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News on Sunday that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces to “special combat readiness” status rightly caught the attention of the world. No one really knows what that means. To hear the leader of a country with the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons (Russia – 1,458 deployed vs. USA – 1389 deployed) talk about putting his nuclear forces on “special combat readiness” status is jarring. Not since the Cold War have people really thought about the specter of nuclear war. In response to Putin’s announcement, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called Putin’s move “irresponsible” and “dangerous rhetoric.”
Despite the “special combat readiness” alert status Putin ordered two days ago, it should be noted that the United States military always maintains its nuclear arsenal at a high alert status.
We can launch our roughly 400 land-based nuclear missiles in a matter of a few short minutes. In addition, we have 60 bombers capable of delivering a nuclear payload anywhere in the world, and since hostilities began, we have forward-deployed nuclear-capable B-52 bombers at air bases in the U.K. Our sea-based nuclear missiles – comprising roughly 70% of our nuclear arsenal – are on submarines that are constantly patrolling the world’s oceans. You can bet that at this very moment there are a few Ohio-class Trident submarines lingering close to Russian waters.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, “The fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States and its allies and partners.” Further, “The United States will only consider use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.”
The first several days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have not gone according to Putin’s plan. Despite committing roughly 70% of the 180,000+ troops Russia amassed along Ukraine’s borders, Russian forces have yet to advance more than a few dozen miles into Ukrainian territory and have yet to capture a single major population center.
This is a great frustration to Putin; so much so that he will further escalate the conflict in Ukraine, or against the nations supporting Ukraine, in order to force Ukraine and its allies to capitulate to his demands.
This is a known Russian military tactic called, “escalate to de-escalate.” It was first developed during the Cold War and is a standard Russian military strategy.
In the context of Ukraine, it could well mean that the Russian military begins to indiscriminately fire into Ukrainian cities in order to decimate them and terrorize the civilian population. It may mean that Ukrainian and Western nations that support Ukraine are targets of cyberattacks. It may mean that the Russians announce that their nuclear forces have been placed on high alert. These and other tactics escalate the conflict and are meant to bring adversaries to the bargaining table so that the Russians may gain concessions.
President Putin’s Sunday announcement that Russian nuclear forces are on “special combat readiness” alert was a very unpleasant surprise and meant to shake up Ukraine and those supporting Ukraine. It may be a very pleasant surprise to learn that U.S. nuclear forces are always on high alert and ready to defend the United States.
Michael Krull is President & CEO of CRA, Inc., and an adjunct professor teaching politics and public policy at Georgetown University. He also participates as a lecturer for the Georgetown Global Education Institute, which brings senior government leaders from the Pacific Rim to the United States for short-term study tours.