Putin’s Nuclear Blackmail of the U.S.: Who is the Intended Target?

by Kseniya Kirillova

  • Just recently, the Russian state channel Russia-1 listed US military facilities that would become Kremlin’s possible targets in the event of a nuclear strike. In particular, the TV host Dmitry Kiselev (pictured above) threatened to aim the Zircon hypersonic missiles at the Pentagon and several command posts, including the control centre for nuclear forces, writes Kseniya Kirillova.

As horrifying as they may be, there is nothing new in the latest case of Russian “nuclear swagger” demonstrated in President Vladimir Putin‘s comments made in February that his country’s military is ready for a “Cuban missile-style” type conflict if the United States wanted one. Such rhetoric has been voiced by the Kremlin several times over the past several years, often in response to some perceived vulnerability of theirs, as was this most recent example. Mr. Putin’s comments followed U.S. President Donald Trump‘s decision to abandon the decades-old Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty that had banned ground-based medium- and short-range weapons from the two countries arsenals.

One of the most famous examples was made in March 2014 by Dmitry Kiselev, now head of Russia’s state-run news agency, Rossiya Segodnya, in a televised statement that “Russia is capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash.”  Mr. Kiselev’s remarks followed White House threats of sanctions against Moscow over plans to hold a referendum in Crimea endorsing unification with Russia.

Another case of attempted nuclear intimidation was made before the U.S. 2016 presidential elections by the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a fascist and close ally of Mr. Putin’s, who like to compare himself to the American president, Mr. Trump, and once asked for a DNA test to determine if he and the real estate mogul are related. Speaking to Russian media, Mr. Zhirinovsky said the election of Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton would make nuclear war with the United States virtually inevitable.

Americans voting for a president on Nov. 8 must realize that they are voting for peace on Planet Earth if they vote for Trump. But if they vote for Hillary it’s war. It will be a short movie. There will be Hiroshimas and Nagasakis everywhere.

The Russian media as a whole also contributes to the Kremlin’s campaign to use the threat of nuclear war as a political tool against the United States.  For example, in October 2016, Russian programs, one after another, showed TV specials devoted not only to the quality of bomb shelters, but also to the technology of anti-missile defense. On the official channel of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, a twenty-minute story was released under the inflammatory title “Obama threatens Russia!”, in which it was directly stated that the U.S. is “the enemy of humanity.” At the same time, the famous Russian journalist Alexander Sotnik published on his page in social networks a post from a woman claiming that children in a Moscow school were being scared with the prospect of death in a nuclear war with the U.S. should Hillary Clinton win the 2016 election.

Perhaps the most stark example of Russian attempts at nuclear intimidation was the threat voiced personally by Vladimir Putin in the film,  World Order-2018, devoted to him. In response to the question posed by an interviewer about the possibility of using nuclear weapons, Putin replied that he was ready to deliver only a “retaliatory strike,” but, he acknowledged, full nuclear conflict was not out of the question.

Yes, it will be a global catastrophe for the world, but why do we need such a world if Russia is not there?

In effect, the Russian leader was openly stating that he is ready to destroy the planet in a nuclear war if he believed an existential threat from the United States to his country existed. It is significant that the film included, as an afterword, the notorious excerpt from his annual state of the nation address to the Federal Assembly, in which Putin showcased new types of weapons as a “response to the United States on their withdrawal from the ABM Treaty,” weapons that he described as “invincible.”

The threat of nuclear conflict with the United States was a central topic in his address to the national assembly. In particular, he called the deployment of US missiles in Europe a threat to world security and promised to respond with “mirror and asymmetric actions,” punctuating his remarks with video depictions of launches of the new Sarmat strategic missile and a nuclear-powered cruise missile designed to counter American weapons systems.

Withdrawal from the INF Treaty

While Mr. Putin’s threats during his address were nothing new, echoes of past bellicosity from Russian leaders, his remarks did shed light on what motivated them: the US withdrawal from the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Short-Range Missiles (INF). However, everything is not so simple.

Back in October, the well-known Russian political scientist and publicist Andrei Piontkovsky noted that the desire of the US President Donald Trump and his adviser John Bolton to withdraw the United States from the INF Treaty was a test step in the direction of a “grand bargain” between Moscow and Washington on nuclear disarmament, and any outcome of this initiative would be beneficial for Russia. In particular, Piontkovsky predicted that in the event of the Americans withdrawing from the treaty, “Putin will now be able to openly deploy ground cruise missiles, banned by the United Republican Maritime Peace Treaty, in Kaliningrad and Belarus, and at the same time talk about the new arms race imposed by the hated “pindoses”.  (“Pindoses” is an ethnic slur directed at Americans, derived from the image of American troops carrying heavy packs and wearing bulletproof vests, making them look like penguins. The word “penguin” in Serbian is “pindo.”  Russians now commonly refer to the U.S. as “Pindostan.”)

In December, the same thoughts were voiced by Democrats in the Senate appealing to President Trump to take into account the negative consequences of the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty. In particular, they called the US withdrawal from the agreement a “political and geo-strategic gift to Russia,” noting that it would allow Russia to expand the production and deployment of its missile systems that threaten Europe.

Note that this is not the first time that Mr. Trump’s actions fully coincide with Moscow’s wishes. Russian analysts themselves have repeatedly pointed out that the attacks of the US president on the American intelligence community, his negative attitude towards NATO allies and the EU, as well as his penchant for creating chaos and confrontation within the United States, clearly play into the hands of the Kremlin. Moreover, all these actions were carried out by Mr. Trump on his own initiative, rather than in response to provocation or nuclear blackmail from Moscow. Understandably, the official Russian media continue to support Trump in his fight against his political and legal opponents, citing him as corrosive to the U.S. system of government and destructive to American unity. Mr. Putin himself occasionally repeats the same thesis.

Who are the Targets?

In short, against this backdrop, it’s very difficult to assume that Russia currently sees in the Trump administration a real threat to itself, and even more so a serious opponent in the new arms race. The question that comes up is this: who is the target audience for the new round of the demonstration of Russian military power? Clearly, there are three:

First, of course, is the internal Russian audience. Mr. Putin’s last message to the Federal Assembly was devoted to social policy. It was important for Vladimir Putin to emphasize his image as the “father of the nation”, capable of caring for the poor and disadvantaged, for children and old people, paying attention to the “working people”, ready to stand up for oppressed entrepreneurs and, of course, to protect his “loyal subjects” from external threats. “Protector and savior” is the main image cultivated by Putin in the eyes of the Russian people. And it is because his followers truly believe that is what he is that they are ready to forgive him for all the other shortcomings.

Secondly, the illusion of confrontation between Russia and the United States is equally beneficial for both Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump. For Mr. Putin, as already mentioned, confrontation with the U.S. becomes an ideal excuse for starting a new arms race and deploying his missiles with an eye to Europe. Trump has the advantage of positioning himself inside the United States as a tough opponent of Moscow, especially against the background of the continuing investigation of Russian interference in the American elections and the alleged collusion with Russian intelligence agents currently under investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

The third target is the political opponents of President Trump.  Indeed, very few people in the American political establishment and even the president’s inner circle supported the U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty. Not only Democrats, but many Republicans also understand that the Kremlin’s militaristic ambitions must be contained, and these people, unlike Mr. Trump, do not intend to “play giveaway” with the Russian leader. It is also possible that, in the light of the impending completion of the investigation by Mr. Mueller, the Kremlin is afraid of the possible impeachment of Mr. Trump or, at least, of a substantial limitation of his powers. Therefore, it is highly likely that the targets of Russia’s aggressive posturing are not the current White House administration, but those who, according to the Kremlin, may come to replace it or, at least, have significant influence on the U.S. foreign policy in the near future.

A couple of years ago, Russian opposition politician Vladimir Milov noted that the issue of cooperation with Russia on nuclear nonproliferation holds a special place in national security policymaking, and that large stratum within the American establishment are willing to forgive any of Moscow’s excesses so long as there is continuing cooperation in the nuclear arena. It has been Mr. Putin’s goal to drive these American policymakers into a trap created by nuclear blackmail and intimidation to get concessions from the American government.  This plan, in the works for years, has seen unparalleled progress since the election of Donald Trump.

Peace-seeking Democrats are unlikely to embark on a new arms race; moreover, such a race would indeed become a threat to the security of the whole world. Therefore, Mr. Trump’s opponents would rather try to curb Moscow’s aggressive behavior by making a new treaty, and thus would look like “peacemakers” who “have restrained Russia” and “prevented a new world war provoked by Trump”. However, since the initiative to make such an agreement in this case will come from Washington, the negotiations will obviously be carried out on the terms of the Russian side, and the new treaty will benefit Moscow much more than the previous one. It is also possible that the Kremlin will allow Mr. Trump to come up with an initiative for a new treaty – of course, on Moscow’s own terms. In any case, the current situation, of course, is beneficial to Mr.Putin and his objectives.

Kseniya Kirillova is a Russian journalist focusing on analysing Russian society, political processes in modern Russia, and the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict. She writes for Radio Liberty and other outlets and is an expert of the Ukrainian Centre for Army, Сonversion, and Disarmament studies. She also has written for the Integrity Initiative, which was attacked by Russian hackers associated with the Kremlin, and which is a part of the Institute for Statecraft, an organization based in Scotland dedicated to defending democracy from disinformation campaigns coming from Russia.

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2 thoughts on “Putin’s Nuclear Blackmail of the U.S.: Who is the Intended Target?

  1. Do we have a leader stroong enough to stand up to Putin? Can anyone mix the mess Trump has made if our foreign policy?

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