nuclear-propelled Burevestnik (SSC-X-P Skyfall) cruise missile (The Bell, August 19). Putin advertised this “wonder-weapon” in his address to the Federal Assembly in May 2018, but the test in August 2019 failed, reportedly resulting in more than five casualties (Novayagazeta.eu, October 6). At the Valdai session, Putin announced that the “final” test of Burevestnik had been successful, much to the excitement of “patriotic” experts (Izvestiya, October 6).
What casts doubt on this declaration is that no open-source data on this test has emerged. At the same time, Burevestnik (aptly dubbed the “flying Chernobyl”) leaves a trace of radioactive particles in its wake, meaning that a launch would have been easily detected (Moscow times, October 2). The Kremlin has refused to confirm the date of the supposed test (RIA-Novosti, October 6). It might appear inconceivable that Putin would announce a test that has not yet happened, but such misinformation fits Putin’s pattern of misleading statements. In his graphics-illuminated address in May 2018, Putin proclaimed that Burevestnik was ready for deployment, while it clearly was not. After the tragic accident in August 2019, he assured that the tests would continue “no matter what,” but no such test has been detected.
Another weapon system that was presented in the May 2018 address as “fully developed” was the heavy intercontinental ballistic missile RS-28 Sarmat. Putin assured the audience at Valdai that it would soon be deployed for combat duty (Rossiiskaya gazeta, October 6). This promise contradicted official statements made earlier that Sarmat was already introduced and performing its full range of tasks (Moscow times, October 6). Unlike Burevestnik, this missile is a conventional weapon system; it is part of a family of missiles that date back to Soviet times, and the technical problems it faces are caused partly by the relocation of production from the traditional plant in Dnipro, Ukraine, to Krasnoyarsk, Russia. Nevertheless, even the curtailed series of tests revealed malfunctions, which Putin chose not to mention (TopWar.ru, September 14).
Deployment in Belarus
These inconsistencies reinforce doubts about the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear warheads in Belarus, which was announced in mid-June (Currenttime.tv, June 16). Secrecy is essential for nuclear matters, but President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s bragging cannot be accepted as proof positive of any real transfer of nuclear weapons. The weapons would be transferred from centralized storage in Russia to the Osipovichi military base, where a brigade of Iskander tactical missiles is located (Interfax, August 1). The only verifiable data regarding activities in the area is on the dismantlement of the Wagner Group’s camp constructed some ten miles from the base in late June (Svoboda.org, August 24).
Putin would probably prefer a more aggressive nuclear discourse, but he cannot ignore repeated warnings from China (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 20). The point on the unacceptability of threats to use nuclear weapons was reiterated in the joint declaration of the recent G20 summit in New Delhi, which Putin opted not to attend (RBC.ru, September 9). He is committed to participate in the Belt and Road conference in Beijing in late October, and he cannot afford to irk President Xi Jinping with an exercise in nuclear brinksmanship (RussianCouncil.ru, October 3).
Confidence in Ukrainian failure
What makes it possible for Putin to demonstrate restraint in instrumentalizing nuclear weapons for political purposes is his apparent confidence in the failure of the Ukrainian offensive and the erosion of Western support for Ukraine.
He may, however, be as misinformed about the strength of Russian defensive positions as he is about the progress in the modernization of the nuclear arsenal. The combination of long-distance strikes on logistic hubs and command centers and relentless infantry attacks on artillery-softened strongholds could produce a sudden Ukrainian breakthrough, which would turn the course of the war.
The shadow of looming defeat prompts some experts in Moscow to contemplate a climb on the ladder of nuclear escalation. Their recommendations are beyond irresponsible and essentially self-destructive, but they betray the inability to internalize the prospect of a humbled and de-Putinized Russia.