Why Is Russia Deploying Nuclear Weapons to Crimea?

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The Jamestown Foundation

Recently, there has been an uptick in Russian efforts to defend the placement of nuclear-capable weapons, if not actual nuclear weapons, on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed one year ago. Notably, TU-22M3 long-range bombers, which would be able to carry and deliver such weapons, have now been deployed to Crimea. And Russia has also been stepping up its defensive rhetoric regarding conventional weapons deployed to the peninsula (Interfax, March 18). Several factors help explain Moscow’s actions.

One reason is surely connected with the recent snap exercises embracing virtually all of Russia’s western fronts, from the Arctic to the Black Sea. These exercises were meant to signal to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that Russia is not backing down and is, indeed, capable of waging a general European war that could include nuclear strikes from Crimean- and Ukrainian-based systems (see EDM, March 19). Second, Moscow has repeatedly verbally reaffirmed—including through the recent celebrations of the first anniversary of Crimea’s annexation—that the Crimean peninsula is irretrievably Russian land, and that it is folly to pretend otherwise. As Vladimir Yevseyev, a retired army colonel who now directs the Center for Social and Political Research, declared, “The question of [Russia’s] sovereignty [over Crimea] is shut. It is non-negotiable” (The Moscow Times, March 16). President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, echoed these sentiments (RIA Novosti, March 17). Moreover, Yevseyev observed that Moscow is also signaling Russia’s readiness to resort to nuclear war to hold on to Crimea (The Moscow Times, March 16).

Russian foreign ministry officials, as well as President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, are telling their counterparts in the West the same thing. In particular, Lavrov’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov reiterated that “Moscow decides for itself what military presence it will have in the region (RIA Novosti, March 16). But these statements, along with Russia’s overall conventional land, sea and air buildup in and around occupied Ukraine—and specifically, Crimea—may be serving two immediate tactical objectives. First of all, the inflamed rhetoric and arms buildup is likely a response to recent NATO exercises in Central Eastern Europe. However, the second reason may be that Russia is preparing for a new offensive against Ukraine, which might soon take place.

Nor are these Russian military reinforcements seemingly aimed only at the strategic Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. They are also occurring in and around Belarus and sites in western Russia like Belgorod, where massed Russian forces can be turned against the inviting defense-industry target of Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 16). These reinforcements also derive from previously announced plans to emphasize Russian military buildups for 2015, in the Baltic, Crimea and the Arctic (RIA Novosti, March 17).

But beyond emphasizing that Russia’s seizure of Crimea is irreversible, Moscow’s boosting of its nuclear and conventional forces suggests a continuing Russian effort not just to deter NATO but also to intimidate European governments. Indeed, threatening to use nuclear weapons (including preemptively) against the West is a long-standing Russian tactic, going back to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, if not earlier. Yet, arguably, this tactic has begun to show diminishing returns: the North Atlantic Alliance and even neutral European states like Sweden and Finland seem, however slowly, to be moving toward greater consolidation and coherence in their replies to Russia’s aggressive threats. The evidence for this includes new conventional military procurements in many European states—even if this record is inconsistent. Nuclear threats did not deter NATO exercises in the Black Sea and will probably not deter Baltic reinforcements and exercises either. Moreover, a new offensive in Ukraine will almost certainly generate not only new sanctions but quite probably a US and NATO decision to send arms to Ukraine.

In fact, it could be argued that the increasingly brazen efforts to resort to what Soviet officials used to call the “tactics of crude intimidation” reflect that Russia is running out of other weapons, including non-military ones, with which to blackmail or threaten European governments. Moscow now faces sanctions through the end of 2015, as it will likely not retreat from Ukraine. And Saudi Arabia has announced it will only cut production if other energy rivals do so as well, knowing full well that other oil producers, including Russia, cannot afford to cut back on their exports at this time (Middleeasteye.net, March 23).

Undoubtedly, Russia’s weapons deployments along its western borders constitute a threat to European states from the Baltic to the Balkans—as such arms buildups are unmistakably intended to do. But obviously, Russia can no more afford to fight a protracted or nuclear war in Europe than the West could. Moreover, it is far from clear whether Moscow would, in fact, seek to start a general European war over the issue of NATO allies arming Ukraine and providing its forces with the foreign training they need.

Despite the many critical deficiencies of the Ukrainian army, it has fought spiritedly in eastern Ukraine, inflicted more Russian casualties than Moscow expected, and shown quite unanticipated resistance against Russian attacks. The reinforcement of Russian ground forces currently taking place around the Ukrainian front may, thus, be a reflection of this reality. Therefore, Russia may need to bring more troops to bear if and when it launches its next offensive.

For all of its formidable qualities, the Russian military should not be over-estimated, including in relation to its role in the war in Ukraine. Like all other armies, it and the Russian government have their weaknesses. The fact that Putin has had to employ ever more serious threats 13–14 months after seizing Crimea suggests that he has come to realize that he triggered something he did not want—i.e. a protracted war. If this analysis proves accurate, then the opportunities for the West will increasingly come, however slowly, into focus. Consequently, Russia’s culminating moment in this war may be fast approaching, if it has not already passed.