WASHINGTON (TND) — Russian President Vladimir Putin has continued making threats about his country’s vast nuclear arsenal as the invasion of Ukraine has caused Europe to reconsider its defense policies and alliances.
The most recent threat came from the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, who said Thursday that Moscow would move to strengthen its defenses in the Baltic region if Sweden or Finland join the NATO alliance.
“There can be no more talk of any nuclear-free status for the Baltic — the balance must be restored,” Medvedev said.
Dan Hamilton, a senior non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Medvedev’s threat was disingenuous.
“They already have nuclear weapons in the Baltic region,” Hamilton said. “So, there's really nothing that he's saying. It's just an effort to intimidate publics.”
The public threats about moving weaponry also lack another element of Russia’s nuclear arsenal: submarine-launched weapons.
“You can launch a nuclear weapon from a submarine from anywhere basically, but also from within the Baltic region and move it out and move it in and that can also find its target in a matter of a couple of minutes,” Hamilton said. “This notion that they would move things in, it just isn't the way the nuclear world works, and it's also, they already have moved them in.”
U.S. intelligence and military agencies have been monitoring Russia’s nuclear stance since the beginning of the war when Putin put the country’s nuclear deterrent forces on alert.
To this point in the war, Putin’s threats have not stopped the West from continuing to provide aid to Ukraine.
“Putin made some pretty explicit nuclear threats at the beginning of the war, but they neither compelled Ukrainian surrender nor deterred U.S. and NATO from imposing sanctions and providing increasingly lethal aid,” said Dr. Nancy Gallagher, director of the Center for International Security Studies at the University of Maryland.
Some experts believe Russia has determined the use of any type of nuclear weapon runs a high risk of nuclear retaliation.
In a speech at Georgia Tech, CIA director William Burns said the U.S. hasn’t seen a lot of practical evidence to reinforce the concern about the use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine.
However, Burns did say the threat can’t be taken lightly.
“Given the setbacks that they’ve faced so far militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons,” Burns said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told CNN’s Jake Tapper the world should be prepared for Russia to take that step.
“Chemical weapons, they should do it, they could do it, for them the life of the people, nothing. That’s why,” Zelensky said to CNN. “We should think not be afraid, not be afraid but be ready. But that is not a question for Ukraine, not only for Ukraine but for all the world, I think.”
Putin’s opposition to Russia’s neighboring countries joining NATO has been a consistent pretext during the war in Ukraine. The potential for Ukraine to become a NATO member was his rationale for the invasion.
Hamilton said it is more likely that Putin just isn’t willing to tolerate a democratic and successful Ukraine and doesn’t want to be the Russian leader who “lost” Ukraine.
“It's really about a different sense of Russian security, that it must keep its neighbors weak and fragile,” Hamilton said. “That's a very different sense of security — it's not because anybody's threatening Russia from within the NATO alliance.”
The Kremlin may have sought to prevent neighboring countries from joining the NATO alliance with threats of military repercussions, but it may accomplish the opposite. Finland and Sweden are both considering joining and public opinion within the countries is more favorable toward being a member.
If Finland and Sweden were to join, NATO’s border with Russia would be extended by over 800 miles.
“In terms of strategic depths for the NATO alliance, it would be significant because not only for air and the sea connections, but land connection, extending NATO's border with Russia by 750 miles because of Finland's extensive border with Russia,” Hamilton said.
Aside from strategic advantages for NATO, it would also add two highly advanced, militarily capable countries to the alliance. It would also give the Kremlin something besides Ukraine to focus on.
“There’s a concept strategists have of horizontal escalation,” Hamilton said. “That is, you don't go after their opponent where they are active, you go out at them somewhere else. So, Putin suddenly has to think about a 750-mile additional border with NATO that he doesn't have to think about today.”
That's taking his mind away from Ukraine. Now he will have to deal with that. That opens up (another) flank for Russia that it hadn't had to deal with before.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has global consequences for the future of the world and military forces. The unity most of the world has had responding to the invasion of Ukraine is also unlikely to last far into the future.
“Europe remains a fluid and dynamic continent. It's not a stable situation, and it won't be,” Hamilton said. “I think for the United States, the question is, ‘what's our role there?’ Whenever that's been the case in the past, we've found in our own interest to be quite engaged, and not step away.
I think we were we've been tempted to step away during the post-Cold War period because it seems so stable, Europeans seem rich and we had other problems but I think one lesson of history is whenever we take our eye off, or the Twilight zones of Europe, we always end up paying a higher price later. And Ukraine now is example No. 1.”