What lies behind Moscow’s willingness to crush Georgia with overwhelming force? Analysts have highlighted Russia’s newfound economic confidence, its determination to undo its humiliation of the 1990s, and its grievances over Kosovo, U.S. missile-defense plans involving Poland and the Czech Republic, and the eastward expansion of NATO.
But there may be another major, overlooked element: Has a shift in the nuclear balance between the U.S. and Russia helped embolden the bear?
Under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which went into force in 1994, both the U.S. and the USSR made radical cuts in their strategic nuclear arsenals — that is, in weapons of intercontinental range. The 2002 Moscow Treaty pushed the numbers down even further, until each side’s strategic nuclear umbrella was pocket-size.
Yet matters are very different at the tactical, or short-range, level. Here, the U.S., acting unilaterally and with virtually no fanfare, sharply cut back its stockpile of nonstrategic nuclear warheads. As far back as 1991, the U.S. began to retire all of its nuclear warheads for short-range ballistic missiles, artillery and antisubmarine warfare. According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, not one of these weapons exists today. The same authoritative publication estimates that the number of tactical warheads in the U.S. arsenal has dwindled from thousands to approximately 500.
Russia has also reduced the size of its tactical nuclear arsenal, but starting from much higher levels and at a slower pace, leaving it with an estimated 5,000 such devices — 10 times the number of tactical weapons held by the U.S. Such a disparity would be one thing if we were contending with a stable, postcommunist regime moving in the direction of democracy and integration with the West. That was the Russia we anticipated when we began our nuclear build-down. But it is not the Russia we are facing today.
Not only has Russia retained a sizable nuclear arsenal, its military and political leaders regularly engage in aggressive bluster about expanded deployment and possible use, and sometimes they go beyond bluster. Six months ago, Russia began sending cruise missile-capable Bear H bombers on sallies along the coast of Alaska.
As recently as July, the newspaper Izvestia floated the idea that Moscow would station nuclear weapons in Cuba if the U.S. went ahead with the deployment of an antiballistic missile radar in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland. Col. Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov, chief of Russia’s strategic missile command, has openly spoken about aiming nuclear-tipped missiles at those two countries. Vladimir Putin has warned Ukraine that if it were to join NATO, “Russia will have to point its warheads at Ukrainian territory.” Not long before that, Mr. Putin cheerfully described a series of ballistic-missile flight tests as “pleasant and spectacular holiday fireworks.”
Such cavalier language stands in striking contrast to the restrained approach of American leaders. “I am committed to achieving a credible deterrent with the lowest possible number of nuclear weapons consistent with our national security needs,” said President George W. Bush in 2001, in one of his rare pronouncements on the subject. “My goal is to move quickly to reduce nuclear forces.” Mr. Bush has kept his word and moved quickly. But has he moved wisely? And given the pugnacious Russia that has suddenly emerged, what is the strategic legacy that he will leave for his successor?
The Russians are steadily acquiring economic and military power, and are not afraid to use threats and force to get their way. Even as they abide by the terms of various treaties, while we are standing still they are finding ways to develop new and highly advanced ground- and submarine-based intercontinental missiles, along with modern submarines to carry and launch them.
As in the Cold War, nuclear weapons are central to the Russian geopolitical calculus. “The weak are not loved and not heard, they are insulted, and when we have [nuclear] parity they will talk to us in a different way.” These words are not from the dark days of communist yore. Rather, they were uttered last year by Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, and they perfectly capture the mentality we and Russia’s neighbors are up against.
Mr. Schoenfeld is the senior editor of Commentary.