In the past few years, Russia’s nuclear posture has become extremely aggressive. Recently, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called Moscow’s nuclear saber rattling “destabilizing and dangerous.” In March this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed that the country was fully prepared to drop nukes on any country that interfered in the annexation of Crimea.
Russia has failed to address some key problems
This March, the Kremlin warned Denmark that it would become a target of Russian nukes if it joined the U.S.-led missile defense system. A month later, Russia threatened to go nuclear if NATO moved more troops to the Baltic states. What’s more, a senior Russian military strategist suggested in April that Moscow should detonate nuclear weapons on the Yellowstone National Park and the San Andreas line in the event of war to “ensure complete destruction” of the United States.
Why is Russia under Vladimir Putin issuing nuclear threats every now and then? The country is spending 4.5% of its GDP on defense, and its military is undergoing a massive, 10-year long modernization program. More than half a dozen military experts told Politico that Russia is trying to hide the weakness of its conventional forces. The size and quality of the country’s conventional forces are far inferior to those of NATO.
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Pavel Baev of Peace Research Institute told Politico that the Soviet Union had more than 500,000 troops in East Germany in the mid-1980s. Today, Russia has only about 50,000 troops near the Ukrainian border. Of course, Russia’s military modernization program has led to the development of some advanced weapons. But the country has failed to address some crucial problems like its conscription system and technological inferiority.
There isn’t much Russia can use as a threat
Russian Navy currently has only one aircraft carrier, compared to more than 20 of the United States. And Moscow doesn’t expect its next-gen aircraft carrier to enter service before 2030. Russia’s air force fleet is easily dwarfed by that of the U.S. So, Putin has resorted to the nuclear card to send a signal that Russia is still a dominant power in the region. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Moscow still has about 7,500 nuclear warheads.
Pavel Podvig, a Geneva-based Russian nuclear expert, said there wasn’t much Putin could use as a threat. Given the inferiority of Russia’s conventional forces, nuclear rhetoric is the last resort.