The combination of two remarks by Russian President Putin and a twitter from US President-elect Trump set off a fake news storm in what should be properly called the Fake Stream Media. This from Canada’s National Post will serve as an example: Vladimir Putin signals renewal of nuclear arms race: ‘We are stronger now than anyone’, “Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin fired the starting gun on a new nuclear arms race on Thursday as they both vowed to launch a major strengthening of their countries’ arsenals.” Why do I call this fake news? Well the headline does not accurately quote Putin and the piece makes no mention of US President Obama’s trillion dollar nuclear plan announced a few months ago. In any case, Trump is not yet President and he and Putin have yet to meet and begin to repair things. So the headline will soon be obsolete.
With that introduction let us turn to what Putin actually said in the 22 December meeting of the Defence Ministry Board (English) (Russian) and amplified the next day in his press conference (English) (Russian).
With regards to nuclear weapons, he said:
Our nuclear triad, which is vital for maintaining strategic parity, has been maintained in the required state. I would like to say that the share of modern weapons in our nuclear forces nearly reached 60 percent of total armaments.
На должном уровне поддерживалось состояние ядерной триады, которая играет ключевую роль в сохранении стратегического паритета. Отмечу, что доля современного вооружения в ядерных силах составила почти 60 процентов.
In next day’s press conference he expanded on the reasoning, repeating, as he has done many times, that the Russian nuclear buildup was a response to Washington’s abrogation of the ABM Treaty 15 years ago.
Once again, allow me to repeat something I consider extremely important. In 2001, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty. This agreement was certainly the cornerstone of the entire international security system… I said, “We will have to react somehow, we will need to improve our strike systems in order to defeat these missile defence systems.
As to the other remark, after listening to the Minister of Defence enumerate what had been done over the preceding year, Putin observed:
At the same time, many factors, such as military factors, our history and geography and the general mood in the Russian society, allow us to say confidently that today we are stronger than any potential aggressor. I repeat, any aggressor.
Вместе с тем уже сегодня, с учётом очень многих факторов, включая не только военные, но и нашу историю, географию, внутреннее состояние российского общества, можно с уверенностью сказать: на сегодня мы сильнее любого потенциального агрессора. Любого.
The next day he expanded on it:
What does it mean to be an aggressor? An aggressor is someone who can attack the Russian Federation. We are stronger than any potential aggressor. I have no problem repeating it.
None of this has anything to do with the National Post’s breathless headline (or those of other FSM outlets). In fact, it is not difficult to understand what Putin is saying and what he is not saying.
- What he is saying is that if you attack Russia, you will lose the war.
- He’s not saying that the Russian Navy can beat the US Navy in the South Pacific. He’s not saying that Russia can conquer Europe. He’s not saying that Russia can land an expeditionary force in Mexico and threaten the USA. He’s not even saying Russia could conquer (it could) and hold (see Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan etc etc: it couldn’t) Ukraine. Or even the Baltics (yes, overrun in a couple of days, but then what? See Iraq, Afghanistan).
- He’s not saying that Russia is “stronger than anyone”.
- What he’s saying is that Russia is strong enough to defeat anyone who attacks Russia at home either conventionally or with nuclear weapons. (Of course with nuclear weapons everybody loses.)
- That’s all.
And he’s right. It wasn’t true 20 years ago, it was arguable 10 years ago, but today, for anyone who can see reality rather than exceptionalist fantasies, it is true. If you attack Russia, you will lose the war.
The other thing he’s saying is that Russia has modernised its nuclear weapons. Which, again, is true and he did warn when the ABM Treaty was cancelled that he would do this.
Twenty years of NATO expansion, regime changes, humanitarian bombing and threats (or, as Trump might put it, “the mistakes of the past“) have done nothing to make him see things differently. Indeed, I have argued that he “came back” because the Libya war showed NATO’s untrustworthiness and aggressiveness and he knew bad times were coming for Russia. Two years ago he said:
At the Defence Ministry Board meeting, Putin intimated that modernisation and improvement would continue: he does not trust the West any more.
However, if we allow ourselves to relax even for a minute, if we make a single significant mistake in modernising the Army and the Navy and training military personnel, the situation will change very quickly, in light of the speed of global events. It can change in the wink of an eye. Therefore, we depend on you to carry on the work you have been doing for the past few years.
All this can change in a “wink of an eye”; and it did change in a “wink of an eye” with Trump’s election victory. But trust must be earned over time by deeds just as it was lost over time by deeds. When asked at the press conference about meeting with US President-elect Trump, he said he hoped the subject of such a meeting would be:
Issues that concern putting our relations back on track. During his election campaign, Mr Trump said that he considered it appropriate to normalise Russian-American relations. He also said that the situation would not be worse, as it cannot get any worse. I agree with him. So, together we will think about how to make things better.
In short, headlines will likely be different in a year’s time.