New Zealand’s Prime Minister, John Key, was enjoying some friendly banter with his Russian counterpart when they stumbled on to a distinctly unfriendly subject: nuclear war.
It was a lunch break at an international summit, as Key related to me earlier this year: “So we’re having this joke exchange and one point I said to him: ‘How long would it take a missile to get out from Moscow to NZ?’ ”
The Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, briefly consulted an aide, apparently without success, before turning back to the NZ leader. Key relates: “He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll let you know before it happens’.”
And since that exchange, the humour has drained away. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, has put his country’s 5000 nuclear warheads at the forefront. Three times in the past two months, he has raised the spectre of nuclear war as he confronts the West.
Most recently, he did it overnight Thursday Australian time while he was en route to a summit of 50 nations, the annual Asia-Europe Meeting, in Milan. “He’s again threatened the West with nuclear weapons,” says John Besemeres, a Russia expert at the ANU.
It’s a dramatic way to make an entrance to a summit. “It trumps an AFL shirt-fronting any day,” quipped Andrew O’Neil, a professor of international relations at Griffith University.
Nobody jokes with Putin about Russia’s atomic arsenal. Even a prime minister of far-away, pacifist NZ: “Putin is a lot more buttoned-down,” Key agreed. And yes, Russian missiles do have the range to strike NZ. Or Australia.
Soviet officials bluntly told Australian defence officials during the Cold War that warheads were aimed at the joint facilities.
And today, “they are certainly on the Russian target list,” says O’Neil, who is knowledgeable on Russian nuclear policy.
On August 14, Putin told members of Russia’s Duma that he soon planned to “surprise the West with our new developments in offensive nuclear weapons about which we do not talk yet”.
And six weeks ago: “I want to remind you that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers … It’s best not to mess with us.”
Summarises Besemeres: “Putin’s Russia is heading towards a police state internally and a rogue state externally. It’s a very worrying combination.”
Putin’s aim is to restore Russian national pride after the humiliation of the Soviet Union’s collapse, an event he has called “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”.
Through the force of his own will, Putin’s project is hardening into the reality of Russia itself, at great cost to the Russian economy and to the stability of the world.
“Today, a single man personifies the entire Russian political system,” says Moscow-based Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, an adviser to the government. There is no way back for Putin, he says.
“For Putin, the question is not simply one of winning or losing a tactical position in a game. At stake is his own political survival and, by extension, Russia’s future political landscape. With the stakes that high, why would anyone expect him to make serious concessions, especially knowing that he can never restore relations with the West?”
Full article: Vladimir Putin ups the ante with reminders Russia is a nuclear power (Sidney Morning Herald)