Strategic Procrastination: What’s Russia’s Game With Nuclear Signaling?

The package of recommendations on security guarantees for Ukraine published by the working group headed by Andriy Yermak and Anders Fogh Rasmussen in September no longer included such excesses. Russia was not listed among guarantor states, and the section on limiting Ukraine’s military potential was replaced with a plan for its large-scale expansion. 

The biggest challenge to resuming negotiations today is the territorial question, which could take decades to resolve. Keeping the newly annexed territories part of Russia is now almost the only way to prove that “all goals of the special military operation have been achieved,” which makes negotiations unfeasible for Russia. But continuing military action that might result in losing the acquired territory is also unfeasible. 

If Zelensky does not want to stop his counteroffensive and resume talks, then the Kremlin believes it must convince his Western partners to force him. The Kremlin must persuade U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration of the threat of a nuclear conflict that will affect the continental United States, and not just Europe or Ukraine.  

The Kremlin hopes that the nuclear threat will compel Washington to step in and “freeze” the conflict with Russia’s current territorial gains, though there does not appear to be unanimity among the Russian leadership on whether the conflict should be frozen temporarily, until Russia can regain its strength, or forever. 

Moscow has also changed its rhetoric on U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. This is now being referred to as “direct participation in hostilities,” and the Kremlin is warning that it could lead to an inevitable military conflict between the United States and Russia — though all the actions of the Biden administration have been aimed at avoiding such a conflict, and supplying weapons and intelligence was common practice even during the Cold War.

The Kremlin is also sending Washington other signals that it is serious. In particular, the Diplomatic Academy of the Foreign Ministry organized a conference to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, focusing on lessons learned from the crisis, such as “respecting other countries’ red lines” and resolving conflicts through secret channels. 

Simultaneously, Moscow is taking actions that can be interpreted by the U.S. as boosting the readiness of its nuclear forces: releasing footage of a train carrying the equipment of a Defense Ministry directorate responsible for Russia’s nuclear arsenal; announcing military exercises using Iskander missile systems in Kaliningrad; preparing to test a Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile in Novaya Zemlya; closing air space to test-launch a Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile from Plesetsk to Kamchatka; and surfacing the Belgorod nuclear submarine, carrying Poseidon nuclear torpedoes, in neutral waters, where it is sure to be seen.

All of the above are routine exercises, albeit grouped more closely together. Even if the Defense Ministry begins shuttling trains with nuclear warheads back and forth, this is common practice for both Russia and the United States, and might raise the nuclear threat level, but will not faze Biden. Moscow could take a page from the Cuban Missile Crisis playbook and keep escalating the combat readiness of the Strategic Nuclear Forces to its maximum, with bombers armed with nuclear cruise missiles on full alert or even up in the air, and submarines deployed to patrol zones. However, it would be easy to get carried away and make a fatal mistake. 

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