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A public policy blog from AEI
In the Orthodox tradition, the Book of Revelations has not been among the most important texts. Yet there is something positively apocalyptic about the recent speech of the Russian Orthodox Church’s most important convert, Russian President Vladimir Putin. A nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed cruise missile that could circumnavigate the planet avoiding US missile defenses! A nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarine drone! And, most of all, a hypersonic “meteorite” too fast for American interceptors, a mighty ognennyi shar, a great “ball of fire”! (Jerry Lee Lewis was not credited, but then Putin’s Russia is not known for overly scrupulous honoring of property rights.)
Leaving aside the actual physical existence, not to mention deployability, of these awe-inspiring weapons (the Russian president has been known to bend the truth every now and then), they have been in the making for many years. Why take a page from St. John now?
In an explosive mixture of militarism, chauvinism, and paranoia the likes of which we have not heard since Stalin’s death, Putin addressed two audiences in this speech. As regards the domestic one, the reason for the saber-rattling now is obvious: The presidential election is less than two weeks away and, although assured of re-coronation, Putin needs more than a ho-hum 60–63 percent victory with 60–something percent turnout. To boost his personal popularity (and thus his regime’s legitimacy) at a time when the economy is stagnating, incomes declining, and poverty growing, Putin badly needs an outpouring of popular devotion, if not adulation. Having positioned himself as a war-time president, he must both scare Russians with dangers from “potential aggressors” and dazzle with his determination and wherewithal to defeat them.
Yet he did not need to go to such lengths in the technical details and imagery to impress his Russian audience. In doing so, Putin addressed himself to the “West” — both the defense establishment and perhaps even more importantly the public. Although NATO’s conventional might is far superior to Russia’s, Putin seems to be saying, “stay out of a conventional engagement with us because we can ‘go nuclear’ in all manner of sophisticated, even futuristic ways, and no missile defense is going to protect you!” To drive the point home, Putin reiterated Russia’s 2010 Military Doctrine: “Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons . . . in case of an aggression against us with the use of conventional weapons that threaten the very existence of the state.”
Is Putin planning a Crimea-like aggression on NATO’s eastern flank — most likely against Latvia and Estonia, with their significant ethnic Russian minorities — in the two weeks before the election? Or is he engaging in preventive nuclear blackmail with a view toward a more distant time in his six-year term when domestic political imperatives become urgent enough to justify such a risky endeavor?
Only Vladimir Putin, the Supreme Commander of the Russian armed forces, knows.
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