Arms control expert on Russia's nuclear saber rattling: 'They do it to irritate us'

Russia’s nuclear posturing has been off-the-charts high as of late, and Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, founding publisher of Arms Control Wonk, says the reason why is simple: “They do it periodically to irritate us.”

On the defensive side, Russian media recently reported that 40 million defence officials and civilians recently took part in drills to help them survive a possible nuclear or chemical attack.

One official told The Wall Street Journal that they were taking steps to ensure that 100% of Moscow’s population would be sheltered in the event of a nuclear blast.

But Lewis, in an interview with Business Insider, said that’s almost certainly false.

“There’s always been this talk about how they can use the subways for shelters,” said Lewis. “But you still have to feed and clothe them, give them clean water.”

Additionally, building collapse and lingering radiation after nuclear strikes can cause enormous risk to life, and it’s simply hard to imagine that an entire city could reach subterranean hideouts in the 30 or so minutes it takes an intercontinental ballistic missile to cross the globe.

“I’d be interested to see if that exercise was real or not,” said Lewis, who was dubious of the reporting of Russia’s state-run media.

However, Lewis did stress that the Russians do take steps to try and protect the lives of 100% of the leadership.

“The Russians are investing heavily in leadership bunkers and modernising them,” said Lewis, who spoke of a general paranoia in Russia’s leadership, where they think that they could be toppled at any moment from internal or external forces.

“Russians are very frightened by” possible attempts to overthrow the government, as Moscow has neither the democratic will of the people nor strong international alliances to support itself, said Lewis.

As for Russia’s deployment of nuclear-capable missiles to the European exclave of Kaliningrad, Lewis said there are two options: One is Moscow they did it temporarily to bother the US and NATO, and the other is that it did it permanently to destabilize the region.

“The Russians have turned Kaliningrad into a giant military garrison chalk full of airfields, naval bases, and missiles units,” said Lewis. But far from being the type of covert move a government would undertake if it wanted to actually use the missiles, the Russians do it in a very visible way because “putting military equipment in Kaliningrad has no purpose but irritating NATO,” said Lewis.

“It’s pretty open,” Lewis said of the deployment of the Iskander missiles and the training exercises done in Kaliningrad. “They let us see the ships come in and the missiles unload. You can find the training grounds where they fire them off.”

But a full time deployment of Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad could trouble the region. Furthermore, experts like Lewis believe that Russia is working on an intermediate-range cruise missile that would violate an international treaty.

But still, even if the Kremlin has violated the treaty, or plans to keep nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad full time, the move is “irritating, but not a direct threat to our security,” said Lewis, who added that “Russians just don’t want to cooperate on nuclear security” anymore.

“If the Russians decide they want to return to the arms race, there isn’t a lot we can do. We can take steps to defend our allies, we can make sure we have capabilities to deter them, but there’s not a lot we can do,” said Lewis, as Russia has full sovereign rights within Kaliningrad.

So while Russian nuclear posturing may be deeply irresponsible, frightening, and counter productive to promoting peace and international cooperation, the US must simply watch, be prepared, and consider that it’s “entirely possible that they’re just jerking our chain,” said Lewis.

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