Putin’s Revisionist Foreign Policy

Vladimir Putin’s revisionist foreign policy involves reclaiming European land that has at some point been under Russian control.  Foreign Russian military involvement has been based around the falsely attributed notion that ethnically Russian-speaking peoples are being discriminated against by oppressive governments abroad and only the Russian military is able to liberate these peoples, reuniting them under Putin’s rule and expanding the Russian sphere of influence far beyond Russia’s borders.  This has led to Russian military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine as well as a heavy Russian influence in Belarus, where the Kremlin has claimed to station nuclear weapons.  Former Russian President Dimitri Medvedev recently claimed that Russia can only be properly secure if the Polish border is pushed back to an unspecified location.

Repeating Cold War Rhetoric

This echoes the Russian policy of the post-Cold War era and repeats rhetoric used to justify, to the Russian people, the invasions of Georgia and Ukraine while rightfully worrying the NATO nation of Poland and its citizens as well as the rest of Europe and the world.  In response to both Russian actions and rhetoric, Poland has requested that the NATO nations that possess nuclear weapons, America, the UK, and France, station these weapons on Polish territory to deter Russian aggression.  Polish General Kraszewski has stated that nuclear-armed “countries are not attacked, and the possibility of any action aimed at provoking a local crisis is not even considered.”

But with the intercontinental range and almost unstoppable delivery platforms that come along with these unconventional weapons, the proximity of Poland to Russia does not necessitate the stationing of nuclear weapons that close to Russian territory in order to launch a nuclear strike.  If Poland is attacked and nuclear weapons are needed, they can be launched from American, British, or French delivery platforms, reaching anywhere in Russia well within an hour.  So why does Poland want foreign nuclear weapons stationed on its territory, so close to Russia, in a posture reminiscent of the heightened tensions of the Cold War?

Tripwire Deterrence

The reason is to act as a tripwire.  Nuclear weapons are almost unstoppable when launched.  Attached to missiles, they can fly at speeds greater than 20 times the speed of sound, making them extremely difficult to shoot down.  Once launched, they are almost guaranteed to hit their target, destroying everything within miles.  Normally, these weapons are unique in that the authorization for their use comes from the civilian head of state, not the military.  Nuclear weapons are a strategic asset capable of drastically changing the intensity and scale of war, ensuring that carefully preselected criteria must be met to justify their use.  Nuclear missiles postured under a tripwire policy could be launched under a so-called “use or lose” criteria, where launch authority is delegated to ground commanders for use if enemy military forces are about to overrun the nuclear missile delivery platforms.

This is why Poland wants nuclear weapons stationed so close to the Russian border.  The chosen ground commanders would be more likely to launch nuclear missiles if a Russian invasion is imminent or thought to be imminent, relaxing the launch criteria compared to established launch authority appropriated to the head of state of nuclear-armed nations, therefore using the nuclear weapons before they become lost to the enemy.  This policy is designed to deter even the smallest of hostile military incursions from becoming larger ones, like the small-scale Russian war against Georgia or the special military invasion of Ukraine in 2014, a prospect that worries Poland.

Deterring Russian Aggression

If Russia is aware of the new nuclear posturing and believes that Poland will push for the use of nuclear weapons if invaded, then Russia will be less likely to follow through on its threats to invade what Putin believes to be historical and traditional Russian lands.  Remnants of destroyed Russian missiles or Ukrainian interceptors have already fallen within Polish territory, and wider spillover is not out of the question as Ukraine is set to begin receiving more Western aid, including the vaunted F-16 fighter jet, as talk of a Russian summer offensive grows.  The rising threat from Russia remains one of Europe’s largest concerns, and the NATO nations closest to Russia are starting to float new ideas to protect their territorial integrity from a large and hostile power.

About the Author

Headshot Christopher Gettel