In a documentary on Russia’s taking of Crimea, which aired on Russian television this past weekend, Vladimir Putin confessed to considering whether to put his strategic nuclear forces on alert to deter Western powers from intervening in this peninsula’s escape from Kiev’s control. That generated some skepticism from experts on the Russian military as part of the land and naval components of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces are ‘on alert’ anyway. I would argue, however, that it is still a positive development that Putin chose not to up the ante by ‘alerting’ the rest of the triad as that would have increased probability of a nuclear war by accident, which is improbable, but not impossible.
When asked by documentary’s creator Andrei Kondrashov whether Russia “rendered our nuclear forces into the state of combat readiness” during the Crimea crisis last spring, Putin says: “We were ready to do that… but I acted on assumption that it would not come to that. It made no sense to inflame more passions.” Kondrashov then confides to Russian TV viewers how he was told by the Russian Ministry of Defense that “back then some military specialists were proposing to the Commander-in-Chief to use all existing means for demonstration of Russia’s readiness to defend its national interests he president responded to that by saying that, in spite of the complexity and the dramatic character of the situation, the Cold War is over and we don’t need international crises similar to the Cuban missile crisis, especially given the fact that the situation didn’t require this… as for our nuclear deterrence forces, they are in state of readiness anyhow.”
Putin is right about the latter. Russia’s “strategic nuclear forces are always on high combat alert, or at least the land-based missiles and ballistic missile submarines are," according to retired general Vladimir Dvorkin, who used to head the Russian Defense Ministry’s inhouse think-tank on military strategy. Russia's Strategic Missiles Forces (RVSN) are "on constant combat alert,” according to Andrei Burbin, the head of RVSN’s central command said. “If the need arises to make a nuclear missile strike, we will fulfill this task in a fixed time. We are absolutely certain," Burbin said.
Yet, I’d argue that the world should breath a (small, but audiable and) collective sigh of relief over the fact that Putin chose not to up the ante by ‘alerting’ the rest of the triad as that would have increased probability of a nuclear war by accident, which is improbable, but not impossible.
Had the Russian commander-in-chief decided to order strategic bombers to fly sorties – that have been unnerving NATO for months — with nuclear missiles on board, that would amount, to quote Putin, to major inflaming of passions, increasing probability of a nuclear war by accident. That probability is low, but doesn’t equal zero. Sending Russian bombers on combat patrols with nuclear missiles on board would have returned Washington and Moscow to the tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Kennedy estimated the odds of nuclear war of being one in three. If you try to imagine how Russia and US can get into a nuclear war by accident, but your imagination fails, then recall how during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which Putin is actually quoted in that documentary as referring to , Kennedy ordered the U.S. armed forces to go to the DEFCON 3 alert on October 22, 1962. DEFCON 3 required U.S. Air Force fighters to carry air-to-air missiles equipped with nuclear warheads. Pilots of these aircraft were supposed to have fired only when ordered. However, the pilots also had positive control over these weapons, which meant they had the physical ability to launch these missiles even without orders. That routine of flying sorties with nuclear-armed missiles could have led to a nuclear war on October 28, 1962, when the crisis was in full swing. That day a U-2 was on a routine mission to take samples from the air in the Far East when it accidentally veered off into the Soviet airspace. The Soviet Air Force scrambled fighters to intercept the U-2 and USAF responded by sending its own warplanes to protect the spy plane. Fortunately the U-2 had made its way out of the Soviet air space before the U.S. and Soviet fighters had a chance to get into a fight. Having learned of the incident, President Kennedy was so aggravated that he exclaimed: “There is always some son of a bitch who doesn’t get the word.”
Now you might say in a highly centralized state as Russia, there is no way anyone won’t get Putin’s word, especially if it is a word on how the Russian military should behave in encounters with their U.S. counterparts. But, according to Putin, Russian commanders have chosen not clear their actions in engagement of U.S. military at least one occasion during the Crimean crisis. In the documentary commander of the Russian Black Seat fleet Vitko describes how “it was decided” to send a Su-24 attack plane to fly low over the deck of USS Donald Cook in April 2014: “We had to show use and resolve to use force.” Then Kondrashov asks Putin to comment on that incident and Putin says: “It was not my decision. It was hooliganism on their (Russian Navy’s) part and didn’t tell me anything about it.” You can, of course, also argue that in the era of GLONASS and GPS (and yes, some Russian strategic bombers used GPS, according to Russian press), there is no way a Russian nuclear warplane can veer into NATO airspace by accident. But what if U.S. would have responded to Putin’s equivalent of Kennedy’s DEFCON 3 with denying Russian users access to GPS and jamming GLONASS near continental United States? There is a reason why sensible experts on both sides have repeatedly called for more warning and decision time for those who will ultimiately have to push the red button (those calls are now more relevant, given that Russia has no early warning satellites left in orbit for now).
So, overall, it was a good decision on Putin’s part not to put strategic nuclear forces on alert, whatever he or his interviewer meant by that. But can we rule out that tensions between U.S. and Russia over Ukraine won’t escalate again to make Putin consider putting the rest of his nuclear triad on alert ? Can U.S. arming of Ukraine set off a game of escalating commitments between Moscow and Washington that would eventually either side to go on DEFCON 3? The continuous rattling of the nuclear sabre might be a ploy to convince West that it cannot afford alienation of a nuclear superpower and that it needs to launch a dialogue on normalization of relations, but one 'side effect' of that is increasing chances of a nuclear war by accident.
PS Here is my rough translation of the relevant part of the interview of Putin with Kondrashov
Kondrashov: “Did it become clear to you at once in the course of your conversations with Western leaders that they would not interfere militarily in this” secession of Crimea from Ukraine.
Putin: “No, of course, not. It could not have become clear at once. Therefore, at once, at the very first stage of our work I had to orient (instruct) our armed forces accordingly. It was not an orientation. I had to give direct instructions, orders on possible behavior (actions) by Russia and our armed forces under any further development of the events.”
Kondrashov: “Does that mean that we also rendered our nuclear forces into the state of combat readiness?”
Putin: “We were ready to do that. I did talk to (the Western) colleagues and I told them openly… that it is our land, historically….Therefore, I don’t think anyone had any desire to turn into some sort of a global conflict. We are not planning to take a bear by the tooth. They simply forced us to take such actions. And I would like to repeat again, we were ready for the most unfavorable turn of events. But I acted on assumption that it would not come to that. It made no sense to inflame more passions.”
Kondrashov’s voiceover as footage of a Russian strategic bomber Bear rolls: “Later, the Russian Defense Ministry told us that back then some military specialists were proposing to the Commander-in-Chief to use all existing means for demonstration of Russia’s readiness to defend its national interests he president responded to that by saying that, in spite of the complexity and the dramatic character of the situation, the Cold War is over and we don’t need international crises similar to the Cuban missile crisis, especially given the fact that the situation didn’t require this… as for our nuclear deterrence forces, they are in state of readiness anyhow.”