According to conventional wisdom, its war with Georgia, invasion of Ukraine, and annexation of Crimea are examples of Russia flexing its muscles. Though actions by its warplanes are decidedly provocative including a Russian fighter buzzing a U.S. destroyer (see video).
At The Hill, Will Saetren and Noah Williams write:
Perhaps most troublingly, Russia has started making not-so-subtle nuclear threats against NATO.
For example, reports Reuters:
Russia threatened to aim nuclear missiles at Danish warships if Denmark joins NATO’s missile defense system, in comments Copenhagen called unacceptable and NATO said would not contribute to peace.
But, write Saetren and Williams this, “is a grave misinterpretation of Russia’s nuclear saber rattling.”
It assumes that Russia is brandishing its nuclear sword from a position of strength, forcing the United States to beef up its own nuclear arsenal to counter Russia’s aggression. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Putin’s nuclear belligerence is a sign of weakness, a desperate attempt to remain relevant in a unipolar world.
Why does Russia feel weak? Saetren and Williams explain:
During the Cold War, the United States invested heavily in nuclear weapons to compensate for NATO’s conventional inferiority in Europe. Today the tables have turned: America’s conventional strength far outstrips that of Russia, and the Russians have little prospect of changing the status quo.
… In the nuclear realm Russia also lags behind the United States. Although the size of Russia’s and America’s nuclear forces are roughly the same, the United States plans to spend $350 billion on its nuclear forces over the next decade. During the same period, Russia will spend roughly $50 billion.
Nevertheless, “Putin has somehow managed to generate the illusion that America’s nuclear forces could become inferior to those of Russia.” They conclude:
Responding to this illusion with a more aggressive nuclear posture in Europe would be a losing strategy for the United States. … Instead of falling into Putin’s trap and wasting our resources on nuclear weapons, we should be playing to our strengths in the conventional realm.