Putin: We'll use nukes if anyone attacks Russia with anything

Vladimir Putin bragged about Russia’s supposedly new nuclear capabilities yesterday, but does he really ever envision using them? NBC News’ Megyn Kelly posed that question to the Russian strongman in an exclusive video after his presentation to the Duma, pressing Putin on his nuclear doctrine. Putin tells Kelly that Russia will respond with nuclear weapons under two conditions — if anyone attacks Russia with nuclear weapons, aaaaaand … if anyone attacks Russia with anything else, too.

Yes, the election date in Russia is coming soon, but apparently not soon enough:

Kelly also asked about the readiness of these new systems as well. Putin seemed a little less clear on that point, although he did insist that one of the systems he discussed is “with the troops” now:

KELLY: For the record, right now, do you have a workable ICBM that is powered by nukes that you’ve tested successfully?

PUTIN: All of those tests were successful. It’s just each of these weapons systems is at a different stage of readiness. One of them is already on combat duty. It’s with troops. For some of the systems, we are still working on them. We have no doubt that we will get there.

KELLY: But again, you say that you are going to use these weapons, these nuclear-powered weapons, if Russia or its allies come under attack. Any attack or a nuclear one?

PUTIN: We have two reasons that would force us to respond using our nuclear weapons. The first is a nuclear attack against us. Or an attack against the Russian Federation using conventional weapons. But in this case, if it’s a threat to the very existence of the Russian state.

The seriousness of the developments in the Russian nuclear program are under some question, and Putin’s vague “we’re still working on them” isn’t going to impress anyone further. Kelly’s question on animation aside — we already know Russians can launch ICBMs — the skepticism doesn’t come from whether they have the systems but whether these systems do anything new at all. We’ve had nuclear cruise missiles for decades, with launch platforms on surface ships and subs, and Russians have had the same capabilities for a while.

Also, our ABM doctrine isn’t really aimed at Russia due to the overwhelming number of ICBMs they have. Mutually assured destruction has worked well enough with Russia and China to discount their threat; rogue and irrational states like Iran and North Korea worry us more. Our systems are capable of intercepting a few ballistic missiles, not an overwhelming number of them. When Putin claims that the US restarted an arms race by building defenses against smaller states, he’s being disingenuous — but certainly in a beneficial way for his political career back home.

We can probably expect a lot more of this saber-rattling over the next sixteen days, when Russia rubber-stamps another term for Tsar Vladimir in their national elections on March 18th. Putin needs to sell Russians on the strength and invincibility of their country under his leadership, even if he’s making sure that no one else gets a chance to seriously challenge him in the election. After the election, no doubt Putin will want to show more — what’s the word? — flexibility. Until his next election, that is.