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Post US allies worry that Russia's missile exercise is tip of a nuclear iceberg

US allies worry that Russia's missile exercise is tip of a nuclear iceberg
By Oren Dorell | USA Today | Published: October 21, 2016

Russia deployed nuclear-capable missiles this month to its territory in the Baltic Sea, its latest aggressive move with nuclear weapons that is alarming the West.

Worrisome signs include increased talk about using nuclear weapons, more military maneuvers with nuclear arms, development of advanced nuclear munitions and public discussion of a new war doctrine that accelerates the use of such weapons.

“Russia is exercising its military forces and its nuclear force more offensively than it used to do,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C. How to respond “is hotly debated in NATO,” he said.

“Eastern European countries want a robust response, even on the nuclear side,” Kristensen said. “Western countries want NATO to take conventional steps. There’s a lack of appetite in NATO overall to go too gung-ho in the nuclear realm right now.”

While the United States and Russia have comparable arsenals of long-range nuclear weapons, the United States has eliminated all but 500 low-yield warheads in its short-range arsenal. By contrast, Russia in recent years has modernized its short-range weapons and accumulated about 2,000 low-yield warheads, according to a study by Kristensen.

The temporary deployment in Kaliningrad, which Russia retained after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, was part of a training exercise, according to Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite called the deployment an "open demonstration of power and aggression against not the Baltic states but against European capitals."

A senior Obama administration official told USA Today the U.S. and its European allies are closely monitoring the situation in Kaliningrad, and encouraged Russia to refrain from actions that increase tensions with its neighbors. The official did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The official pointed out that Russia last month pulled out of a joint U.S.-Russian agreement to monitor each other’s disposal of plutonium fuel from dismantled nuclear weapons. Russia's nuclear saber-rattling risks creating miscalculations and misunderstandings in a crisis, the official said.

Senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have complained about Russia's lack of compliance with its obligations under the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The treaty bars the production, testing or deployment of ground-based missiles with a range of 300 to 3,400 miles.

Russian officials have employed similar nuclear threats since the 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea province.

In March 2015, while Denmark was considering participating in a NATO missile shield, Russia’s ambassador to Copenhagen, Mikhail Vanin, told the newspaper Jyllands-Posten that Danes should consider that such a move would prompt Russia to target Danish warships with nuclear missiles.

And in August 2014, after the Crimean invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin reminded an audience at a youth camp “that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers,” and “it's best not to mess with us.”

Analyst Peter Doran of the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington said Russia’s foreign policy and war-fighting strategy are “evolving faster than our responses can keep up.”

Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said NATO officials and other observers disagree on whether the rhetoric and surge in nuclear activity is a bluff to counter superior NATO forces, or part of a new Russian strategy that combines nuclear threats, conventional warfare and low-yield nuclear weapons in the battlefield against NATO forces that are more numerous and technologically advanced.

“If you’re Vladimir Putin, you’re making an effort to portray Russia as a superpower,” Pifer said. “The only asset Russia has as a superpower is lots of nuclear weapons.”

Pifer said he would like to see U.S. leaders provide “more public pushback against the Russians” on the issue.

That has already started to happen. The U.S. and NATO in the past year agreed to spend $3.4 billion to train and deploy brigade combat teams to the Baltics to deter a Russian advance.

In a speech to U.S. nuclear personnel at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota last month, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said American forces are working to match the Russian threat, though he acknowledged they have some catching up to do.

“We’re refreshing NATO's nuclear playbook to better integrate conventional and nuclear deterrence to ensure we plan and train like we'd fight, and to deter Russia from thinking it can benefit from nuclear use in a conflict with NATO,” Carter said.

The most likely scenario for nuclear weapons to be used in battle is not a massive and apocalyptic exchange, Carter said, “but rather the unwise resort to smaller but still unprecedentedly terrible attacks, for example, by Russia or North Korea to try to coerce a conventionally superior opponent to back off or abandon an ally during a crisis.”

Russia’s more advanced tactical nuclear arsenal is designed to blunt the advantage provided by superior U.S. technology and NATO forces.

To counter U.S. stealth aircraft that use jamming technology to keep their exact location invisible to enemy radar, Russia has nuclear-tipped supersonic anti-aircraft missiles that would create a large enough blast in the general vicinity to take out an entire formation of allied aircraft.

Russia also has nuclear tipped torpedoes, depth charges and missiles to counter U.S. Navy nuclear-armed submarines and aircraft carrier groups. And it has plans for a nuclear-armed submersible drone that would contaminate a port with radiation so it could not be used.

The U.S. had many of the same tactical nuclear weapons as the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but it got rid of most of them after the Soviet collapse, said Matthew Kroenig, a professor at Georgetown University.

Now, if there’s a conflict, Russia has a strategy to use nuclear weapons on a limited basis to force the U.S. and the West to back down, he said.

©2016 USA Today
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O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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