President Putin made a big show last week out of his speech and accompanying photos suggesting and displaying a major shift in Russia’s nuclear systems. Whether indeed Russia had elevated its nuclear systems to a higher level than previously assumed and now has additional tactical capabilities was an open debate. Aircraft, missiles, and submarine launched drones were some of the items which Putin championed in his hour speech to the Russian people. It raised numerous strategic and tactical questions as well as what were the motivations behind Putin’s actions.
Some strategists suggested that it was a provocative move by Putin to engage with the Russian people prior to the forthcoming election. There was no suggestion that Putin was going to lose the election, but this action made the Russians enthusiastic about why Putin’s leadership was so important for the future of the Russian people. Others observed that Putin wanted to demonstrate to both his supporters and detractors in the Ukraine and other adjoining countries that Russia’s power was hardly diminished.
On a larger geo-political stage this demonstration sought to wave Russian sabers at the U.S. and the West, who had any presumed a diminished Russian nuclear arsenal. Putin was underscoring that such ideas were purely imaginary. In fact, Putin was seeking to display a level of nuclear power preparedness implying an expanded Russian nuclear force. All of these moves were occurring within an alleged Russian commitment to a reduce nuclear weapons and warheads.
Among American weapons experts and Kremlinologists there were varying responses as well from politicians of all persuasions. These ranged from a rather dismissive analysis of the Russian display and its weapons’ potency to a genuine concern that Putin was actively seeking to escalate U.S.-Russian relations to the level of Cold War belligerency. One senses that regardless of the breakdown, there were few voices which found this Russian demonstration to be a constructive one.
There was once again a deafening silence from the White House concerning Russia’s activity. While the President found time to provoke a new global trade war last week, he made no mention of Putin’s speech or any of its possible implications; critical, disturbing, or indifferent. What was clear was that Trump remains totally unwilling or incapable of raising any critical questions concerning Russia’s behavior.
Trump’s connections with Russia and his relations with Putin remain a total mystery although conjecture abounds and is intensifying. What seems to be remarkable is that the public continues to tolerate this behavior. There even has been a suggestion that serious security dangers might be developing between the U.S. and Russia similar to those that existed during the Cold War; that this step by Putin was not “merely” political gamesmanship. The one extraordinary difference today with which all sides need to reckon, however, is the presence of a very different China actor than was present during the height of the Cold War.