Friday, February 6, 2015

Rumors of War: Russian Nukes in Ukraine?

...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

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