Dan Gilmore / March 12, 2015

In Putin’s World, the Globe Is Cooling

Russia makes noise about putting nuclear weapons in Crimea.

Great. Russia has said it. Russian official Mikhail Ulyanov claimed the Great Bear has the right to place nuclear weapons in Crimea – the land it took from Ukraine.

“I don’t know if there are nuclear weapons there now,” Ulyanov said. “I don’t know about any plans, but in principle Russia can do it.”

The old enemy’s rhetoric has gone nuclear, and it could portend perilous times, as talk leads to action. And that’s an action the world cannot stand.

Russia has been talking about its right to place nuclear weapons in Crimea since December, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “Crimea was not a non-nuclear zone in an international law sense but was part of Ukraine, a state which doesn’t possess nuclear arms. Now Crimea has become part of a state which possesses such weapons in accordance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.” He continued, “In accordance with international law. Russia has every reason to dispose of its nuclear arsenal … to suit its interests and international legal obligations.”

But Ulyanov’s comments are especially worrisome because he’s the director for Russia’s department of nuclear non-proliferation and arms control. He’s the man who is supposed to deescalate tension over nuclear stockpiles. He’s supposed to be the advocate for peace. Instead, it’s like someone switched out John Kerry’s talking points for Gen. Martin Dempsey’s.

Just last year, Ulyanov was at the UN saying things like, “An efficient nuclear non-proliferation regime plays a key role in maintaining the international peace and stability as well as moving towards a world free of nuclear weapons.”

What gives?

The way Russia is talking about nuclear arms signals it is hell-bent on returning to feared superpower status. With near-identical quotes, Lavrov and his director claim Crimea was once Ukraine’s but is now Russia’s. Nobody is going to take that strip of land from Russia without a major fight because it cares too much about its territorial gains.

Ukraine foreign ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebyinis condemned the Russian statements, saying, “This is another fact to confirm the absolute unpredictability of Russia, as was the case with Russia’s withdrawal from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces. This arbitrary deployment of nuclear weapons not only violates all international agreements that control nuclear weaponry, Russia plans – if these statements are true – to deploy nuclear weapons in the territory of another state, as Crimea is the territory of Ukraine.”

Many people have been trying to understand the motivations of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Of course, he wants Ukraine, possibly for his own glory and certainly for that of Russia. And Andrew Weiss contends Putin is more nihilistic than most commentators would like to admit. He’s not playing a calculated game of chess, Weiss writes, but “Mr. Putin has largely been improvising his way though the current crisis.”

Putin has isolated himself, surrounding himself with advisers whose only requirement is that they be loyal. A few weeks ago, “Mr. Putin agreed to a new cease-fire framework that was widely seen as advantageous to Moscow,” Weiss writes. “But instead of declaring victory, Mr. Putin chose once again to escalate the conflict.”

While Putin only makes short-term strategies, the stakes in the Ukrainian conflict are too high for Russia to lose.

Commodore Philip Thicknesse, a British veteran of the Falklands War, says Russia has few major seaports – something which it solves with the takeover of Crimea. “A Russia that prefers to believe that it is surrounded by enemies is one thing,” Thicknesse writes. “A Russia denied what it believes to be its birthright – unfettered oceanic access and secure land borders – is another.”

Russia continues nuclear arms rattling, flying bombers up the English Channel and generally playing war. NATO and the U.S. need to respond in two ways. First, the West needs a long-term strategy of choking the Russian economy and stifling its pugnacious “diplomacy.” Second, both the U.S. and NATO should quietly build military capability, but without escalating just yet. It’s diplomacy 101: Speak softly and carry a big stick.

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