As Tensions With West Rise, Russia Increasingly Rattles Nuclear Saber

April 6, 2015

Wall Street Journal:

MOSCOW—It wasn’t an ordinary Valentine’s Day for the students from across Russia arriving at a military institute outside Moscow. Their date was with a Topol, the intercontinental ballistic missile at the heart of the country’s nuclear arsenal.

The new event was part of an initiative to promote careers in Russia’s missile forces, and it also reflected another phenomenon: the rising boastfulness about nuclear weaponry in public life here.

Amid the wave of bellicose rhetoric that has swelled in Moscow since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, officials as high up as PresidentVladimir Putin have been making open nuclear threats, a public saber-rattling with weapons of mass destruction largely unseen even in the days of the Cold War.

Remarks about Russia’s nuclear strength play well to Mr. Putin’s domestic constituency, hungry for a restoration of lost military might.

They also come at a time when Russia has grown more reliant on nuclear weapons, as the imbalance with Western conventional forces has widened. During the Cold War, Warsaw Pact conventional forces outnumbered NATO’s in Europe, leading the West to depend heavily on its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent.

These days, Russia has fewer soldiers, poorer weaponry and scarcer allies. The inferiority and isolation have changed its defense strategy.

“It’s not just a difference in rhetoric,” said Bruce G. Blair, a research scholar at Princeton University and nuclear weapons expert. “It’s a whole different world.”

Recent Russian military exercises have included nuclear elements, and the Kremlin has vowed a full overhaul of Russia’s land-based nuclear arsenal in the next five years.

In a recent documentary on Russian state television, Mr. Putin said he prepared to put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert as the Kremlin moved ahead with retaking Crimea from Ukraine last year.

“The fact that this nuclear option was on the table for consideration is a very clear indication that there’s a low nuclear threshold now that didn’t exist during the Cold War,” said Mr. Blair, who described Mr. Putin’s actions as the riskiest among Kremlin leaders since Cuban missile crisis…

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