Eric Morse is co-chair of security studies at the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto.
Two distracting but telling events have occurred in Russia recently. First, President Vladimir Putin disappeared for ten days, then suddenly reappeared. Second was the killing of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, under very murky circumstances, on Feb. 27. Both events showed how utterly dependent on one man Russia, and its nuclear arsenal, have become.
Beneath the dramatic events in Russia recently – the disappearance of President Vladimir Putin for ten days, and the killing under murky circumstances of opposition politician Boris Namtsov – an even more dangerous narrative has emerged involving Mr. Putin's use of Chechnya.
At heart is Mr. Putin's personal and essentially feudal arrangement with Chechen despot Ramzan Kadyrov. There is said to be a tension between the Russian security hierarchies and Mr. Kadyrov, who personally controls some 15,000 to 20,000 armed men (an unprecedented number outside state countrol in Russian history outside of civil war) and has used them to support Mr. Putin's Ukrainian aggressions. The British war-studies professor Sir Lawrence Freedman calls this relationship a Faustian bargain and it certainly looks like one; the two men have their hands on each others' throats. Mr. Putin (or someone claiming to act for him) could have Mr. Kadyrov killed at any time (and, quite possibly, vice versa), but Mr. Putin still needs Mr. Kadyrov to control the North Caucasus from his base in Grozny.
That might not stop rival elements of the security forces in Moscow who have every reason to hate Mr. Kadyrov. This was in evidence in the immediate arrests of several Chechens close to Mr. Kadyrov in connection with the Nemtsov murder. But if relations are bad they seem to be a long way from hitting the boil. However, in a regime based on faction and management-by-chaos, there can be very unexpected turns.
Two other things have emerged in recent days. One is a 'documentary' film bragging about Moscow's invasion and takeover of Crimea last year, in which Mr. Putin said that he had been prepared to put Russia's strategic nuclear forces on alert. What a comment like that is worth one year after the event is probably not very much; in any propaganda film talk is cheap, but it does mean Mr. Putin can't even be bothered to lie about it anymore. The second is more important: a major 'snap' exercise (which ended Friday) conducted by about 38,000 troops in the northwest Arctic region of Russia, which if nothing else is one way of sneering at the 5,000 troops that Norway just put into its Exercise Joint Viking, which ended March 18.
Military analyst Pavel Felgengauer, who is not a Putin supporter, is taking the current snap exercises very seriously indeed in the current state of ultra-nationalism that is being stoked in Russia. He commented on March 19: "The massive 'sudden exercises' of the Russian military this week carry a clear message: Moscow is not ready to stand down and is threatening the use of force, including nuclear weapons."
The problem with demonstrative military exercises is they are flamboyant, they show what the enemy may be capable of and training for, but they are still exercises – until they become the real thing. A perfect example is the G20 Brisbane summit of November 2014; Putin sent four warships to the region, everyone ignored them, they steamed in circles and went home. The current exercise is a great deal more serious because it involves major force in an area where classic force projection is a realistic possibility.
The real danger is of an accident occurring, especially since Russia is pushing very hard with its strategic bombers in Baltic airspace. We have no way of knowing whether they are carrying nuclear weapons, but flying in heavily-travelled airspace with transponders off is looking for trouble. What they might do in the event of an incident (besides blaming everyone else and especially NATO) is frankly unknowable, since we have no way of knowing advance intent.
The problem with Mr. Putin's Russia is: you really do not know anything. The same sense of entitled grievance combined with KGB-rooted addictions to secrecy and misdirection and a penchant for extreme violence characterized the Soviet Union, but were kept under some kind of control by the collective and innately conservative authority of the Communist Party. There is no such moderator in the reactor now, only shifting and virulent power-bloc rivalry.
The unmistakeable impression of chaos lurking beneath the surface, combined with an economy that is manifestly in trouble, makes it even more disturbing that the Russian armed forces also have a long-standing doctrine with the Orwellian term of 'nuclear de-escalation.' Basically what that means is that a political objective (a de-escalation) is attainable by the graduated application of nuclear force, in six neat steps, from an attack on a single unpopulated target to a massive continental strike. As often happens in any nation's war scenarios, the enemy's vote is not always given its due weight. The scenario simply assumes that the enemy must capitulate at one of the stages. The consequences of its failing to do so seem not to have been seriously weighed.
It remains that an exercise is only an exercise until suddenly it isn't one. But there is one other point worth bearing in mind: since Mr. Putin's accession to power in Russia in 2000, he has never yet encountered a problem – excepting the economy – that he could not resolve satisfactorily by force. His world includes 'military solutions.'