Tuesday

26th May 2020

Nato rebukes Putin's 'nuclear rhetoric'

  • Putin at the Kubinka fair on Tuesday (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Nato has accused Russia of “nuclear sabre-rattling” after Vladimir Putin said he’ll deploy 40 new missiles.

The Russian leader made the announcement on Tuesday (16 June) at an arms fair in Kubinka, near Moscow.

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“This year, our nuclear forces are going to get more than 40 intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs] capable of penetrating all existing, even the most advanced missile defences”, he said.

His deputy defence minister, Anatoly Antonov, who is on an EU blacklist over Russia's invasion of Ukraine, linked the news to US plans to position tanks and F-22 jets in eastern Europe.

“It looks like our colleagues from Nato member states are pushing us into an arms race”, he said.

The ICBM announcement prompted a rebuke from Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg.

He said, while visiting the European Commission in Brussels the same day, that “Russia is using nuclear rhetoric more in the way they’re messaging their defence strategy”.

“This nuclear sabre-rattling is unjustified. It’s destabilising. It’s dangerous”.

He said Nato deployment in eastern Europe is “proportionate, defensive, and fully in line with our international commitments".

He also said it comes because "we’re seeing a Russia which is more assertive and which is responsible for aggressive actions, especially in Ukraine”.

Old news

For his part, Pavel Podvig, a Russian military expert who works for the UN’s Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, played down the importance of the ICBMs.

He told EUobserver Russia has about 300 of them in service, as well as nuclear submarines and strategic bombers.

He also said its rearmament programme began before the Ukraine crisis: “It [the 40 new ICBMs] is not a particularly big increase in numbers. It’s business as usual”.

Igor Sutyagin, a Russia expert at Rusi, a defence think tank in the UK, said Russia is likely to retire about 60 ICBMs this year, resulting in a net decrease.

He said some of its Soviet-era missiles are inferior to what the UK and the US had in the 1970s.

He added that its heaviest ICBM, the R-36, used to be serviced by Uzmash, a Ukrainian firm. But co-operation stopped due to the war, posing the question: “Does the Russian military believe it can still count on them to detach their payload?”.

Nuclear rhetoric

The analysts echoed Stoltenberg on “nuclear rhetoric”.

“Russia is trying to send the signal it’s crazy enough to escalate to a nuclear level if it comes to that", Podvig said.

Referring to Western states' refusal to arm Ukraine, he added: “It’s hard to know what would happen in reality … but Putin is counting on the West to back down when confronted with the prospect of escalation and to some extent it’s working”.

Sutyagin said Putin's aggrandisement of Russia's nuclear arsenal is also internal propaganda.

“It's the only remaining tool in his possession to claim the status of a great power”, he said.

“Oil and gas is being lost due to substitution of Russian exports in the West. He’s losing his favourite energy weapon. The economy is weak and declining. Russian soft power is purely negative. So, what else does he have?”.

Nato solidarity lacks public support

More than half of Germans, Italians, and French are opposed to honouring Nato's Article V in a conflict between Russia and a neighbouring Nato state.

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