Mikhail Vanin, the Russian ambassador to Denmark, has warned the Danish government that, should Denmark join NATO’s collective missile defense shield, Danish ships could potentially become targets for Russian nuclear missile strikes. The Russian ambassador justified his statement, which outraged the Danish government, in saying that “[A NATO-aligned] Denmark would be part of the threat against Russia”. Mr. Vanin further assured the Danes that a missile defense program would not provide protection from potential Russian retaliation, noting that “Russia has missiles that certainly can penetrate the future global missile defense system.”
The controversy comes amidst a general deterioration of relations between Russia and the West, prompted in great part by Ukrainian crisis and subsequent war in the Donbass. NATO has characterized Russia as “more of an adversary than a partner”. NATO leaders have sought to extend and solidify nuclear guarantees in Europe in order to deter future Russian expansion in Eastern Europe. Though maintaining such a deterrent posture risks a military confrontation with Russia should NATO be forced to make good on its guarantees (a prospect - of great power and potentially nuclear conflict - that Western leaders wish to avoid), some analysts fear that backing down now with erode the credibility of NATO (or, more specifically, American) commitments elsewhere, risking a loss of confidence in the global security regime and prompting its dependents (nations like Japan, South Korea, or Ukraine) to pursue their own military buildups independent of Washington.
For similar security reasons, Russia fears the creation of a Western-aligned Ukraine, viewing the nation as a necessary buffer between Russia and the West. Such a policy - of intervention to prevent a Ukraine sympathetic to Western interests - is a longstanding component of Russia’s national strategy. In the last month, Russia has begun a massive military exercise in the Arctic, an area where Russia may assert its vital national interests, exacerbating territorial disputes with other Arctic powers (including the United States and Denmark) regarding access to precious resources. In the past year, Russia has even simulated an offensive strike on Denmark, a war-gaming exercise that, while not out of character for Russia (whose previous simulated nuclear strike on Warsaw prompted outrage in Poland), compounds fears that the West’s relationship with Russia may continue to deteriorate.
The West’s response to Russian moves in Ukraine and elsewhere has included a policy of aggressive economic sanctions and indirect material support for the Ukrainian government (including the deployment of American troops to train Ukrainian forces). While the West’s sanctions policy, coinciding with a drastic fall in global oil prices, have done significant harm to the Russian economy, some fear that this will not be enough to induce Putin to make concessions in Ukraine. Rather, instead of undermining the legitimacy of Putin’s administration, economic decline may prompt the Russian leader to adopt a more belligerent foreign policy in retaliation for a decline he blames on the West; writing for Foreign Affairs, Adrian Karatnycky and Alexander Motyl claim that “a weak Russia with a flagging economy […] would become aggressive […] because it thought that a quick little crisis might enhance the government’s popular legitimacy at home.” Rather than capitulate to the West’s demands, such a weakened Russia “may continue to engage in militaristic adventurism” and become more risk-acceptant, escalating “the likelihood of economic, military, or political disaster.” This well-documented tendency of economically weak great powers to engage in an increasingly bellicose foreign policy is known as “diversionary theory”, and tends to successfully reverse domestic disapproval, at least in the short term.
Nowhere is this tendency more frequently at work than in Russia, a nation in which legitimacy is garnered through strength and independent maintained through overtures of force. In his new book, World Order, Henry Kissinger writes that “When it was strong, Russia conducted itself with the domineering certainty of a superior power and insisted on formal shows of deference to its status. When it was weak, it masked its vulnerability through brooding invocations of vast inner reserves of strength.” Today, with its oil-dependent economy sapped and its allies of the Warsaw Pact largely stripped away, that strength consists of displays of military power, especially its large nuclear arsenal, of which Putin routinely reminds the West.
A common reassurance against the possibility of a general NATO-Russian military confrontation is the belief that nuclear deterrence renders any such conflict obsolete. Because a nuclear conflict would result in such overwhelming destruction (likely the incapacitation of both Russian and American governments), any war, the logic goes, would be simply too devastating for either participant to accept, so leaders will rationally choose to avoid a military confrontation. The “MAD” argument ignores, however, the possibility that great powers may enter into local, non-nuclear conflicts with one another under the belief (true or false) that such a conflict could “be fought with a high degree of political control, and an understanding that the objectives of the conflict are limited”, preventing escalation to the nuclear domain. Even then, however, the possibility exists that such crisis conditions could provide ground for miscalculations resulting from misinterpretations of each participant’s moves and intentions: the US and the USSR, after all, frequently came close to the possibility of nuclear war as a result of the ‘fog of war’ enveloping one another’s military exercises.
Although the cold war is over and omnipresent fear of “the bomb” no longer hangs over the conscience of every American, it would be a mistake to view the world today as fundamentally more secure than during the heights of US-Soviet tensions. The detente of the 1990s provided assurance for many that America’s victory had bought an eternal liberal peace, but it is increasingly obvious today that great power politics are not only returning: they never truly left. Russia’s warning to Denmark cannot be considered decoupled from its conflict in Ukraine, nor from its broader relationship with the West. In the new nuclear age, there are no “status quo powers” - no prevailing norms or world police underwriting the global order. America cannot hope only to cling onto the ancien regime any more than Russia can tolerate the West’s expansion into its near abroad or China can risk marginalization in the East Asian distribution of power. All great powers are perpetually primed for the offensive, for any moment of weakness will afford rivals the opportunity to exploit gaps in the nation’s armor. The world is more claustrophobic and more multipolar than during the First Cold War, and incidents like these in Denmark and the Arctic should remind policymakers everywhere of the brutal truth: we are only three minutes to midnight.