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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Threats May Not Be Empty

Last week, President Boris Yeltsin said that Russia might go to war if the West continued to "liberate" the Serbian province of Kosovo. Yeltsin's predictions of a possible "all-European and perhaps a world war" were ridiculed in the West as a not-very-clever domestic publicity stunt or maybe simply the ravings of an old drunk.

Russian war threats sounded even less serious after the State Duma speaker, Gennady Seleznyov, announced that Yeltsin had ordered Russia's strategic rocket forces to retarget their nuclear weapons on NATO countries involved in the attacks on Yugoslavia. Seleznyov's declaration was swiftly dismissed by spokesmen in the Kremlin, in Russia's Defense Ministry and even the Duma. NATO's supreme commander in Europe General Wesley Clark dismissed the threat by proclaiming that NATO will "continue with the mission exactly as planned, regardless of political and diplomatic atmospherics."

During less than a month of war, Western political and military leaders have already several times grossly miscalculated the end results of their actions. NATO military leaders did not anticipate nor prepare any effective contingency plan to stop a vicious and highly effective ethnic cleansing of Kosovo by the forces of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Western leaders did not foresee the resilience of Serb resistance and the overwhelming support the Serbian people would give Milosevic. Western leaders also fully failed to forecast the absolute outrage of the Russian people and the rapid spread of grass-roots anti-Western sentiment that followed the order: "Bombs away."

With all those strategic blunders, its actually hard to find any item Western military and political planners did get right. Perhaps the outright dismissal of any possibility that Russian nuclear threats could become a decisive factor in the current war is also a miscalculation?

Using strategic nuclear threats to stop a conventional local military conflict is nothing new. In 1973, President Richard Nixon successfully used nuclear deterrence to prevent an Arab-Israeli war from spreading and also to stop the fighting. In October 1973, the Kremlin was on the verge of sending conventional forces to attack Israel. The U.S. Army, just extracted from Vietnam after losing the war, seemed to be no match for the Russians. At any rate, the U.S. public would not have tolerated a new war. So Nixon put U.S. strategic forces on high alert and balanced for several hours on the verge of a global nuclear holocaust. Such totally unreasonable behavior intimidated both the Russians and the advancing Israelis. Less than 24 hours later, the fighting was over and the warring parties ready to talk peace.

Of course, Nixon had a reputation as a vicious madman, ready to bomb anyone, to allow unarmed students to be shot dead on campuses and so on, while Yeltsin seems to be considered a harmless drunk and Russia too weak to even shake a finger.

Last week a high-ranking intelligence and analytical official in the U.S. National Security Council (also closely connected to the White House) told me: "Of course, we cannot fully rely on it, but, you know, Pavel, the Serbs are cowards. They lost to the Croats, they lost in Bosnia. The Serbs can fight civilians, not real solders. If we press them a bit harder, they will buckle sometime soon."

I believe that this official, out of politeness, did not mention that in Washington's decision-making quarters, Russians are also considered to be yellow. After the defeat in Afghanistan and the even more humiliating defeat in Chechnya, the Russians are viewed as not having the guts to fight anyone, anywhere.

It is apparently exactly such calculations that have dragged the West into the present ill-conceived military operation in the Balkans, while incoherent statements from Moscow only aggravated Western arrogance. In fact, Russia can fully use its nuclear weapons without "retargeting." Russian nukes are today controlled by the same war machines - using the same programs - that were used during the Cold War. If I know that, Clark also knows it. When Seleznyov was reported to have babbled about nuclear "retargeting," Clark must have said something like: "Humbug," before dismissing the case.

Humbug it may be. However, its clear that the weaker a nuclear superpower becomes, the more it is inclined to resort to nuclear threats in time of crisis, as the United States showed in 1973.

Hoping that such threats are simply a bluff and that Russia turns yellow each time its bluff is called may be the final miscalculation President Bill Clinton's administration makes before the United States goes up in smoke.