Limit Your Threats, Please

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I have noticed some strange changes in some of the public statements made by General Yury Baluyevsky, head of the General Staff, in recent months. This is a public figure who has earned a well-deserved reputation for being cautious and even-tempered when making official statements. At times, Baluyevsky has even risked correcting President Vladimir Putin when he felt the commander in chief had gone too far. When Putin threatened last October that Russia would pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, for example, it was Baluyevsky who warned that violating the treaty could lead to "irreversible consequences."

But the general has changed his tune in the last few months. At a military conference held in December, for example, Baluyevsky suggested that the automatic system controlling Russia's nuclear weapons could interpret a launch of U.S. interceptor missiles from Poland's planned missile-defense system as an attack against this country and, in response, Russia could launch a counterstrike.

Immediately after Baluyevsky's statement, many expected a sensation because it appeared that his intent was to increase tensions in U.S.-Russian relations. Indeed, some observers quickly concluded from his speech earlier this month that, in essence, Moscow was announcing its readiness to start a preventative nuclear war, if necessary. We were told that this even goes beyond Soviet rhetoric during the worst periods of the Cold War, where the focus was always on a reciprocal, rather than preventative, nuclear counterstrike.

But if you look at the official military doctrines that precede Baluyevsky's statement, the situation is less dramatic. The doctrine approved by Putin in 2000 stipulates that Russia may use nuclear weapons to prevent a serious, large-scale conventional attack.

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union made the first unilateral pledge not to carry out a nuclear first strike, but the statement was perceived as a strictly propagandistic because Moscow's conventional forces were the real backbone of its military strategy, since they greatly outnumbered those of its enemies at that time. But once Russia lost its ability to rely on conventional forces to halt aggression after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the idea of a possible nuclear first strike suddenly became a critically important element of its military doctrine. And this rhetoric concerning the nuclear first-strike option continues even today, despite military officials' frequent assertions that Russia's armed forces are becoming stronger every day.

The larger issue behind Baluyevsky's statement and the military doctrines that preceded it is that Russia cannot defend itself against its adversaries without resorting to the use of nuclear weapons, despite all of the efforts at reforming and strengthening its conventional forces. This fundamental weakness will likely intensify in the next 10 years, when outer space becomes a new center for military development. As Air Force chief Alexander Zelin said at the same conference, "Potential adversaries will obtain the capability to carry out highly accurate strikes coordinated from space against practically any target on the territory of the Russian Federation." It turns out that, in spite of all the propagandistic grandstanding, Russia can only rely on its nuclear weapons for defense.

But the real problem may be more linguistic than military in nature. On one hand, the Kremlin and the country's military officials are doing their very best to frighten the West, but on the other, they have practically run out of ways to execute these threats. Dozens of times our leaders have announced that Russia possesses a "miracle missile" capable of overcoming any adversarial missile-defense system. In addition, they have repeatedly suggested that they could deploy missiles in the Kaliningrad region or even in Belarus. And more than once we have heard that Russia would respond to any Western aggression with an "asymmetrical" military response.

But at some point -- despite the richness and sharpness of the Russian language -- the authorities' verbal threats will lose their bite. In order to turn up the heat on the confrontation any further, it would be necessary to turn their words into action. But the authorities understand that taking that step could provoke the West to respond in earnest.

I think Baluyevsky's comments highlight the larger, systemic crises facing Russian authorities. In fact, his words prompted Poland's foreign minister to request, in all seriousness, that Baluyevsky limit his threats of nuclear strikes to no more than one every three months.

What could be more pointless than a threat that produces only laughter?

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.