Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Dangerous Rhetoric: Putin Calls for "Raising the Combat Readiness" of Russian Nuclear Forces

In a public address to the heads of the Russian Armed Forces last Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin stated that, "One of the most important [military modernization] tasks remains raising the combat readiness of the strategic nuclear forces. They should be ready to deliver a quick and adequate reply to any aggressor.”

While some media sources treated the statement as an important development in the Russian military posture, Putin's statement appears to have been more rhetorical than strategic. However, Putin's tendency to flex his country's nuclear weapons capabilities for domestic political purposes does not bode well for future bilateral disarmament measures.

Putin with the heads of the Armed Forces (Photo by the Presidential Press and Information Office)

The Times of London
reported that by last week's remarks, Putin "ordered the military to place the country’s strategic nuclear arsenal on a higher state of alert." However, Putin's declared intent to "raise the combat readiness" of the nuclear forces so that they can execute a "quick and adequate" strike is much vaguer than the Times' summary. With one third of the Russian nuclear arsenal already on "hair-trigger alert," it is hard to believe that Putin seriously perceives the Russian nuclear arsenal as having an excessively lengthy launch time.

Putin's statement was a vague and slightly strange declaration for a public address, and should not be seen as an order to the military, or even a specific policy proposal. On the other hand, Putin's choice of rhetoric may have important consequences. In "
Television, Voters, and the Development of the Broadcast Party," Sarah Oates (a professor at the University of Glasgow) demonstrated that Vladimir Putin came to power by avoiding specific political stances that could alienate voters, and casting himself instead in vague terms of strength, stability, and authority.

While this sort of posturing is common in any political system, Putin's use of the tactic was, and continues to be, exceptional. For example, before Putin took office in 2000, his legislative party won control of the Russian parliament by making very public use of its three newly appointed leaders: Sergei Shoigu, director of the Russian disaster response agency, Alexander Gurov, the head of the government's task force against organized crime, and Alexander Karelin, a famous Russian Greco-Roman wrestler.

As Oates explains, Putin's Unity party made use of the three men to advertise an image of strength almost devoid of political content.
In fact, the image makers avoided words as much as possible, using pictures of the three men respectively as a soldier, victor in a wrestling match, and policeman. One five-minute free-time spot for the almost text free. The spot shows the men in action in their various roles with stirring music (a different theme tune for each), allowing them each to utter merely a single sentence about strength and worthiness in the final seconds of the ad.
Though a political ad showing a victorious wrestler might seem ridiculous, Putin's approach to image-making is methodical, organized, and doctrinal. What is worrisome about Putin's recent statement about increased nuclear readiness is not that it will usher in nuclear policy changes, but that this latest example of nuclear grandstanding indicates that Putin is increasingly relying on Russia's nuclear arsenal as a symbolic pillar of his strength and prestige in the same way that he used the wrestler, the policeman, and the soldier.

The more Putin draws on nuclear weapons as an image-maker, the less politically viable nuclear disarmament becomes in Russia. Putin's nuclear saber-rattling should not be confused with policymaking, but his choice of rhetoric may serve to undermine policy options in the future.

1 comment:

AL said...

Max, your conclusion that "The more Putin draws on nuclear weapons as an image-maker, the less politically viable nuclear disarmament becomes in Russia" is interesting, but it's a little out there. (The use of the London Times as a source doesn't help your argument either) Putin's rhetoric is probably the last factor on an enormously long list of items that are (and have been) making "bilateral disarmament" difficult. Sadly, these days his rhetoric is actually the only thing that spices up and enlivens the awful relationship between the two countries.