On 14 April 2023, the Belarusian Ministry of Defence released a short video of a Su-25 pilot explaining his new role in delivering “special [nuclear] munitions” following his training in Russia. The features seen in the video, as well as several other open-source clues, suggest that Lida Air Base––located only 40 kilometers from the Lithuanian border and the only Belarusian Air Force wing equipped with Su-25 aircraft––is the most likely candidate for Belarus’ new “nuclear sharing” mission announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The video shows the pilot standing in a revetment with a Su-25 in the background. The interview takes place at a grassy location with trees in the distance along with several distinct features, including two drop tanks flanking the Su-25 on either side, and objects behind the aircraft. The revetment itself is also somewhat distinct, as the berm wraps around three sides of the hardstand and the size and orientation of the six rectangular tiles across the opening are clearly visible in the video.
Although the pilot is announcing the completion of their training that occured in Russia, the footage was filmed and released by the Belarusian Ministry of Defense. This factor seemed to indicate that the filming location took place in Belarus instead of at the training center in Russia. Additionally, while Su-25s have operated out of other air bases in Belarus throughout the war, including Luninets Air Base, the only Su-25 wing in the Belarusian Air Force is based at Lida.
After analyzing the satellite imagery of other possible candidate hardstands, including those at Luninets and Baravonichi, the video’s signatures appeared to most closely match a specific hardstand found at Lida Air Base. There are multiple revetments on the western side of the base, but the existence and location of a pole on top of one particular sloped berm, as well as the location of the trees in the background, the drop tanks, and the orientation of the tiles on the tarmac all align closely with features from the video footage. While the specific aircraft from the video has yet to be identified (although the individualized camouflage patterns on each Su-25 will help with this process), all of these factors suggest the video was filmed at Lida Air Base.
During and immediately after the Cold War, the Lida area was was home to a missile operating base for the 49th Guards Missile Division, first for the SS-4 MRBM, then the SS-20 IRBM, and finally the SS-25 ICBM before the division disbanded in 1997. The former missile operating base is located only ten kilometers south of the air base, and while some areas appear to still be active (perhaps in a civilian or other military role), others appear to be overgrown.
Currently, Lida is home to the Belarusian Air Force’s 116th Guards Assault Aviation Base, which flies the Su-25 Frogfoot––the type of plane confirmed by both the Belarusian Ministry of Defense and President Putin as being newly re-equipped to deliver tactical nuclear weapons. Lida’s Su-25 aircraft have also reportedly been used to conduct strikes in Ukraine.
Two additional data points suggest that Lida is the most likely candidate: on March 25th, Putin announced in an interview with Rossiya 24 that Belarusian crews would begin training in Russia on April 3rd. Belarusian Telegram channels subsequently identified these crews as being from Lida, with one channel stating that “According to my sources, the entire flight and engineering staff of the Lida air base will undergo retraining in Russia” (h/t Andrey Baklitskiy).
In addition, on April 2nd, Russia’s ambassador to Belarus stated that Russian nuclear weapons will be “moved up close to the Western border of our union state” (the supranational union of Russia and Belarus). Although the ambassador declined to offer a more specific location, Lida Air Base is located closer to NATO territory than any other suitable candidate site––only about 40 kilometers from Lithuania’s southern border and approximately 120 kilometers from Poland’s eastern border. Although this would mean a longer journey to transport the nuclear weapons from Russia (and could also make the weapons more vulnerable to NATO strikes), its proximity to Alliance territory would be a clear nuclear signal to NATO.
Challenges for the “nuclear sharing” mission
At the time of publication, it remained highly unclear whether Russia actually intends to deploy nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory, or whether it is developing the infrastructure needed to potentially deploy them in the future. It is clear, however, that such a deployment would likely come with logistical challenges.
President Putin’s March 25th announcement noted that Russia would begin training Belarusian nuclear delivery crews on April 3rd and “on July 1, we [will finish] the construction of a special storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus.” Judging by the April 14th video released by the Belarusian Ministry of Defence, the Belarusian crews completed their training within this short period. This is an extraordinarily fast turnaround for completing the certification process; by contrast, nuclear certification for US/NATO nuclear weapon systems can take months, or even years. And as expert Bill Moon pointed out during a recent roundtable discussion, specialized equipment for warhead transportation and handling would also need to undergo intensive certification processes, which can take months.
Additionally, other Russian nuclear storage sites have taken years to upgrade. Usually, permanent nuclear storage sites in Russia have multi-layered fencing around both the perimeter as well as the storage bunkers themselves inside the complex, which can take months to install. Even a temporary site would still require extensive security infrastructure. Moreover, personnel from the 12th GUMO––the department within Russia’s Ministry of Defence that is responsible for maintaining and transporting Russia’s nuclear arsenal––would also necessarily be deployed to Belarus to staff the storage site (regardless of whether nuclear weapons were present or not) and would need a segregated living space. Bill Moon, who has decades of experience working alongside the 12th GUMO, estimates that this could be a contingent of approximately 100 personnel, including warhead maintainers, guards, and armed response forces. Constructing these kinds of facilities could also take many months to build up, revitalize, and maintain. Although it may be possible to complete construction by Putin’s July 1st deadline, a storage facility would not be ready to actually receive warheads until all of the specialized equipment and personnel were in place.
In order to meet this schedule, as Bill Moon highlighted during the recent roundtable discussion, personnel from the 12th GUMO would have to already be preparing and securing the warhead transportation route, as well as the rail spur used to transfer the warheads from trains to specialized trucks. Lida Air Base has an enclosed rail spur on-site that could potentially be used for this, although it could also require additional security infrastructure. Overall, such a deployment would be quite a difficult task: not only would deploying warheads to Lida Air Base be a very long distance for the warheads and associated equipment to travel, but both the Russian and Belarusian rail networks have experienced significant disruptions due to the war in Ukraine, from both anti-war activists and Ukrainian strikes.
Notably, in May 2022 a Russian anarcho-communist activist group announced that they had sabotaged the rail tracks leading out of the 12th GUMO’s main transit hub at Sergiev Posad in an act of protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This site would be used to stage and transport specialized storage and warhead handling equipment, such as fencing, vault doors, and environmental control systems––as well as crews––from Russia to Belarus. In particular, the activist group claimed to have used standardized construction tools to unscrew the nuts connecting the rail joints together, thus allowing them to lift and move the rail tracks.
The group specifically noted that they wanted to conduct a type of sabotage that was “less visible so the train wouldn’t have time to slow down to a stop.” Given the relative ease with which this attack was conducted, the relative invisibility of the sabotage, and the distance that the warheads and equipment would need to travel to reach Lida or another destination inside Belarus, it is clear that the 12th GUMO’s task of securing the rail lines would be important, yet extremely difficult to accomplish.
Given all of these complexities, if Putin does indeed intend to transfer warheads to Belarus, it is highly unlikely that such a deployment would take place until at least after Putin’s July 1st construction deadline, and it could also be coupled with yet another high-level nuclear signal.
- “United States nuclear weapons, 2023,” FAS Nuclear Notebook, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 2023.
- “Russian nuclear weapons, 2022,” FAS Nuclear Notebook, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 2022.
- Status of World Nuclear Forces, Federation of American Scientists
This research was carried out with generous contributions from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the New-Land Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, the Prospect Hill Foundation, Longview Philanthropy, the Stewart R. Mott Foundation, the Future of Life Institute, Open Philanthropy, and individual donors.
Persons who threaten democracy in Ukraine also represent a threat to the United States, according to a 2014 executive order issued by President Obama following Russia’s invasion and seizure of the Crimean region.
In fact, the resulting threat to US national security and foreign policy is so severe as to constitute a “national emergency,” said Executive Order 13660, which remains in effect. Those who engage in “actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine” may have their assets blocked by the United States.
Several more individuals were designated for sanctions this year under the executive order, according to the latest report to Congress from the Secretary of the Treasury. See Periodic Report on the National Emergency with Respect to Ukraine, September 6, 2019.
The news media and private web sites are full of rumors that Russia has deployed nuclear weapons to Crimea after it invaded the region earlier this year. Many of these rumors are dubious and overly alarmist and ignore that a nuclear-capable weapon is not the same as a nuclear warhead.
Several U.S. lawmakers who oppose nuclear arms control use the Crimean deployment to argue against further reductions of nuclear weapons. NATO’s top commander, U.S. General Philip Breedlove, has confirmed that Russian forces “capable of being nuclear” are being moved to the Crimean Peninsula, but also acknowledged that NATO doesn’t know if nuclear warheads are actually in place.
Recently Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov said that NATO was “transferring aircraft capable of carrying nuclear arms to the Baltic states,” and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reminded that Russia has the right to deploy nuclear weapons anywhere on its territory, including in newly annexed Crimea.
Whether intended or not, non-strategic nuclear weapons are already being drawn into the new East-West crisis.
First a reminder: the presence of Russian dual-capable non-strategic nuclear forces in Crimea is not new; they have been there for decades. They were there before the breakup of the Soviet Union, they have been there for the past two decades, and they are there now.
In Soviet times, this included nuclear-capable warships and submarines, bombers, army weapons, and air-defense systems. Since then, the nuclear warheads for those systems were withdrawn to storage sites inside Russia. Nearly all of the air force, army, and air-defense weapon systems were also withdrawn. Only naval nuclear-capable forces associated with the Black Sea Fleet area of Sevastopol stayed, although at reduced levels.
Yet with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, a military reinforcement of military facilities across the peninsula has begun. This includes deployment of mainly conventional forces but also some systems that are considered nuclear-capable.
Naval Nuclear-Capable Forces
The Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol includes nuclear-capable cruisers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes, and submarines. They are capable of carrying nuclear cruise missiles and torpedoes. But the warheads for those weapons are thought to be in central storage in Russia.
There are several munitions storage facilities in the Sevastopol area but none seem to have the security features required for storage of nuclear weapons. The nearest national-level nuclear weapons storage site is Belgorod-22, some 690 kilometers to the north on the other side of Ukraine.
There is a rumor going around that president Putin last summer ordered deployment of intermediate-range Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers to Crimea.
One U.S. lawmaker claimed in September that Putin had made an announcement on August 14, 2014. But even before that, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in March and annexed Crimea, Jane’s Defence Weekly quoted a Russian defense spokesperson describing plans to deploy Backfires to Gvardiesky (Gvardeyskoye) along with Tu-142 and Il-38 in 2016 after upgrading the base. Doing so would require major upgrades to the base.
Russia appears to have four operational Backfire bases: Olenegorsk Air Base on the Kola Peninsula (all naval aviation is now under the tactical air force) and Shaykovka Air Base near Kirov in Kaluzhskaya Oblast near Belarus in the Western Military District (many of the Backfires intercepted over the Baltic Sea in recent months have been from Shaykovka); Belaya in Irkutsk Oblast in the Central Military District; and Alekseyevka near Mongokhto in Khabarovsk Oblast in the Eastern Military District. A fifth base – Soltsy Air Base in Novgorod Oblast in the Western Military District – is thought to have been disbanded.
The apparent plan to deploy Backfires in Crimea is kind of strange because the intermediate-range bomber doesn’t need to be deployed in Crimea to be able to reach potential targets in Western Europe. Another potential mission could be for maritime strikes in the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea, but deployment to Crimea will only give it slightly more reach in the southern and western parts of the Mediterranean Sea (see map below). And the forward deployment would make the aircraft much more vulnerable to attack.
Iskander Missile Launchers
Another nuclear-capable weapon system rumored to be deployed or deploying to Crimea is the Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile. Some of the sources that mention Backfire bomber deployment also mention the Iskander.
One of the popular sources of the Iskander rumor is an amateur video allegedly showing Russian military vehicles rolling through Sevastopol on May 2, 2014. The video caption posted on youtube.com specifically identified “Iskander missiles” as part of the column.
A closer study of the video, however, reveals that the vehicles identified to be launchers for “Iskander missiles” are in fact launchers for the Bastion-P (K300P or SSC-5) costal defense cruise missile system. The Iskander-M and Bastion-P launchers look similar but the cruise missile canisters are longer, so the give-away is that the rear end of the enclosed missile compartments on the vehicles in the video extend further back beyond the fourth axle than is that case on an Iskander-M launcher.
While the video does not appear to show Iskander, Major General Alexander Rozmaznin of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, reportedly stated that a “division” of Iskander had entered Crimea and that “every missile system is capable of carrying nuclear warheads…”
The commander of Russia’s strategic missile forces, Colonel General Sergei Karakayev, recently ruled out rumors about deployment of strategic missiles in Crimea, but future plans for the Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles in Crimea are less clear.
Russia is currently upgrading short-range ballistic missile brigades from the SS-21 (Tochka) to the SS-26 (Iskander-M) missile. Four of ten brigades have been upgraded or are in the process of upgrading (all in the western and southern military districts), and a fifth brigade will receive the Iskander in late-2014. In 2015, deployment will broaden to the Central and Eastern military districts.
The Iskander division closest to Crimea is based near Molkino in the Krasnodar Oblast. So for the reports about deployment of an Iskander division to Crimea to be correct, it would require a significant change in the existing Iskander posture. That makes me a little skeptical about the rumors; perhaps only a few launchers were deployed on an exercise or perhaps people are confusing the Iskander-M and the Bastion-P. We’ll have to wait for more solid information.
As a result of the 1991-1992 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, roughly 60 percent of the Soviet-era inventory of warheads for air defense forces has been eliminated. The 40 percent that remains, however, indicates that Russian air defense forces such as the S-300 still have an important secondary nuclear mission.
The Ukrainian military operated several S-300 sites on Crimea, but they were all vacated when Russia annexed the region in March 2014. The Russian military has stated that it plans to deploy a complete integrated air defense system in Crimea, so some of the former Ukrainian sites may be re-populated in the future.
Just as quickly as the Ukrainian S-300 sites were vacated, however, two Russian S-300 units moved into the Gvardiesky Air Base. A satellite image taken on March 3, 2014, shows no launchers, but an image taken 20 days later shows two S-300 units deployed.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Russia has had nuclear-capable forces deployed in Crimea for many decades but rumors are increasing that more are coming.
The Russian Black Sea Fleet already has many types of ships and submarines capable of carrying nuclear cruise missiles and torpedoes. More ships are said to be on their way.
Rumors about future deployment of Backfire bombers to Crimea would, if true, be a significant new development, but it would not provide significant new reach compared with existing Backfire bases. And forward-deploying the intermediate-range bombers to Crimea would increase their vulnerability to potential attack.
Some are saying Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles have been deployed, but no hard evidence has been presented and at least one amateur video said to show “Iskander missiles” instead appears to show a coastal missile defense system.
New air-defense missile units that may have nuclear capability are visible on satellite images.
It is doubtful that the nuclear-capable forces currently in Crimea are equipped with nuclear warheads. Their dual-capable missiles are thought to serve conventional missions and their nuclear warheads stored in central storage facilities in Russia.
Yet the rumors are creating uncertainty and anxiety in neighboring countries – especially when seen in context with the increasing Russian air-operations over the Baltic Sea and other areas – and fuel threat perceptions and (ironically) opposition to further reductions of nuclear weapons.
The uncertainty about what’s being moved to Crimea and what’s stored there illustrates the special problem with non-strategic nuclear forces: because they tend to be dual-capable and serve both nuclear and conventional roles, a conventional deployment can quickly be misinterpreted as a nuclear signal or escalation whether intended or real or not.
The uncertainty about the Crimea situation is similar (although with important differences) to the uncertainty about NATO’s temporary rotational deployments of nuclear-capable fighter-bombers to the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania. Russian officials are now using these deployments to rebuff NATO’s critique of Russian operations.
This shows that non-strategic nuclear weapons are already being drawn into the current tit-for-tat action-reaction posturing, whether intended or not. Both sides of the crisis need to be particularly careful and clear about what they signal when they deploy dual-capable forces. Otherwise the deployment can be misinterpreted and lead to exaggerated threat perceptions. It is not enough to hunker down; someone has to begin to try to resolve this crisis. Increasing transparency of non-strategic nuclear force deployments – especially when they are not intended as a nuclear signal – would be a good way to start.
Additional information: report about U.S. and Russian non-strategic nuclear forces
This publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
The destructive potential of nuclear weapons is so great that decisions impacting them should be made in a fully conscious, objective manner. Unfortunately, there is significant evidence that this is not the case. One of my Stanford course handouts1 lists almost two dozen assumptions which underlie our nuclear posture, but warrant critical re-examination. This column applies that same kind of analysis to the current Ukrainian crisis.
It is surprising and worrisome that almost none of the mainstream media’s coverage of the Ukrainian crisis has mentioned its nuclear risk. With the West feeling that Russia is solely to blame, and Russia having the mirror image perspective, neither side is likely to back down if one of their red lines is crossed. Add in America’s overwhelming conventional military superiority and Russia’s 8,000 nuclear weapons, and there is the potential for nuclear threats. And, where there is the potential for nuclear threats, there is also some potential for nuclear use.
I’m not saying a repeat of the Cuban Missile Crisis is likely, but given the potential consequences, even a small risk of the Ukrainian crisis escalating to nuclear threats would seem too high.
The frequency with which we find ourselves in such confrontations is also a factor. A low probability nuclear risk that occurs once per century is ten times less likely to explode in our faces than one that occurs once per decade. And the latter hypothesis (confrontations occurring approximately once per decade, instead of once per century) is supported by the empirical evidence, as the Georgian War occurred just six years ago.
While both Russia and the West are wrong that the current crisis is solely the other side’s fault, this article focuses on our mistakes since those are the ones we have the power to correct.
An example of the West’s belief that the crisis is all Russia’s fault appeared in a July 18 editorial 2 in The New York Times which claimed, “There is one man who can stop [the Ukrainian conflict] — President Vladimir Putin of Russia.”
Another example occurred on September 3, when President Obama stated: “It was not the government in Kyiv that destabilized eastern Ukraine; it’s been the pro-Russian separatists who are encouraged by Russia, financed by Russia, trained by Russia, supplied by Russia and armed by Russia. And the Russian forces that have now moved into Ukraine are not on a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission. They are Russian combat forces with Russian weapons in Russian tanks. Now, these are the facts. They are provable. They’re not subject to dispute.” (emphasis added)
So what’s the evidence that the New York Times and the president might be wrong? In early February, when the crisis was in its early and much less deadly stages, Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, wrote3: “I believe it has been a very big strategic mistake – by Russia, by the EU and most of all by the U.S. – to convert Ukrainian political and economic reform into an East-West struggle. … In both the short and long run only an approach that does not appear to threaten Russia is going to work.” (emphasis added)
A month later, on March 3, Dmitri Simes, a former adviser to President Nixon, seconded Ambassador Matlock’s perspective when he said in an interview4: “I think it [the Obama administration’s approach to the Ukraine] has contributed to the crisis. … there is no question in my mind that the United States has a responsibility to act. But what Obama is doing is exactly the opposite from what should be done in my view.”
Two days later, on March 5, President Nixon’s Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, wrote:5 “Each [Russia, the West, and the various Ukrainian factions] has made the situation worse.”
A number of other articles by foreign policy experts also question the Times and President Obama placing all the blame for the crisis on Russia, but I hope I’ve made the point that Putin is not the only man who could end the fighting. Indeed, he may not be capable of doing that without us also correcting some of our mistakes.
Further evidence that the New York Times and President Obama might be wrong can be found in an intercepted and leaked phone conversation6 in which Estonia’s Foreign Minister, Urmas Paet – clearly no friend of Russia’s – stated that the sniper fire on February 20, which killed dozens of Maidan protesters and led to calls for Yanukovych’s head, appeared to have been a false flag operation perpetrated by the most violent elements within the protesters – for example, the ultra-nationalist Right Sektor, which is seen as neo-Nazi in some quarters.
Here is the exact wording of Paet’s key allegation in that phone call: “There is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind [the] snipers … it was not Yanukovych, but it was somebody from the new coalition.” That “new coalition” is now the Ukrainian government.
While this allegation has received little attention in the American mainstream media, German public television sent an investigative reporting team which reached the same conclusion7: “The Kiev Prosecutor General’s Office [of the interim government] is confident in their assessment [that Yanukovych’s people are to blame for the sniper fire, but] we are not.”
This is not to say that Paet and the German investigators are correct in their conclusions – just that it is dangerously sloppy thinking about nuclear matters not to take those allegations more seriously than we have.
While Putin has exaggerated the risk to ethnic Russians living in Ukraine for his own purposes, the West has overlooked those same risks. For example, on May 2 in Odessa, dozens of pro-Russian demonstrators were burned alive when an anti-Russian mob prevented them from fleeing the burning building into which they had been chased. According to the New York Times8: “The pro-Russians, outnumbered by the Ukrainians, fell back … [and] sought refuge in the trade union building. Yanus Milteynus, a 42-year-old construction worker and pro-Russian activist, said he watched from the roof as the pro-Ukrainian crowd threw firebombs into the building’s lower windows, while those inside feared being beaten to death by the crowd if they tried to flee. … As the building burned, Ukrainian activists sang the Ukrainian national anthem, witnesses on both sides said. They also hurled a new taunt: “Colorado” for the Colorado potato beetle, striped red and black like the pro-Russian ribbons. Those outside chanted “burn Colorado, burn,” witnesses said. Swastikalike symbols were spray painted on the building, along with graffiti reading “Galician SS,” though it was unclear when it had appeared, or who had painted it.”
Adding to the risk, on August 29, Ukraine took steps to move from non-aligned status to seeking NATO membership, and NATO’s Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he would “fully respect if the Ukrainian parliament decides to change that policy [of non-alignment].” Somewhat paradoxically, it is extremely dangerous – especially for Ukraine – for Rasmussen to encourage its hopes of joining NATO since Russia would likely respond aggressively to prevent that from occurring.
Also adding to the danger is an escalatory spiral that appears to be in process, with NATO taking actions that are seen as threatening by Russia and Russia responding in kind, with Putin reminding the world9 that, “Russia is one of the most powerful nuclear nations. This is a reality, not just words.”
We also need to question whether it is in our national security interests to ally ourselves with the Kiev government when, on September 1, its Defense Minister declared that, “A great war has arrived at our doorstep – the likes of which Europe has not seen since World War Two.”10
Also on September 1, a group of former CIA intelligence analysts warned11that: “Accusations of a major Russian invasion of Ukraine appear not to be supported by reliable intelligence. Rather, the intelligence seems to be of the same dubious, politically fixed kind used 12 years ago to justify the U.S.-led attack on Iraq.” (The group also warned about faulty intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq War.)
These former intelligence analysts are not saying that our government’s accusation is wrong. But they are reminding us that there is historical evidence indicating that we should be more cautious in assuming that it is correct.
In a September 4 article in Foreign Policy, “Putin’s Nuclear Option,” 12 Jeffrey Taylor argues that: “Putin would never actually use nuclear weapons, would he? The scientist and longtime Putin critic Andrei Piontkovsky, a former executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow and a political commentator for the BBC World Service, believes he might. In August, Piontkovsky published a troubling account of what he believes Putin might do to win the current standoff with the West – and, in one blow, destroy NATO as an organization and finish off what’s left of America’s credibility as the world’s guardian of peace.”
I strongly encourage readers to read the full article. Again, Piotkovsky’s scenario is not likely, but given the consequences, even a small risk could be intolerable.
Defusing the Ukrainian crisis will require a more mature approach on the part of all parties. Focusing on what we need to do, we need to stop seeing Ukraine as a football game that will be won by the West or by Russia, and start being concerned with the safety of all its residents, of all ethnicities. If we do that, we will also reduce the risk that we find ourselves repeating the mistakes of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when neither side wanted to stare into the nuclear abyss, but both found themselves doing so.
As noted earlier, our mishandling of the Ukrainian crisis is unfortunately just one instance of a larger problem – dangerously sloppy thinking about nuclear weapons. Given that the survival of our homeland is at stake, our government needs to undertake a top-to-bottom review of the assumptions which underlie our current nuclear posture and correct any that are found to be wanting.
Dr. Martin E. Hellman is an Adjunct Senior Fellow for Nuclear Risk Analysis at FAS. Hellman was at IBM’s Watson Research Center from 1968-69 and an Assistant Professor of EE at MIT from 1969-71. Returning to Stanford in 1971, he served on the regular faculty until becoming Professor Emeritus in 1996. He has authored over seventy technical papers, ten U.S. patents and a number of foreign equivalents.
Along with Diffie and Merkle, Hellman invented public key cryptography, the technology which allows secure transactions on the Internet, including literally trillions of dollars of financial transactions daily. He has also been a long-time contributor to the computer privacy debate, starting with the issue of DES key size in 1975 and culminating with service (1994-96) on the National Research Council’s Committee to Study National Cryptographic Policy, whose main recommendations have since been implemented.
His current project, Defusing the Nuclear Threat, is applying quantitative risk analysis to a potential failure of nuclear deterrence. In addition to illuminating the level of risk inherent in threatening to destroy civilization in an effort to maintain the peace, this approach highlights how small changes, early in the accident chain, can reduce the risk far more than might first appear. This methodology has been endorsed by a number of prominent individuals including a former Director of the National Security Agency, Stanford’s President Emeritus, and two Nobel Laureates.
By Hans M. Kristensen
The exercises conducted by the world’s two largest nuclear-armed states come in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, as NATO and Russia appear to slide back down into a tit-for-tat posturing not seen since the Cold War.
Military posturing in Russia and NATO threaten to worsen the crisis and return Europe to an “us-and-them” adversarial relationship.
One good thing: the crisis so far has demonstrated the uselessness of the U.S. tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.
Different Styles, Different Messages
Vladimir Putin’s televised commanding of the nuclear strike exercise – flanked by the presidents of Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the Russian National Defense Command Center – made one thing very clear: Putin wanted to showcase his nuclear might to the world. Russian military news media showed the huge displays in the Command Center with the launch positions and impact areas of long-range nuclear missiles launched from a road-mobile launchers and ballistic missile submarines.
Other displays and images on the Russian Internet showed AS-15 Kent (Kh-55) nuclear cruise missiles launched from a Tu-95 “Bear” bomber (six missiles were launched), short-range ballistic missiles, and air-defense and ballistic missile defense interceptors reportedly repelled a “massive rocket nuclear strike” launched against Russia by “a hypothetical opponent.”
Of course everything was said to work just perfectly but there is no way to known how well the Russian forces performed, how realistic the exercise was designed to be, or what was different compared with previous exercises. Russia conducts these exercises each year and Russian military planners love to launch a lot of rockets very quickly with lots of smoke and noise (it looks impressive on television). But the exercise looked more like a one-day snap intended to showcase test launching of offensive and defensive forces rather than a significant new development.
The STRATCOM announcement of the Global Lightning exercise was, in contrast, much more timid, so far limited to a single press release. Mindful of the problematic timing, the press release said the timing was “unrelated to real-world events” and that the exercise has been planned for more than a year. But some new stories nonetheless linked the two events.
The STRATCOM press release didn’t say much about the exercise scenario or what forces would be involved. Only bombers – whose operations are highly visible and would probably be noticed anyway – were mentioned: 10 B-52 and up to six B-2 bombers. But SSBNs and ICBMs also participate in Global Lightning (although not with live test launches as in the Russian exercise) as well as refueling tankers and command and control units.
As its main annual strategic nuclear command post/field training exercise, STRATCOM uses Global Lightning to verify the readiness and effectiveness of U.S. nuclear forces and practice strike scenarios from OPLAN 8010-12 and other war plans against potential adversaries. Last updated in June 2012, OPLAN 8010-12 is being adjusted to incorporate decisions from the Obama administration’s June 2013 nuclear weapons employment strategy.
The previous Global Lightning exercise was held in 2012 (Global Lightning 2013 was canceled due to budget cuts) and is normally accompanied or followed by other nuclear-related exercises such as Global Thunder, Vigilant Shield, and Terminal Fury. In addition to strategic nuclear planning, STRATCOM supports regional nuclear targeting as well. The 2012 Global Lightning exercise supported Pacific Command’s Terminal Fury exercise in the Pacific and included several crisis and time-sensitive strike scenarios against extremely difficult target sets never seen before in Terminal Fury.
Back to Us and Them
One can read a lot into the exercises, if one really wants to. And some commentators have suggested that the exercises were deliberately intended as reminders to “the other side” of the Ukrainian crisis about the horrific military destructive power each side possesses.
I don’t think the Russian exercise or the U.S. Global Lightning exercise are directly linked to the Ukrainian crisis; they were planned long in advance. Nuclear weapons – and fortunately so – seem completely out of proportion to the circumstances of the situation in Ukraine.
Nonetheless, they do matter in the overall east-west sparing and the fact that the national leadership of Russia and the United States authorized these nuclear exercises at this particular time is a cause for concern. It is the first time nuclear forces have been rattled during the Ukrainian crisis. And because they are nuclear, the exercises add important weight to a pattern of increasingly militaristic behaviors on both sides.
Russia’s invasion of Crimea – bizarrely coinciding with Russia celebrating its defeat of a different invasion of the Soviet Union 73 years ago – to prevent loosing its Black Sea fleet area to an increasingly westerly looking Ukraine, and NATO responding by beefing up its military posture in Eastern Europe far from Ukraine to demonstrate “that NATO is prepared to meet and deter any threat to our alliance” – even though there are no signs of an increased Russian military threat against NATO territory in general – ought to have caused political leaders on both sides to delay the nuclear exercises to avoid fueling crisis sentiments and military posturing any further.
Instead, both sides now seem determined to stick to their guns and overturn the budding partnership and trust that had emerged after the Cold War. In doing so, the danger is, of course, that the military institutions on both sides are allowed to dominate the official responses to the crisis and deepen it rather than de-escalating and resolving it. No doubt, military hawks and defense contractors on both sides see an opportunity to use the Ukrainian crisis to get the defense budgets and weapons they have wanted for years but been unable to get because of budget cuts and the absence of a significant military “threat.”
The Russian air force has resumed long-range training flights with nuclear aircraft and often violates the air space of other countries. In March 2013, two Tu-22M3 backfire bombers reportedly simulated a nuclear strike against two targets in Sweden (although the aircraft did not violate Swedish air space at that time).
It is almost inevitable that increased NATO deployments and defense budgets in eastern member countries will trigger Russian military counter-steps closer to NATO borders. One of the first tell signs will be the Zapad exercise later this fall.
For its part, NATO has already deployed ships, aircraft, and troops to Eastern European countries and is considering how to further change its defense planning to respond with “air, land and sea ’reassurances’” to “a different paradigm, a different rule set” (translation: Russia is now an official military threat), according to NATO’s military commander General Philip Breedlove and “position those ‘reassurances’ across the breadth of our exposure: north, center, and south.”
NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen echoed Breedlove’s defense vision during a visit to Estonia on May 1st, saying the Ukrainian crisis had triggered a NATO response where “aircraft and ships from across the Alliance are reinforcing the security from the Baltic to the Black Sea.”
Breedlove and Rasmussen paint a military response that appears to go beyond the Ukrainian crisis itself and involve a broad reinforcement of NATO’s eastern areas. Breedlove got NATO approval for the initial deployments and exercises seen in recent weeks, but the defense ministers meeting in Brussels in June likely will prepare more fundamental changes to NATO military posture for approval at the NATO Summit in Wales in September.
Among other aspects, those changes will probably involve modifying NATO’s General Intelligence Estimate (MC 161) and NATO Ministerial Guidance to explicitly identify Russia, once again, as a potential threat. Doing so will open the door for more specific Article 5 contingency plans for the defense of eastern European NATO countries.
In reality, the military responses to the Ukraine crisis include many efforts that have been underway within NATO since 2008. The Baltic States and Poland have been urging NATO to draw up contingency plans for the defense of Eastern Europe against Russian incursions or military attack. Two obstacles worked against this: declining defense budgets (who’s going to pay for it?) and a reluctance to officially declare Russia to be a military threat to NATO. The latter obstacle is now gone and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s is now publicly using the Ukraine crisis to ask NATO countries to increase their defense budgets.
After a decade of depleting its declining resources on an costly, open-ended war in Afghanistan that it cannot win, the Ukrainian crisis seems to have given NATO a sense of new purpose: a return to its core mission of defending NATO territory. “Russia’s actions in Ukraine have made NATO’s value abundantly clear,” Hagel said earlier this month, “and I know from my frequent conversations with NATO defense ministers that they do not need any convincing on this point.”
But one of the biggest obstacles to increasing defense budgets, Hagel said, “has been a sense that the end of the Cold War ushered in the ‘end of history’ – an end to insecurity, at least in Europe and the end [of] aggression by nation states. But Russia’s action in Ukraine shatter that myth and usher in bracing new realities,” he concluded, and “over the long term, we should expect Russia to test our alliance’s purpose, stamina, and commitment.”
In other words, it’s back to us and them.
It is difficult to dismiss Eastern European jitters about Russia – after all, they were occupied by the Soviet Union and joined NATO specifically to get the security guarantee so never to be occupied again. And Russia’s unlawful annexation of Crimea has completely shattered its former status as a European partner.
But the big question is whether NATO responding to Ukraine by beefing up its military inadvertently plays into the hands of Russian hardliners and will serve to deepen rather than easing military competition in Europe.
Why the Putin regime would respond favorably to NATO increasing its military posture in Eastern Europe is not clear. Yet it seems inconceivable that NATO could chose not to do so; after all, providing military protection is the core purpose of the Alliance.
At the same time, the more they two sides posture to demonstrate their resolve or unity, the harder it will be for them to de-escalate the crisis and rebuild the trust. Remember, we’ve been down that road and it took us six decades to get out.
Rather, it seems more likely that beefing up military forces and operations will reaffirm, in the eyes of Russian policy makers and military planners, what they have already decided; that NATO is a threat that is trying to encroach Russia who therefore must protect its borders and secure a sphere of influence as a buffer. Georgy Bovt’s recent analysis in Moscow Times of the Russian mindset is worthwhile reading.
The Irrelevance of Tactical Nuclear Weapons
So what does all of that mean for nuclear weapon in Europe? Remember, they’re supposed to reassure the NATO allies!
I hear many say that the Ukrainian crisis makes it very difficult to imagine a reduction, much less a withdrawal, of U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons from Europe. Some people have even argued that the Ukrainian crisis could have been avoided if Ukraine had kept the nuclear weapons the Soviet Union left behind when it crumbled in 1991 (the argument ignores that Ukraine didn’t have the keys to use the weapons and would have been isolated as a nuclear rogue if it had not handed them over).
Only two years ago, NATO rejected calls for a withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe based on the argument that the deployment continues to serve an important role as a symbol of the U.S. security commitment to Europe and because eastern European NATO countries wanted the weapons in Europe to be assured about their protection against Russia. The May 2012 Defense and Deterrence Posture Review (DDPR), implementing the Strategic Concept from 2010, reaffirmed status quo by concluding “that the Alliance’s nuclear force posture currently meets the criteria for an effective deterrence and defense posture.”
Yet here we are, only two years later, where the nuclear weapons have proven absolutely useless in reassuring the allies in the most serious crisis since the Cold War. Indeed, it is hard to think of a stronger reaffirmation of the impotence and irrelevance of tactical nuclear weapons to Europe’s security challenges than NATO’s decision to deploy conventional forces and beef up conventional contingency planning and defense budgets in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.
Put in another way, if the U.S. nuclear deployment was adequate for an effective deterrence and defense posture, why is it now inadequate to assure the allies?
In fact, one can argue with some validity that spending hundreds of millions of dollars on maintaining U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe after the end of the Cold War has done very little for NATO security, except wasting resources on a nuclear capability that is useless rather than spending the money on conventional capabilities that can be used. It is about fake versus real assurances.
The deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe seems to be for academic and doctrinal discourses rather than for real security. In the real world they don’t seem to matter much and seem downright useless for the kinds of security challenges facing NATO countries today. But try telling that to current and former officials who have been spending the past five years lobbying and educating Eastern NATO governments on why the weapons should stay.
This publication was made possible by a grant from the Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.
As readers of the FAS Strategic Security Blog know, we have been concerned about the potential of the crisis in Ukraine to escalate, further worsening U.S.-Russian relations and possibly resulting in armed conflict involving NATO and Russia. As the May 25th presidential election in Ukraine is fast approaching, this post draws attention to advice and recommendations from the International Crisis Group, a highly respected non-governmental organization. Here’s the announcement of the major findings from the group’s newest report Ukraine: Running out of Time.
[As an organization comprising thousands of members with differing views, FAS headquarters reminds readers that this and other posts do not represent the position of FAS as an organization. Instead, these posts provide a platform for reasoned discourse and exchange of ideas. Constructive comments are welcomed.]
“Ukraine needs a government of national unity that reaches out to its own people and tackles the country’s long overdue reforms; both Russia and Western powers should back a vision for the country as a bridge between East and West, not a geopolitical battleground.”
The report “offers recommendations to rebuild and reform the country and reverse the geopolitical standoff it has provoked. The Kyiv government has been unable to assert itself or communicate coherently and appears to have lost control of parts of the country to separatists, emboldened if not backed by Russia. To prevent further escalation, Ukraine needs strong international assistance and the commitment of all sides to a solution through dialogue, not force.
The report’s major findings and recommendations are:
- Although conditions for the election are far from ideal, it must take place as planned and nationwide. The vote is needed to produce a new leader with a popular mandate to steer the country through a process of national reconciliation and economic reform. All presidential candidates should, before the polls, commit to establish a broad-based government of national unity; the new president’s first priority must be to form such a government.
- Ukrainian leaders should reach out immediately to the south and east and explain plans for local self-government and minority rights; they should also declare that they do not desire NATO membership.
- Ukraine’s damage goes far beyond separatism. It is the fruit of decades of mismanagement and corruption across security organs and most other arms of government. Far-reaching reform of the security sector and measures to strengthen the rule of law are crucial.
- Russia should declare unqualified support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and withdraw all troops from the borders, as well as any paramilitaries who have infiltrated from Crimea or elsewhere. It should persuade Russian speakers in the south and east to end their occupations of government buildings and attacks on local security apparatuses and disband their militias.
- The U.S. and EU need to convey a consistent and measured message, recognizing – even if not accepting – Moscow’s take on the crisis’s origins. This message should comprise political support for Kyiv to conduct elections; political, financial and expert support for a national unity government to carry out stabilization measures; measures to make Ukraine viable for investors; further sanctions to bite deeper into Russia’s economy if it does not change course; and quiet high-level talks with Moscow aimed at resolving the crisis.
- Both Moscow and Western powers should emphasize that the present situation can only be resolved by diplomatic means; express support for a post-election government of national unity; take all possible measures to avoid geopolitical confrontation; and insulate other mutual concerns from divisions over Ukraine.
‘On the ground in Ukraine today, Russia has immediate advantages of escalation,’ says Paul Quinn-Judge, Europe and Central Asia Program Director. ‘Over time, the West likely has the economic and soft-power edge. A successful, democratic Ukraine – integrated economically in the West but outside military alliances, and remaining a close cultural, linguistic and trading partner of Russia – would benefit all.’”
The crisis in Ukraine continues to simmer, but thankfully has not yet boiled over. Here are some of the developments since I last wrote on this topic, followed by some thoughts on what is needed to minimize the risk of the conflict spiraling out of control.
Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma assessed the situation as follows:
Russia does not recognize the legitimacy of the current government in Kyiv and will not negotiate with it. Ukraine has no chance there. Ukraine could have taken concrete steps in this direction in the beginning but we didn’t do that. For instance, a delegation of lawmakers could have gone to Moscow [to bring Russia into the process.] …
To analyze Russia’s actions, you have to try to understand Putin’s point of view. Russia has always feared having NATO right under Moscow’s nose. … Putin never trusted Ukraine, especially its government. He always assumed that one day someone would come to power in Ukraine that would ignore the Russian-Ukrainian friendship, and Ukraine would join the European Union and NATO. …
I don’t see any candidate [for the Ukrainian presidency] who enjoys enough popularity to unite Ukraine. …The future leadership should include representatives of all regions in order to unite the country. If it consists of only half of Ukraine, there will consequences in the other half of the country.
Prof. Keith Darden of American University wrote in Foreign Affairs:
A pro-European, pro-NATO government ruling a regionally divided country – and one that is quite vulnerable to Russian military intervention – is a recipe for instability, not for European integration. Simply pushing forward with EU association and NATO integration without pushing the government in Kiev to address its illegitimacy problems through means other than arrest is not much of a strategy. It’s not even much of a gamble, as it is almost certain to fail. One way or another, power in Ukraine needs to be spread out. …
The most obvious way to do that is through some form of constitutional change. Call it what you want: decentralization, federalization, regionalization. … Kiev needs to transfer some very substantial powers, including those over education, language, law, and taxation, to the regions. … The Russian plan to federalize Ukraine, which, in reality, is a plan to turn Ukraine into a weak confederation where the central government is largely ceremonial, is a step too far. … [But] As long as Ukraine retains its highly centralized winner-take-all political system, and one regional faction sits in Kiev with the backing of either Russia or the West, Ukraine is going to be unstable. With a little bit of constitutional accommodation, though, the divided house just might stand.
The interim Ukrainian government (or junta in Moscow’s view) has repeatedly attempted to use military force to evict pro-Russian demonstrators (or terrorists in Kiev’s view) from government buildings in the eastern part of Ukraine. These efforts have had limited success, with some Ukrainian units surrendering or defecting to the pro-Russian side. This may lead (or already have led) Kiev to consider using some of Ukraine’s more virulently anti-Russian elements (e.g., the Pravy (Right) Sektor and the Svoboda Party) since they can be counted on not to avoid bloodshed.
Russia sees the West as exercising a blatant double standard in that it warned Yanukovych not to use military force against the Maidan demonstrators who eventually brought down his government, yet approves the use of similar force against pro-Russian demonstrators. Of course, Russia itself is not immune to holding double standards, but that makes things doubly dangerous. If both sides in a conflict mistakenly believe they are in the right, they then expect the other (“wrong”) side to back down. When both sides have thousands of nuclear weapons, the risk is clearly heightened.
Conditions almost boiled over last Friday (May 2) when pro- and anti-Russian gangs clashed in a bloody riot in Odessa and dozens of pro-Russian demonstrators were burned alive in a fire. According to the New York TImes:
What followed were hours of bloody street clashes involving bats, pistols and firebombs. … The pro-Russians, outnumbered by the Ukrainians, fell back … [and] sought refuge in the trade union building.
Yanus Milteynus, a 42-year-old construction worker and pro-Russian activist, said he watched from the roof as the pro-Ukrainian crowd threw firebombs into the building’s lower windows, while those inside feared being beaten to death by the crowd if they tried to flee. …
The conflict is hardening hearts on both sides. As the building burned, Ukrainian activists sang the Ukrainian national anthem, witnesses on both sides said. They also hurled a new taunt: “Colorado” for the Colorado potato beetle, striped red and black like the pro-Russian ribbons. Those outside chanted “burn Colorado, burn,” witnesses said. Swastikalike symbols were spray painted on the building, along with graffiti reading “Galician SS,” though it was unclear when it had appeared, or who had painted it.
It should be noted that anti-Russian reports allege that the fire was started by the pro-Russian group when they threw Molotov cocktails down from the upper floors. It is impossible at this point in time to say which version is true, and that cautionary note applies to almost all reports.
Harvard’s Prof. Graham Allison summarized the nuclear risk well in a recent article in The National Interest:
The thought that what we are now witnessing in Ukraine could trigger a cascade of actions and reactions that end in war will strike most readers as fanciful. Fortunately, it is. But we should not forget that in May 1914, the possibility that the assassination of an Archduke could produce a world war seemed almost inconceivable. History teaches that unlikely, even unimaginable events do happen.
Given that less than six years elapsed between the Georgian War and this current crisis, each with the potential to lead to armed conflict between US and Russian forces or nuclear threats, even a small probability for each event to escalate can result in an unacceptable cumulative risk.
Adding to the risk, British Foreign Minister William Hague just told Georgia that its bid to join NATO enjoys his “very clear support.” Such promises appear to have played a role both in emboldening Georgia to fire the first shots in its 2008 war with Russia and in Russia’s outsized reaction. While the promise was made to Georgia, it seems clearly linked to the situation in Ukraine.
To reduce the risk of the Ukrainian crisis spiraling out of control, both the West and Russia should stop viewing the conflict as a football game in which there is a winner and a loser. Instead, we need to start being more concerned with creating a situation in which all the people of Ukraine can live reasonable lives, without fear of subjugation or physical harm.
Today’s news shows a heightened nuclear risk due to a dangerous feedback process at work in the Ukraine. The New York Times’ page 1 ominous headline was, “Striking Town, Ukraine Forces Defy Warning,” and the Wall Street Journal echoed the danger, “Ukraine Sends Troops East As Pro-Russia Forces Strike.” Is the Ukrainian crisis spiraling out of control, and if so, what might we do to reverse that dangerous process?
The debate has become paralyzed with the West focused on protecting the interim, pro-Western government and its primarily ethnic Ukrainian supporters, while Moscow’s concerns center on protecting ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. With the violence escalating on both sides in what is already a small civil war, the West and Russia each have legitimate concerns, but neither side is taking in the whole picture. Where are the calls for protecting the lives and the rights of both ethnic groups living in the Ukraine?
Instead, the situation is descending into a repeat of the Cold War, where each side pointed to the misdeeds of the other (Soviet subjugation of Eastern Europe versus American subjugation of Latin America), but neither side looked at the errors it was capable of correcting – namely its own. It’s time to break that cycle and start introspecting instead of acting out in anger and blame. Even if one side would do that, it could be a game changer.
To help us introspect, I won’t repeat the reports of atrocities committed by Yanukovych’s government since you are well aware of those from our mainstream media. Instead, I will focus on allegations – and I emphasize that’s all the reports on both sides are until there is a fuller investigation – that the interim government is not as innocent as Western media might lead us to believe. Just as calls for protecting one ethnic group or the other are only half the story, the same is true for each set of allegations. What is desperately needed is an in-depth investigation to sort out the truths from the half-truths from the lies.
In an interview in the Nixon Center’s The National Interest, Sergey Glazyev, a close adviser to Vladimir Putin claims that a February 20 attack by Ukrainian nationalists on five buses carrying ethnic Russians led to Russia’s decision to send troops into the Crimea:
I can furthermore tell you that, even in Crimea, about two weeks before the referendum, there were no plans to use the military among the Russian leadership, and even among our Crimean colleagues. The application of Putin to the Council of the Federation to use force was a reaction to two things – the shooting at a delegation of Crimeans coming back from Kiev who were ambushed and shot at by neo-fascist paramilitaries that stopped the five busses of the delegation, shot several people who protested, and stripped and taunted the rest; and to further threats by Maydan activists to Russians and Russian speakers. The paramilitaries burned the busses, and when Crimea learned of this disgrace, there was nothing that could stop its further course towards independence.
Should such events happen in other parts of Ukraine, people would obviously fight for their rights and safety, and call not just on Russia, but also on the international community, for help. This would be a direct consequence of the fact that, at present, neo-fascists in the South-East of Ukraine are committing outrages, resorting to armed violence, to lynch law, to the burning of houses of people they don’t like, and these aren’t just isolated cases. They began with the secret murder of an old woman on whom they put a sign “Jew and communist.” … The situation is inching closer to civil war, and in a civil war, or in mass cases of armed vigilantes shooting people, regardless of whether the perpetrators wear a police or military uniform, it will be not just Russia, but also the international community that would protect people.
This allegation led me to find an article which included video of the alleged bus attack and interviews with the alleged victims. The article states:
Reporter: On February the 20th, in the Cherkassy Oblast, a mob of armed insurgents stopped several buses with citizens from Simferopol. The passengers were beat up and dragged out of the bus. They were then piled up upon each other, they were forced to walk crouching on their heels, and forced to sing the Ukrainian anthem.
Interviewee: they were hammering the buses and pouring petrol on them, on one of their checkpoints they were executing people with shotguns, the buses there were all burned, they were throwing buckets of petrol on our bus and setting fire to it. When people fled the bus [they] were killed with baseball bats. We could have resisted, of course, but they all had firearms which they were not hiding. [They] go around in the middle of the day with assault-rifles and shotguns taken from the Berkut, with hunting rifles and sawed-off shotguns. …
The article goes on to claim that:
Unlike “official” Kiev, the Ukie blogosphere did pick up on this story, but gave it its own spin: they say that these buses were filled with pro-Russian provocateurs which they call “titushki” so that is why they got stopped, “arrested” and burned. … for the people of Crimea this is yet another reason to want out for the ugly Banderastan [a reference to Stepan Bandera who is seen as a national hero by most Ukrainians, but a Nazi collaborator by most Russians] the US and EU are building in the Ukraine.
A colleague who is fluent in Russian watched the video and sent me the following observations:
The video interviews people who allegedly suffered at the hands of Ukrainian nationalists. The two men interviewed (in Russian) and who identified themselves as Russian speaking Crimeans said that they were beaten and threatened with openly displayed firearms by Ukrainian nationalists. No evidence was presented as to how they know that’s who threatened them. The voice-over narration gravely said: “These nationalist’s will not be punished by Ukraine. Ukraine does not punish her own.”
Unfortunately, there is no mention on the video of who produced it. I don’t think this video is staged but it is clearly pushing a pro-Russian agenda.
I tried to find out who the blogger was who wrote this article, but could only find an Asia Times Online page which said, “[The author] is an anonymous blogger and occasional contributor to Asia Times Online who writes at The Vineyard of the Saker.”
My blog post of March 6 noted that the Estonian Foreign Minister, Urmas Paet, in what he thought was a private phone call – but turned out to be tapped and leaked – stated:
… there is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind [the] snipers, it was not Yanukovych, but it was somebody from the new coalition.
Especially given Estonia’s anti-Russian stance, this “declaration against self-interest” deserves further investigation, but has received almost no attention in the West. A recent exception was an investigative report by German public television, which claims strong evidence that the dead protestors were hit by sniper fire from locations controlled by other protestors, and particularly by what the article calls “the controversial Svoboda party.” It concludes:
The Kiev Prosecutor General’s Office [of the interim government] is confident in their assessment [that Yanukovych’s people are to blame for the sniper fire, but] we are not.”
I will end this post with excerpts from Pros. Stephen Cohen’s recent article on the crisis which brings its nuclear risk into clearer focus and provides a context:
If NATO forces move toward Poland’s border with Ukraine, as is being called for in Washington and Europe, Moscow is likely to send its forces into eastern Ukraine. The result would be a danger of war comparable to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. …
Why did this happen? … The answer given by the Obama administration, and overwhelmingly by the US political-media establishment, is that President Vladimir Putin is solely to blame. … But there is an alternative explanation, one more in accord with the facts. Beginning with the Clinton administration, and supported by every subsequent Republican and Democratic president and Congress, the US-led West has unrelentingly moved its military, political and economic power ever closer to post-Soviet Russia. … this bipartisan, winner-take-all approach has come in various forms.
They include US-funded “democracy promotion” NGOs more deeply involved in Russia’s internal politics than foreign ones are permitted to be in our country; the 1999 bombing of Moscow’s Slav ally Serbia, forcibly detaching its historic province of Kosovo; a US military outpost in former Soviet Georgia (along with Ukraine, one of Putin’s previously declared “red lines”), contributing to a brief proxy war in 2008 …
All of this has unfolded, sincerely for some proponents, in the name of “democracy” and “sovereign choice” for the many countries involved, but the underlying geopolitical agenda has been clear. During the … 2004 “Orange Revolution,” an influential GOP columnist, Charles Krauthammer, acknowledged, “This is about Russia first, democracy only second…. The West wants to finish the job begun with the fall of the Berlin Wall and continue Europe’s march to the east…. The great prize is Ukraine.” …
Nothing in Washington’s replies diminishes Putin’s reasonable belief that the EU trade agreement rejected by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in November, and Yanukovych’s overthrow in February by violent street protests, leading to the current “illegitimate” government, were intended to sever Ukraine’s centuries-long ties with Russia and bind it to NATO. … the White House opposes new parliamentary elections, which would leave the existing Parliament strongly influenced, even intimidated, by its ultranationalist deputies and their armed street supporters, who recently threatened to impose their will directly by entering the building.
The quantitative risk analysis approach to nuclear deterrence not only allows a more objective estimate of how much risk we face, but also highlights otherwise unforeseen ways to reduce that risk. The current crisis in Ukraine provides a good example.
Last Fall, I met Daniel Altman, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT, who is visiting Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) this academic year. When I told him of my interest in risk analysis of nuclear deterrence, he said that I should pay attention to what might happen in Sevastopol in 2017, something that had been totally off my radar screen.
Sevastopol is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and along with the rest of the Crimea, was part of Russia until 1954, when Khrushchev arbitrarily “gave” it to the Ukraine. With Russia and Ukraine both parts of the Soviet Union, such a transfer of territory seemed to make no real difference. But, when the USSR broke up in 1991, a good case can be made that the Crimea, with its largely Russian population, should have been returned to Russia.
That did not happen, and with Sevastopol now part of an independent Ukraine, Russia had to negotiate a lease on what, for centuries, had been its own naval base. That lease runs out in 2017. Back in 2008, when she was Prime Minister of a somewhat Russo-phobic Ukrainian government, Yulia Tymoshenko ruled out any extension of the lease. If that were to happen, the ethnic Russians in the Crimea, and especially those in Sevastopol – many of whom depend on the Black Sea Fleet for employment – would likely petition to be reincorporated back into Russia. This would be likely to create an extremely dangerous crisis, since Russia would see this as righting an historical mistake, while the West would see it as Russia stealing part of the Ukraine.
The potential for such a crisis was reduced in 2010, when the more Russian-friendly government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych extended the lease on Sevastopol for 25 years. But even before the current crisis, there was a risk that a new, Russo-phobic government could come to power and annul the lease extension. Now that Yanukovych has been deposed and anti-Russian Ukrainian elements are part of the interim government, that is an even greater concern.
Given Altman’s alerting me to the risk of “Sevastopol 2017,” I was less surprised, but more concerned than most Americans when the current crisis developed in Ukraine. My concern escalated yesterday (Saturday, March 1, 2014) when Putin requested and received authorization “in connection with the extraordinary situation that has developed in Ukraine … to use the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine until the social and political situation in that country is normalised.” The resultant actions by Russian troops are seen as an invasion by some elements of the interim Ukrainian government.
Ronald Reagan’s former ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, has a more nuanced take on the situation, starting with a February 8 article which argues that whichever side (Russia or the EU) wins the economic tug of war over Ukraine would lose:
So what if President Yanukovych had signed the EC association agreement? The money available from the IMF would not have staved off bankruptcy very long and would have required unpopular austerity measures … The upshot would be that, most likely, in a year to 18 months, and maybe even sooner, most Ukrainians would blame the EU and the West for their misery.
And if the Russian promise of a loan and cheap gas is renewed to some Ukrainian government, that too would do nothing to promote the reform and modernization the Ukrainian government and economy desperately need. … Ukrainians, even those in the East, would begin to blame Russia for their misery. “If only we had signed that EU association agreement…!”
In sum, I believe it has been a very big strategic mistake – by Russia, by the EU and most of all by the U.S. – to convert Ukrainian political and economic reform into an East-West struggle. … In both the short and long run only an approach that does not appear to threaten Russia is going to work.
Ambassador Matlock posted another article yesterday (Saturday, March 1), which elaborated (emphasis added):
If I were Ukrainian I would echo the immortal words of the late Walt Kelly’s Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The fact is, Ukraine is a state but not yet a nation. … The current territory of the Ukrainian state was assembled, not by Ukrainians themselves but by outsiders … To think of it as a traditional or primordial whole is absurd.
… there is no way Ukraine will ever be a prosperous, healthy, or united country unless it has a friendly (or, at the very least, non-antagonistic) relationship with Russia [yet that is the kind of government the West seems intent on installing.] …
So far, Ukrainian nationalists in the west have been willing to concede none of these conditions [needed for stability], and the United States has, by its policies, either encouraged or condoned attitudes and policies that have made them anathema to Moscow. …
Obama’s “warning” to Putin was ill-advised. Whatever slim hope that Moscow might avoid overt military intervention in Ukraine disappeared when Obama in effect threw down a gauntlet and challenged him. This was not just a mistake of political judgment—it was a failure to understand human psychology—unless, of course, he actually wanted a Russian intervention, which is hard for me to believe. …
Ukraine is already shattered de facto, with different groups in command of the various provinces. If there is any hope of putting it together again, there must be cooperation of all parties in forming a coalition at least minimally acceptable to Russia and the Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens in the East and South.
Ambassador Matlock added another post today (Sunday, March 2) which is also well worth reading, and I’ll end with a few additional thoughts of my own:
Last October and again last November, I quoted Russian international relations expert, Fyodor Lukyanov, as warning that America’s penchant for regime change “will lead to such destabilization that will overwhelm all, including Russia.”
It’s hard for most Americans to see how our helping to overthrow regimes in Iraq, Libya, and the Arab world could produce fears that we also are bent on regime change in a nation as powerful as Russia. But what’s happening in Ukraine brings that fear into sharper focus.
As corrupt and unpopular as Yanukovych was, he was the elected president, and the current interim government can be viewed as the result of mob rule. It doesn’t take 51% of a population to overthrow a government, and some of the groups which overthrew Yanukovych appear to have anti-Russian, anti-Semitic, and possibly even Fascist elements.
It does not seem unreasonable to me for Putin to fear that, if an economic or other crisis were to produce large-scale protests against him, the US would again support regime change. How would we have responded if the Soviet Union had sent support to the Watts rioters in 1965?
It also needs to be recognized that, while Russia’s interests in Ukraine are primarily geopolitical, it also has some legitimate human rights concerns. Under the earlier Ukrainian government, Russian language films imported into Ukraine had to be dubbed into Ukrainian and subtitles added for ethnic Russians. To understand how this felt to them, imagine how we would feel if we were barred by law from watching Hollywood movies in their original English language versions, and instead forced to watch them dubbed into French, with English subtitles.
There is a danger of Russia subjugating Ukraine, but there also is a history of Ukraine subjugating its own Russian minority. A solution is needed which recognizes the legitimate rights of all residents of Ukraine, and right now my nation is not supporting that approach. I hope it will recognize and correct its mistake. That would shorten the suffering of Ukrainian residents of all ethnicities and reduce the risk of a Russian-American crisis – as well as its attendant nuclear risk.