Russia’s Nuclear Plan in Crimea Projects Strategy

In the midst of Russia’s isolation from the international community, an economy in free fall, the return of bold attacks by Islamic militants in Chechnya, and the levelling of new sanctions by the United States and the EU, the Kremlin made an unexpected announcement. Rather than address the domestic crisis, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov floated the idea that the Russian Federation might move nuclear weapons to the annexed Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.

According to Lavrov, as a recognized nuclear weapon state according to the Non-Nuclear Proliferation Agreement, Russia has the right to place its nuclear weapons wherever it wishes in accordance to international law and treaty agreements. “By international law, the Russian state has all grounds to dispose of its legitimate nuclear arsenal in accordance with its interests and in accordance with its international legal obligations,” he said. The inaccuracy and cynicism of the statement is astounding on several levels. For one, as is almost universally recognized by the international community on the basis of international law, Crimea is rightfully a part of Ukraine and the March annexation of the peninsula was illegal. Second, in accordance to Russia’s international legal obligations, the Russian Federation cannot move its strategic nuclear weapons stockpile without notifying the United States. The New START Treaty, ratified in 2010 and designed to promote arms reduction and nuclear stability, prohibits either country from moving its strategic stockpile without verifying the process with the other party. Aside from Lavrov’s doublespeak, the Kremlin announcement sends some important signals about Russia’s intentions in the face of isolation and potential economic collapse.

The Kremlin is signaling that its annexation of the Crimean peninsula is permanent and will not be subject to revision. If Russia does in fact move strategic nuclear weapons to Crimea, the action would strengthen the Kremlin’s grip on the region. Lacking direct access to mainland Russia, Crimea is isolated and suffering economically in the face of international prohibitions and a sharp drop in tourism, the region’s largest industry. If nuclear weapons are indeed moved there, Russia will have extended its military grip on a peninsula that already hosts its Black Sea Fleet. The re-acquisition of Crimea by Ukraine will be made even more politically challenging in the event of a change in Russian leadership that is more concerned about its international image and isolation. The symbolism is not lost—Russia will not give up Crimea even in the face of economic decline, the threat of more sanctions, and the likelihood of future instability.

Next, the Russian government is broadcasting its intransigence in the face of severe economic worries and very real likelihood that they might trigger and currency crisis. If Russia makes the decision to illegally change the position of strategic nuclear weapons to an occupied territory, the move will not only rip up an important bilateral treaty with the United States, but will likely draw further crippling sanctions from the West. Stationing nuclear weapons on Crimea serves absolutely no strategic purpose, and would merely destroy a landmark treaty between Moscow and Washington. The fact that Moscow is apparently willing to give up on a mutually beneficial arms reduction treaty for an action of extremely limited importance is revealing.

Finally, Sergei Lavrov’s statements in the midst of an economic meltdown indicate that Russian policymakers are either unfazed by the economic situation or completely at a loss about how to stem the downward spiral of the ruble and its related problems. Lavrov’s statements, hardly re-assuring to an already spooked market, are not only counterintuitive but seemingly purposely so. Russia’s leaders are demonstrating a level of hubris that is extremely worrying and self-destructive. A mixture of bravado, incompetency, and wrong-headedness on the part of Kremlin might very well inflict more self-harm than the regime can withstand. This is not an economic crisis in the classical sense; instead, it is the largely self-inflicted result of ill-advised political decisions.

The West, the international business community, and Russians should take note. Russia’s political leaders don’t seem to have a strategy to stabilize the economic situation or relations with the West. A spiral of rash political decisions and economic decline that go hand in hand are not likely to stop anytime soon. In this environment, the risks of political instability in tandem with sharp economic decline are becoming more and more likely.

Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center