Russian bombers proliferate today in the air space off North America and Europe, operating at an activity level not seen since the very height of the Cold War. This isn’t something to shrug off.
Although it’s certainly attributable to Vladimir Putin’s current, proximate geopolitical intentions – to defy NATO, press his aggression against Ukraine, and intimidate the Baltic Republics – it’s also an expression of strategic posture harking back to the conventions of the Cold War.
Bringing out the Bears is a strategic signal. In Europe, the Russians could use Tu-160 Blackjacks and Tu-22M Backfire bombers to fly aggressive routes around the northern perimeter. The Blackjacks (sometimes called the “B-1-ski”) are understood to have a strategic role; the shorter-range Backfires, as dedicated bombers rather than multi-role aircraft, send a similarly aggressive signal.
But the Tu-95 Bear H bombers have for decades been the backbone of the airborne leg of Russia’s strategic “triad”: ICBMs, ballistic-missile submarines, and nuclear-armed bombers. When Russia deploys Bear Hs, the strategic signal is unmistakable.
Americans watching the drama unfold have a visceral sense of this, in part because the media routinely refer to the Bear Hs as “nuclear bombers.” The Bear Hs are more properly called long-range bombers or strategic bombers; they may or may not be carrying missiles with nuclear warheads. The aircraft are capable of carrying AS-15 “Kent” long-range cruise missiles, which were designed to be fitted with nuclear warheads, but they won’t necessarily have them mounted on a given flight.
I have seen no reporting that any of the Bear Hs intercepted recently have had air to surface missiles mounted. They might have, but the strategic bombers often flew attack profiles during the Cold War without missiles mounted (we always intercepted them, so we knew for sure). I would expect Russia to fly most of the missions today without actual missiles. (And no, the Air Force won’t tell us whether the Bears have missiles or not. If the media relearn their Cold War catechism and figure out they need to ask, we might start getting some answers on that in public.)
That said, there are two important and complementary perspectives on these bomber flights. The first is the general breakdown of the post-Cold War strategic status quo, which as of now is gone. We’re not waiting for another shoe to drop. It’s history.
Strategic security policy: Adrift
The post-Cold War status quo involved three fundamental features: a mutual (U.S. and Russia) stand-down of constantly-ready nuclear forces, which occurred in the early 1990s (see here and here, for example); verifiable adherence by both sides to the basic elements of our arms control agreements; and continuity in the strategic postures of both parties.
The last feature was the first one to be decisively breached – and, because of its abstract nature, the hardest one to see. Through a series of actions from 2009 to 2013, the Obama administration overturned the premise on which, for the preceding 25 years, the U.S. had negotiated for arms control and proposed to guarantee global stability.
In 1983, Reagan established missile defense, and not mutual assured destruction, as the basis for U.S. security and global stability. The INF treaty of 1987 was the first treaty signed because Reagan adopted that policy; it also paved the way for the original START treaty signed by George H.W. Bush in 1991. George W. Bush abrogated the 1972 ABM treaty as a direct result of the missile defense policy, and negotiated the “SORT” treaty – the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty – explicitly on the basis that U.S. security is grounded in missile defense and not MAD.
Although Obama has not publicly repudiated the U.S. missile defense posture, he has dismantled it with a series of policy actions. All but a few thousand Americans, at most, are unaware of this arcane reality – but Russian decision-makers perceive it quite clearly.
The Russians for their own reasons have long disputed America’s missile defense-based policy. Obama’s unilateral decision to give it up has cut the whole strategic stability situation adrift, and the Russians in 2014 are happy to take advantage of that. They have previously viewed it with a certain ambivalence, however, because they like to have rules that constrain the other guy. (Which, to digress momentarily, is what’s behind their prowess at chess. They don’t do nearly as well with more chaotic decision-making situations.)
Regarding the other two features of the post-Cold War status quo, Russia has been engaging in violations of both START and the INF treaty for some time now; the Bush and Clinton administrations made an issue of that, but the Obama administration has not given it importance, and violations by Moscow have become more egregious.
The weak performance of this one feature would be more tolerable if the other two were in line. But in addition to the slow, bureaucratic collapse of the U.S. posture under Obama, Russia has since 2010 opened the door to breaching the third feature: the stand-down of ready nuclear forces. In 2010, Russia modified her national security strategy to permit preemptive use of nuclear weapons – a change to a policy that had stood since before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
Then, about three weeks ago, Russia publicly floated a threat through the common method of quoting a retired general in the state-run media. This general, Yuri Yakubov (formerly the commander of Russia’s Far Eastern military district and a senior staffer in the ministry of defense), had an ominous message (emphasis added):
Interfax quotes Retired Army General Yuri Yakubov as saying: “[The national military strategy] for the country should in the first place clearly identify the potential enemy of Russia, which is not in the military doctrine of 2010. In my view, our main enemy is the United States and the North Atlantic bloc [NATO].
“In particular, in my opinion, you need to carefully consider the forms and methods of the operation of Aerospace Defence, in close cooperation with strategic nuclear deterrence forces, the Strategic Missile Forces, strategic aviation and the Navy. Thus it is necessary to study the conditions under which Russia could use the Russian strategic nuclear forces (SNF) pre-emptively.”
The preemptive use of nuclear weapons implies readiness to employ them quickly, against preselected targets. In Cold War terms, the major nuclear powers would at that point be just two constantly-ready command posts away – one on each side, like our “Looking Glass” airborne command post – from a complete reversion to the Cold War nuclear standoff.
But we’re not in the Cold War era. And the problem that actually creates for Americans and our allies is that it’s not clear what Obama would do if Russia changed her nuclear readiness posture. Easy as it may be to think up mordant jokes about this, it’s not even remotely funny.
Assault on the geopolitical status quo
If the first key perspective is the demise of the strategic status quo, the second is the immediate geopolitical problem of 2014.
In navigating this problem, Russia would feel much more constrained about nuclear tough talk if the United States were setting and enforcing boundaries. But we’re not. It’s essential to understand this. Putin has his current, proximate reasons for wanting to convey threats to the U.S. and NATO – reasons having to do with perceived Russian interests in South Asia, the Far East, and the Eastern Mediterranean as much as with Eastern Europe. But Russia wouldn’t be going high order with the overt strategic signals – the aggressive Bear flights – if Putin thought he was going to get real pushback from Washington (or Mons, Berlin, Paris, or London, for that matter).
Putin is pulling a really big weapon, with the accelerating implications that he feels free to break away from the post-Cold War strategic status quo. This pattern, if nothing else, should be a clue to his seriousness.
But there are other gathering clues, such as the reports in just the last couple of weeks about frankly threatening comments he has made to European leaders. According to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung (via Euromaidan Press):
Putin made [the following] statement during a conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko, who in turn, relayed his words to European Commission (EC) President Jose Manuel Barroso, during the latter’s visit to Kyiv last Friday (12 September), in which Poroshenko briefed the EU chief on threats.
“If I want, Russian troops in two days could not only be in Kyiv, but also Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest.”
Earlier in September, coincident with General Yakubov’s comment about a preemptive nuclear option, Putin reportedly made a similarly belligerent threat:
José Manuel Barroso, the outgoing president of the European commission…told [a] closed meeting [of EU leaders] that Putin had told him Kiev would be an easy conquest for Russia, according to the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica. According to the account, Barroso asked Putin about the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. Nato says there are at least 1,000 Russian forces on the wrong side of the border. The Ukrainians put the figure at 1,600.
“The problem is not this, but that if I want I’ll take Kiev in two weeks,” Putin said, according to La Repubblica.
Guardian reported that the Russians didn’t deny Putin had made the threat.
Moscow declined to deny that the president had spoken of taking Kiev in a phone conversation on Friday with [Barroso].
In case it’s not clear, senior political leaders don’t routinely talk to each other this way across international boundaries. Putin is burning bridges by doing this. He is clearly not trying to hold out hope of a restored status quo.
And that in turn means that the “push” has started: the push from a former stakeholder that will cause the status quo to fully collapse. ISIS isn’t a former stakeholder, nor is Al Qaeda; they were always going to push against the status quo. But what will collapse it is the withdrawal of support for it by a major stakeholder. Russia looks, right now, to be the one.
We can expect the data points to begin accumulating, probably faster as the days go by. Terresa Monroe-Hamilton picked up on one at John Hawkins’ Right Wing News: a report that Russia is preparing for rapid disengagement from the Internet in the case of war.
President Vladimir Putin will convene a meeting of his security council on Monday. It will discuss what steps Moscow might take to disconnect Russian citizens from the web “in an emergency”, the Vedomosti newspaper reported. The goal would be to strengthen Russia’s sovereignty in cyberspace. The proposals could also bring the domain .ru under state control, it suggested.
Although a Russian analyst is quoted as suggesting this step is unlikely, I believe some version of the concept is entirely likely. In fact, we can bet that Russia will arrange for proprietary IT connectivity to kick in, within the Russian Federation and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), in the case of a breakdown of transnational order and/or an outbreak of armed conflict. We should understand from this Russian policy proposal that Putin and his advisors do foresee the end of the global status quo, and precisely in such pillars of it as the open, quiescent global Internet.
Rather than waiting for Russia to be surprised by a breakdown in such kinds of unenforced order, Russia is planning for what to do if seizing the reins looks necessary. She’s planning for the end of the status quo, and the retreat of the nations into warring blocs.
We’ll see more such signs in the coming days. This is the context in which to interpret the Bear bomber flights. Russia is angling for her position in the next status quo. She doesn’t think the status quo will be a pretty one, at least not until Russia gets some things that she wants. Whether she’s right or not will depend in large part on what America does – and that’s a big question mark for at least the next two and a half years.