The risk in disrespecting Vlad

President Vladimir Putin attends meeting of senior Russian military leaders in Sochi
May 13, 2016: President Vladimir Putin at a meeting of Russia’s senior military leaders in Sochi after NATO activated an antimissile installation in Romania (source: dpa)
  • NATO has treated nuclear threats from the Kremlin as bluster
  • Russia’s missile arm is state-of-the-art, unlike its conventional forces
  • Slighting the Russian president makes escalation more likely

Vladimir Putin is a man with a problem: his adversaries in the West refuse to take him seriously. And when the Russian president feels ignored, he responds with the only serious threat at his disposal – nuclear strikes.

The latest resort to such intimidation came in May, triggered by the activation of a United States missile defense station in Romania. Another portion of the controversial U.S. missile shield will soon be operational in Poland as well.

Speaking at a news conference in Athens with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on May 27, the Master of the Kremlin observed: “If yesterday in those areas of Romania people simply did not know what it means to be in the crosshairs, then today we will be forced to carry out certain measures to ensure our security.” The same is in store for the Poles.

It is tempting to simply ignore such bluster. The claim that the missile shield is directed against Russia is nonsense. Due to the extremely short range, NATO interceptors stand no chance of destroying incoming Russian missiles. The real reason behind Mr. Putin’s pique is that he is not being consulted. The Americans, in particular, are fond of reminding the Russian president that he is the leader of a declining regional power that does not deserve a hearing.

Is it really wise to keep harping on this? For all his bluster, Mr. Putin knows quite well that his conventional forces are no match for NATO’s. That leaves the nukes, and this is where goading him stops being amusing.

Russian missile technology is no joke. From Kalibr cruise missiles to Iskander short-range ballistic missiles and the Bulava sea-launched ballistic missiles being deployed on the new Borei-class nuclear submarines, it is strictly state-of-the-art.

The Americans are fond of reminding Mr. Putin that he is the leader of a declining regional power

This is the club that Mr. Putin is wielding. He is playing a high-stakes game of escalation – and for domestic reasons, he simply cannot afford to show weakness.

As NATO responds to his threats, the stakes will be raised even further. Russian strategic submarine patrols are now being increased, and in contrast to strategic air force bombers that mostly perform dry runs, these navy “boomers” do carry live nuclear warheads. Some also claim that nuclear-tipped Iskander missiles may already be deployed in Kaliningrad, just a couple of minutes’ flight time from Warsaw.

It is essential for NATO to show resolve in the face of Russian aggression. But there is a fine line here that it would be better not to cross. Goading the bear by further deliberate disrespect may trigger a tantrum that ends in nuclear exchange.

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