Following its unconscionable invasion of Ukraine, Russia has appallingly chosen to cast a nuclear shadow over the already unimaginable situation it created.
While this is likely an ill-advised attempt to broadcast Russian strength as its invasion of Ukraine proceeds at a much less successful pace than he expected, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s irresponsible nuclear rhetoric and posturing are highly provocative and unprecedented. Russia’s brandishing of its nuclear capabilities when its security is not threatened is further evidence of an unsafe security environment that requires a continued commitment to a strong American nuclear deterrent.
To some degree, Russia’s force structure design makes it inevitable its nuclear weapons will be flaunted any time it uses military power. It has reportedly deployed its Iskander missile systems to fire short-range conventional missiles into Ukraine, but these systems are dual-capable, meaning they can also launch nuclear-armed missiles. Media reports also indicate Russia sent its Kinzhal nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles to Kaliningrad as a part of its force buildup in advance of its invasion of Ukraine. Deployment of these systems signals anyone seeking to challenge Russia to back off.
On multiple occasions during the Ukraine crisis, Russia has directly told the West to stay out of the war. As Russia made its final preparations to invade Ukraine, Vladimir Putin rescheduled and executed a strategic nuclear weapon exercise designed to send a signal to the West. After it began invading, Putin piled onto this warning by saying that countries that interfered in defense of Ukraine would suffer “consequences you have never seen,” a clear nuclear threat. And a few days later, Putin put Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert into a “combat readiness” posture.
Despite paying lip service to the principle that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” signed onto by the P5 countries in January, Russia has blatantly demonstrated it does not adhere to this long-held norm. While it is unlikely Russia would use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, Putin’s nuclear brandishing while conducting the largest land war in Europe since World War II clearly shows that nuclear weapons remain a prevalent 21st-century concern.
Unfortunately for the Biden administration’s ambitions to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in America’s military strategy, the adversary gets a vote. Russia has the most nuclear weapons on Earth. This stark reality contrasts with the picture painted by the arms control community that treaties with Russia have achieved an equitable nuclear relationship.
The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is often held up as an ideal arms control arrangement that keeps both American and Russian strategic nuclear weapon systems at 1,550 each. However, upon enactment of New START in 2011, Russia made a conscious decision to pursue an expansion of its non-treaty-covered non-strategic nuclear weapon systems, otherwise known as battlefield nuclear weapons. As a result, Russia now has about 2,000 non-strategic nuclear weapons, while the United States has only 200. Some of these Russian non-strategic systems were even developed in violation of the long-standing Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, resulting in America’s prudent withdrawal in 2019.
When negotiating the renewal of New START, the Biden administration opted to maintain the status quo. As the administration develops its Nuclear Posture Review, rumors abound it may even aim to reduce America’s nuclear weapons.
During the Trump administration, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) recommended a continued commitment to modernization of the air, land and sea legs of America’s nuclear triad. The 2018 NPR further suggested two supplemental nuclear capabilities be added to enhance deterrence of Russia’s growing non-strategic nuclear arsenal: a low-yield ballistic missile and a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile. Russia’s nuclear brandishing during the Ukraine crisis makes the supplemental capabilities put forward in 2018 even more necessary.
We have found ourselves in a precarious situation. Russia’s larger nuclear arsenal is almost entirely modernized, while the United States is just now starting the process of acquiring new systems to replace decades-old platforms. Many of our nuclear systems are even being replaced on a one-to-one basis, meaning any delay would result in the reduced capacity of our nuclear deterrent.
The United States must demonstrate resolve and recommit to a strengthened nuclear deterrence posture. It is essential for the protection of our homeland and forces, as well as our allies to whom we extend nuclear deterrence. The credibility of our nuclear deterrent rests on the capability of our nuclear forces, and at this moment, we must choose strength over weakness.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., is ranking member of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.