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Rebuttal of Greg Thielmann’s lies about Russia’s nuclear arsenal

In recent years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken many steps to build up Russia’s nuclear arsenal, which had previously declined sharply after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. This buildup has seen Russia increase its number of nuclear warheads – deployed and nondeployed alike – and their delivery systems – missiles, submarines, and bombers.

Concurrently, Russian officials’ nuclear-related rhetoric towards the West has escalated in recent months.

Yet, the pro-unilateral-disarmament lobby in the West still denies that Russia poses any serious nuclear threat to NATO’s or America’s security. One of the people propagating such disinformation is Greg Thielmann, an ex-State Department official who is now a “Senior Fellow” with the Arms Control Association, a far-left group seeking America’s unilateral disarmament.

In his latest garbage screed, published in the National Interest magazine, Thielmann falsely claims:

“Most of Putin’s nuclear maneuvers are less significant militarily than headlines would have you believe.

In early June, for example, President Putin trumpeted the news that Russia would deploy forty new ICBMs in 2015 with multiple, independently-targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), but that number was actually lower than the figure he had used last December. Moreover, even if this were a net increase—unlikely because older systems are being retired—it would leave Russia’s deployed ballistic missile totals well below both U.S. levels and the 700 limit allowed under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Adding newer MIRVed missiles might permit Russia to reach New START’s 1,550 limit on deployed warheads and bombers as its 10-warhead SS-18 ICBMs are retired, but it would not increase its target coverage of NATO countries.”

In reality, Russia is ALREADY above New START’s 1,550 deployed warheads limit, as the latest State Department data shows. Deploying multiple-warhead-carrying missiles will take Russia even further above this limit – which is not surprising, because Russia is building up, not reducing, its strategic nuclear arsenal (unlike the US). Before New START was ratified, Russia was below the treaty’s ceiling, but since then, she’s been steadily building up her nuclear arsenal and is now above the treaty’s limits. Deploying multiple-warhead-carrying (MIRVed) missiles will only take Russia further above these limits – even if these MIRVed missiles replace old ones.

And Putin’s June remarks make it clear he intended to INCREASE Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) fleet, not merely replace old missiles with new ones. This is in line with Putin’s spring 2012 promise to the Russian people to procure 400 new ICBMs (currently Russia has 375). So in any case, Russia’s ICBM fleet WILL increase – and new, multiple-warhead missiles will be replacing old, Soviet ones capable of carrying just one warhead.

Consequently, Russia’s target coverage of NATO countries WILL be increased – significantly.

By the way, the 40 new ICBMs the Russian military would procure under Putin’s newest plan will not be replacing the 10-warhead SS-18 Satan ICBMs; for that, the Russian military has a separate missile program, called the Sarmat missile (or Son of Satan). That missile, however, will not enter service until the early 2020s – and only then will the older SS-18 Satan missiles be retired.

By the way, Mr Thielmann, the 1,550 ceiling is a limit on deployed WARHEADS, not “deployed warheads and bombers”. Bombers are covered by the treaty under separate ceilings – for deployed and nondeployed delivery systems. You can’t get even THAT right.

Thielmann also falsely claims that

“Russia’s Air Force chief Col.-Gen. Viktor Bondarev confirmed in late May Putin’s decision to restart production of Russia’s most advanced heavy bomber, the Tu-160 Blackjack, with plans to build at least fifty of a modernized variant, tripling the country’s strategic bomber force.

Press coverage in both Russia and the U.S. featured pictures of the sleek swing-wing bomber, the largest in the world, but the fine print left a different impression. The decision to build more of the Cold War-era bombers was reportedly necessitated by slippage in the schedule for replacing them with a fifth-generation system, the PAK DA. The new Tu-160s would start rolling out around 2023, allowing Russia to maintain viable bomber forces (including cruise missiles) through the decade, but these forces would be less numerous and less capable than those envisioned for the U.S. bomber leg.”

This is also dead wrong. The PAK DA bomber program is not delayed, and the new Tu-160s will be entering service alongside, not instead of, the stealthy PAK DAs. Moreover, the Russian Air Force (VVS) and Naval Aviation already have a LARGER bomber fleet than the USAF. It includes 64 Tu-95 Bear, 16 Tu-160 Blackjack, and 171 Tu-22M Backfire bombers, capable of carrying 6, 12, and 10 nuclear- or conventional-armed cruise missiles (and in the Tu-95s’ and Tu-160’s case, also a nuclear freefall bomb in the bomb bay). Alternatively, they can carry dozens of bombs in their bays. Only the B-52 can carry a greater amount of cruise missiles or other ordnance. So other than a lack of stealthiness, Russia’s bomber fleet is not inferior to America’s in anything at all.

Thielmann also falsely claims that:

“It is important not to overreact when Russian military gestures are made for mostly symbolic reasons or for managing domestic politics. Moscow often appears intent to goad the West into a response, which can then support Russia’s narrative that it is the victim and not the cause of belligerence and tension.

Accordingly, NATO has been wise to so far resist the urgings of some in the West to deploy nuclear weapons onto the territories of its eastern-most members or to assume NATO-like defense obligations toward Georgia or Ukraine. Likewise, Russian testing (not deployment) of banned INF ground-launched cruise missiles has been the subject of private talks and public rebukes, but it has not (yet) provoked counterproductive military deployments of comparable systems.”

These are blatant lies, just like everything else Thielmann writes. Russia’s military gestures are not intended for its domestic audience and are seldom made for symbolic reasons. Russia makes its military gestures in order to intimidate its neigbhors and Western countries – which is Vladimir Putin’s preferred way of conducting foreign policy, especially with any nation Russia has disputes with.

Intimidation and aggression is Putin’s preferred way of doing things – which is no surprise to those of us who are actually knowledgeable about Russia and her foreign policy. This is a man who has already perpetrated aggression against two sovereign countries (Georgia and Ukraine), illegally occupied and annexed their territories, massacred the Chechen people, and threatened any former Soviet republic or satellite that wishes to have at least some independence from Moscow with military force, including nuclear weapons. (His nuclear threats have rightly earned him widespread condemnation in the West, including from even such leftists as Rose Goettemoeller and Jens Stoltenberg.) Putin’s Russia has even threated neutral countries such as Sweden, and minor NATO members such as Denmark, with nuclear weapons.

Putin, like Hitler before him, is an imperialist aggressor. It is not his domestic audience that’s the problem. Putin himself is the problem.

The first step that needs to be taken to counter Russian aggression is for Western leaders and officials to finally recognize who Putin really is – a Hitler-like imperialist aggressor – instead of continually indulging the fantasy that he’s a normal leader.

What Thielmann calls “overreacting” and “counterproductive military deployments” would actually amount to the West finally defending itself against potential aggression and equipping itself for the task. To refuse to do so is to refuse to defend oneself – and that is what the West is STILL foolishly doing, on the poisonous “advice” of pro-Russian, pro-unilateral disarmament propagandists like Thielmann (who advocates, among other things, unilateral cuts in America’s nuclear deterrent).

What Thielmann calls “overreacting” and “counterproductive military deployments” would actually be a just, proportional, and longtime overdue response necessary to deter Putin from committing further aggression. The West should be ashamed of itself that it STILL hasn’t taken these necessary steps.

Thielmann approvingly quotes Undersecretary of Defense Brian McKeon, an Obama appointee who falsely claims – in the face of a massive Russian nuclear buildup – that “in particular, there is currently no need to expand the role for U.S. nuclear weapons, or to change our nuclear posture.” Thielmann himself falsely claims that “increasing reliance on nuclear weapons cannot be considered an acceptable option.”

But what Thielmann and McKeon deceptively call “increasing reliance on nuclear weapons” would actually mean recognizing the fact that ONLY nuclear weapons can protect the US – and the entire West – from an aggressive, nuclear-armed Russia that is steadily buildup up its arsenal and flagrantly violating arms limitation treaties.

What they deceptively call “increasing reliance on nuclear weapons” would actually simply mean modernizing the West’s nuclear deterrent, bringing it up to par with the growing Russian nuclear threat, and recognizing its primordial role in protecting the Western civilization from Russian (and not just Russian) aggression.

Thielmann further falsely claims that

“Numerical advantages in nuclear arsenals confer little to no advantage between nuclear weapons states.”

This is also dead wrong. A significantly larger nuclear arsenal allows a country to destroy another nuclear power’s much smaller arsenal in a preemptive, disarming first strike – with the larger power having enough nuclear weapons to destroy the other nation’s smaller arsenal many times over, while the opponent can’t do the same because of his arsenal’s insufficient size.

Thielmann further lies that:

“The military threat posed to Ukraine has been conventional, not nuclear.”

This is utterly false. The military threat to Ukraine has been both nuclear and conventional – but primarily nuclear, because Vladimir Putin has threatened to raise the alert of his nuclear arsenal and even to aim or use it against Ukraine, while Kiev suicidally gave up its nuclear deterrent in 1994 in exchange for worthless promises from Moscow to respect its independence and territorial integrity.

The military threat posed by Russia to NATO and the US has been EXCLUSIVELY nuclear, for a simple reason: nuclear weapons are the ONLY means by which Russia can threaten the West. Russia’s conventional military is decidedly inferior to America’s (not to mention America’s NATO allies). President Putin himself knows this and has even said that without nuclear weapons, Russia would’ve been a third-rate power. Therefore, the ONLY Russian threat the West is facing is the threat posed by Moscow’s huge nuclear arsenal – against which the West can protect itself ONLY with a large nuclear umbrella. Nothing else will do.

Thielmann also lies blatantly that:

“For NATO’s easternmost members, the pressure exerted by Moscow has been more psychological and economical than military. The utility tools are not nuclear weapons, but economic clout, soft power, and tangible evidence of political commitment.”

For NATO’s easternmost members, the pressure exerted by Moscow has been overwhelmingly military, backed by a threat of cutting off oil and gas supplies to these countries. These are the only means by which Russia can threaten these countries (or anyone else for that matter). Russia has threatened these countries with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles on multiple occassions, with no effective response from NATO, and has begun deploying nuclear-armed SS-26 ballistic missiles (which violate the INF Treaty) in its Kaliningrad District, on Poland’s and Lithuania’s border, to further intimidate these countries.

Soft power is utterly useless against aggressors like Putin. Soft power will not stop Russian tanks rolling into other countries, Russian troops assaulting their territory, or Russian nuclear-armed missiles if they’re launched at other countries.

Economic clout is also useless against aggressors like Putin. The European Union has the world’s largest economy, over 7 times larger than Russia’s. Add to that the US economy, and you have a huge bloc with 14-15 times more economic clout than Moscow. France, Britain, and Germany alone, all by themselves, have larger economies (and much better standards of living) than Russia. In response to Russian aggression, these countries have imposed a slew of targeted sanctions against Moscow. Yet, NONE of that has stopped further Russian aggression – Moscow is now considering whether to revoke its recognition of the Baltic states, a prelude to invading them.

The only thing that can stop aggressors like Putin is military power – the only thing they respect.

Political commitments are utterly worthless and lack any credibility if they’re not backed up with specific and significant steps to fulfill them. In NATO members’ case, that means significant deployments of Western weapons, including nuclear weapons, on their soil. Without such deployments, “political commitments” will completely lack any “tangible evidence.” They will be commitments on paper only, not backed up by anything.

In sum, Greg Thielmann’s claims are all blatant lies. If the West fails to adequately arms itself – with nuclear as well as conventional instruments of deterence – and does not permanently deploy adequate amounts of these on its easternmost members’ soil, it will be completely unprepared and defenseless against further Russian aggression. That, in turn, will only encourage more of it – and make the entire world much less stable and secure. The Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) will probably be the next victims of Russian aggression. All of that will be the fault of pacifist-minded Western officials who share Thielmann’s thinking.

It is not economic clout and “soft power” that protect NATO today and have protected it since 1949. It is military power – in particular, nuclear weapons. Nothing else can do the mission.



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About Zbigniew Mazurak