Disharmony in American Intelligence Community Makes President Obama his own IC “Action Officer” so what did he find out?
“President Obama spoke for an hour this afternoon with President Putin of Russia. President Obama emphasized that Russia’s actions are in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, which has led us to take several steps in response, in coordination with our European partners.”
Russia’s excursion into the Crimean Peninsula as part of its broader power play in Ukraine is the most provocative military move in that region since the Soviet Union dissolved. The Russian troops deployed to the Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol coupled with surrender demands from Moscow have created a potential flashpoint that could lead to a nasty escalation.
But even as western heads of state denounce the developments in Sevastopol with nuanced diplomatic language, it’s quite possible that Russian President Vladimir Putin has good reason to take the action he has.
As the premiere warm-water port for the Russian Navy, Sevastopol has played a strategic role in Russia’s military operations since the reign of Catherine the Great. The naval base has also served as a deployment point for nuclear weapons aboard surface warships and submarines.
Few people outside of the Kremlin know with certainty whether nuclear weapons are part of the weapons package of components of the Black Sea Fleet but it certainly would account for Putin’s urgency in putting boots on the ground should he feel the need to protect such weapons, not to mention an array of powerful conventional weapons.
Concerns about Russian sea-based nuclear weapons are not new. As recently as 2013, there was, “cause to suspect that Russia might be deploying some number of sea-launched cruise missiles tipped with nuclear warheads,” according to arms control specialists and military analysts. Russian opacity on nuclear weapons makes it impossible to precisely calculate their inventory but recent estimates over the past five years are troubling enough.
Ukrainian military planners have made no secret of wanting a well-armed navy.
During my visit to Sevastopol in 1998 as part of a U.S. congressional delegation to assess the status of how the former Soviet Black Sea fleet was being divided between Russian and Ukrainian forces, I had the opportunity to discuss the situation with the Ukrainian Chief of Naval Operations. He and his naval commanders expressed deep concern over Russia stripping the weapons from their warships and having limited access to guarded ammunition bunkers and those concerns are certainly heightened given recent events.
Doubtlessly compounding Ukrainian distress is the fact that Ukraine reluctantly surrendered its nuclear arsenal in 1991 after assurances of territorial integrity from both NATO and the Russian Federation.
Twenty three years later, Ukraine is witnessing Russia’s disregard for that agreement, a war-weary NATO unwilling to engage and a European Union wedded to Russian energy sources. Ukraine’s appetite for heavy naval weaponry on Russian warships, nuclear or otherwise, is not difficult to understand.
If Putin does harbor concerns about the security of nuclear weapons at Sevastopol, one good way of enforcing that security is to deploy troops to the naval base, isolate it and demand the surrender of Ukrainian forces, which is precisely what Russia is doing. And while it is understood that no Russian nuclear weapons are to be maintained on leased naval bases, there’s absolutely nothing to prevent Russia from keeping a nuclear arsenal onboard ships and submarines moored at Black Sea facilities operated by Russia.
The American intelligence community must take into account the potential loss of nuclear devices. Regardless of speculation about U.S. contingencies, the Russian response to riots or unrest, or the prospect of civil war in Ukraine, there are some very deadly weapons at risk on Russian warships. Lots of them.
President Obama has reportedly been in communication with our allies and Moscow, but has he even inquired as to the presence of nuclear weapons in Sevastopol? If so, he hasn’t told us. America should know if that question was asked and answered in order to understand what is at stake. Even the possibility of losing nuclear devices in times of crisis dramatically alters the terms of the discussion.
President Putin is nothing if not calculating.
Whether it’s shirtless horseback riding or the deployment of troops to an historically critical Russian port, every action must be viewed in terms of need and effect.
The question of undisclosed nuclear weapons would obviously trigger a larger set of questions but if the Russian president is acting to secure and safeguard nuclear weapons in their Black Sea fleet, President Obama needs to understand this dynamic. For now, we’re not sure what he understands.