In a related question on why Russia is against Ukraine joining the EU, @user4012 writes the following:

Basically, Russia has no natural defensive perimeter of its core. Thus, its permanent strategy is to surround itself with satellite states which provide defense in depth and natural defensive perimeters of their own. This is elaborated extensively on in Statfor writeups on Russia, if you want a more detailed look.

If Ukraine is integrated into the West, Russia sees it as a strategic military threat - there's very little defense should Ukraine be a base of attack as opposed to a defensive buffer.

But why would Russia fear a land-based invasion from NATO in the first place? It has plenty of nuclear warheads and ICBMs to completely annihilate most of the NATO members capitals. Likewise the core NATO members all have nuclear weapons so they would know better than to risk a nuclear war against Russia.

So to me it seems like the US could have its entire army at a base in Finland and Russia could still sleep in peace. What is wrong with my assumptions?

  • 16
    No one actually wants to use nuclear weapons.
    – user1530
    Aug 4 '17 at 15:55
  • 10
    MAD is a thing that you can have faith in but never trust.
    – user9389
    Aug 4 '17 at 16:50

The story goes: Two great armies came together to talk. And while the leaders met a soldier on one side saw a venomous snake, and raised a weapon to kill it. A soldier opposite saw the weapon and not the snake and cried out a warning of a surprise attack. Battle was joined and no one won but the crows.

By putting conventional forces closer the chance of escalation is higher.

Also if both sides expect the winning move of Global Thermonuclear War, they might still try a limited war.

  • 3
    limit nuclear war was Reagan doctrine. Russian doctrine since USSR time and now is based on realistic accessibility of conventional force weakness vs NATO due to numerous factors. The major point of military planning was always of superiority of nuclear ICBM deterrence - the rest is good for local operations like chechen war and Syria deployment. Proximity of NATO to borders of Russia is just internal propaganda and international bargain argument - not a real threat. Till ICBMs are operational it is not going to change. The rest is media circus.
    – lowtech
    Aug 7 '17 at 4:26

Having nuclear weapons doesn't mean that you should use them, having them only means that rational states most likely won't use them against you. But if Russia were to use nuclear weapons against NATO troops then there would be many countries who would be willing at that point to use them against Russia in retaliatory strikes.

This is the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine. To some degree having a nuclear arsenal backed with strategic bombers, land based missiles and submarines does help protect a country, but really only from a nuclear first strike from a nuclear armed adversary. There is some fear about irrational state actors, in that they may choose to launch a nuclear strike irregardless of how they believe others will respond.

Any hypothetical military engagement where a nuclear armed country were to be in danger of being completely overrun would change the calculation on whether they would be willing to use nuclear weapons, but Russia probably would not, for example, use their nuclear weapons as a deterrent against attacks against their conventional troops in Ukraine, even if they were in danger of being forced out of Ukraine completely because the retaliation would cost much more to them than what they would be losing. Note that when the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989 they did not irradiate the place before they left.

So while NATO troops nearby may not be a danger to actually toppling the Russian government, they are a check against potential Russian expansion as well as a pressure point that could be used during any diplomatic negotiations. Finally, I think it may help to look at it from the point of view of having Russian troops stationed somewhere in Mexico, which I think would make many Americans quite uneasy.


So to me it seems like the US could have its entire army at a base in Finland and Russia could still sleep in peace. What is wrong with my assumptions?

For the record, I think you're mostly spot on here. Russia has very little worry of a US/Nato invasion. The US/Nato has no interest in a war with Russia. It would be ugly and expensive and as a US citizen, US war fatigue is well documented. People wants us to get out of Afganistan and Iraq, not get involved in something new. Russia knows this. Russia knows that Nato doesn't want to attack.

But that's only 90% of the equation. For recent conflicts in Ukraine and Georgia, after those nations were part of the USSR for a time, there were Russian relatives on the other side of the Ukraine and Georgian borders, especially in Western Ukraine, Crimea, Abkhazia and South Ossetia and there was conflict within those nations between pro Russian and anti Russian factions. It makes a difference how a nation leans for international trade and there was some infighting within those nations that were formerly of the USSR. Russia wanting to protect their people and annex some parts of those nations could be argued as in their self interest beyond reasons of just wanting a "buffer region".

A 3rd issue is oil and shipping routes. Russia's involvement in Syria makes it harder for middle east nations to run a natural gas pipeline to Europe. This increases Russia's natural gas monopoly. They're a stones throw away from the pipeline that travels through Georgia now too and they have a stronger naval presence in the Black Sea and with Syria, the Mediterranean as well. Even if the fear of attack is low, having a stronger military presence can be appealing.

In the future, oil drilling in the arctic (and perhaps antarctic), but the Arctic border's Russia. As ice melts and shipping becomes easier and at some point, oil drilling in the arctic ocean will probably increase, Having a strong military will benefit Russia.

As far as the Moon in Russia - what I've read about it, their citizens are generally happy about the military advances. Russia is in an economic downturn with the price of oil being quite low for the last several years. Having a strong military makes them feel more significant. (I've heard experts say exactly that when being interviewed - I'll try to find a source) and unlike America, their population doesn't suffer from war fatigue. That doesn't mean they want war with Nato, only that they don't mind and even appreciate, military expansion, at least on average. You can always find individuals on either side.

So you are right, they have very little to fear from a Nato attack, but they have reasons to want to expand their borders. The "Buffer zone" isn't primary among their reasons, but it's a convenient excuse.

And while war is, I would think, unlikely, and the arctic ocean is already divided, some military posturing over who can do what in the arctic isn't out of the question and having a strong military behind them never hurts when negotiating.

There's also a small chance that war could break out, and even if Nato doesn't think they "started it", if war happens, Russia will be grateful for the buffer nations they have.

I feel that I should point out that there's two ways Russia could have gone. Working with the west, increased trade, building an economy and maintaining friendship. They tried that for a few years but their economy never took off. Russia was seeing former states that had been under their control surpassing them economically. The 2nd option was basically what Putin did. Take stuff. Taking stuff isn't out of fear of Nato, it's out of wanting stuff. I want that, lets take it. Oh, and lets build more tanks in case they try to take it back. Putin's answer is "We're defending ourselves, Nato is aggressively expanding". he's, contrary to what people may think about him, very smooth.

  • "Russia was seeing former states that had been under their control surpassing them economically" - which ones? If you count by GDP (PPP), apart from Baltic states (and not without substantial EU help), no former constituents of the USSR are doing better than Russian Federation. Only Kazakhstan has similar economic results, but I wouldn't call them surpassing.
    – Malcolm
    Oct 15 '19 at 9:39
  • Some have outperformed Russia, not all. theguardian.com/news/datablog/2011/aug/17/… Russia's economy is also extremely oil price dependent, so it's prone to large fluctuations.
    – userLTK
    Oct 15 '19 at 17:07
  • But which ones? I don't see it stated anywhere in this article. Besides, the article is old and doesn't have any precise numbers. The conclusions I'm drawing are based on the IMF data, which are recent and quite clear.
    – Malcolm
    Oct 15 '19 at 17:22
  • @Malcolm It looks like pretty much every Baltic region state has a higher per capita income than Russia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – userLTK
    Oct 15 '19 at 21:05
  • So basically what I said initially: only 3 smaller states out of 14 other constituents and only with the EU help (they have a negative contribution to the EU budget).
    – Malcolm
    Oct 16 '19 at 11:14

Russia historically has typically been quite paranoid about it's enemies at the gates due to reasons such as Napoleon France, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan. They prefer to use their neighbors as a wall that enemies will have to go through before ever actually invading Russia. This is what caused the Cuban Missile Crisis. America put missiles in Turkey... which is akin to putting missiles in Cuba to scare the United States... The crisis was averted because Kennedy agreed to remove his missiles and Russia agreed to this as an acceptable term to take back their own missiles. That and the USSR was dealing with the Castro and he wasn't really getting the repeated discussions as to why nuking America willy-nily and the way the weather works, would be a bad thing for Cuba even if America never retaliated at Cuba with their own nukes. They realized the US might have had other reasons for not wanting a nuclear Cuba. How much this fear is played into the decision making is not known, but given that the Soviet General in charge of the Cuba missiles had to cite non-existent law to keep the Cuban's away from firing their Nukes (only a USSR soldier could fire them) speaks volumes about how much of a bad idea this was for them.

This wasn't to say Russia didn't have their reasons to be terrified of the Nuclear US. After all, not only did the US hate communism with literal witch-hunt levels of hysteria, but they also actually used Nukes in Combat and remain the sole holder of that honor to this day. They had the capacity of not only launching nukes at people they hated, but they have done so before.

As mentioned over and over MAD is probably the safest doctrine to play with Nuclear Arms. Successfully playing this is striking a diplomatic balance between "I would never use nukes in a first strike, I am not insane" and "I'm just crazy enough to blow up the whole world a few dozen times over, Commie Pinko/Capitalist Pig!" And just so I'm fair to the USSR and Russians, they want to strike that same balance (ever here of the missile gap and bomber gap? Well, the USSR were better at mobilizing their Nukes, so they used that to convince the US they had more delivery systems (and therefor more bombs) than they actually did.).

It has been speculated for some time that a Nuclear War between Russia and the United States would not likely start with one side surprising the other with a total launch (for one thing, it takes a few hours/days to properly fuel all of Russia's ICBMs... they not only by internal policy only have second strike capability... they also actually only have it. Watch any cold war movie from the 80s and there will be mentioning somewhere in the dialog that "The Russians are fueling their Rockets" which is code to any American that diplomatic checks are going south and fast.). Rather it would be a series of saber rattling from each side that escalate into a shooting war... which would go nuclear as soon as one side found a tactical strike (I.E. a nuke attack on advancing conventional forces) would turn the tide in a strategic battle... this would be followed by limited stratigic use (Nuking a few cities with key infrastructure to disable the other's military) which would devolve to full strategic strikes and here's where you launch all the nukes before the other side hits them... and after that, the battle turns to who fields the better sticks and stones.

Suffice to say, Russia gets nervous when not so friendly people share their border and when people with nukes get nervous, everyone gets nervous.

  • JFK: That's right, but what is the advantage of that? It's just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs in Turkey. Now that'd be goddam dangerous, I would think.
    – user9389
    Mar 20 '18 at 19:11
  • 1
    @notstoreboughtdirt: Mostly that Russia does have some legit fears with regards to the US, and are generally jumpy when the US and Pals get close to their borders... it's not all propaganda.
    – hszmv
    Mar 20 '18 at 19:26

Not everybody subscribes to the MAD doctrine. There are - on both sides - military and political people who believe that either a nuclear war can actually be won with limited destruction on your own side or that the enemy will not escalate to nuclear war against a limited conventional attack.

So far, reason has won out, but if you are and want to stay in power, you need to satisfy the warmongerers as well, and building up conventional forces in addition to nuclear weapons has both that effect and many actual uses - for example the option to deploy them into proxy wars or other conflicts not on your own soil.

Every nation does this. Every nuclear power also has a conventional army. And for the conventional army, people in charge are more likely to subscribe to an ideology of conventional than nuclear warfare.

So from a Russian perspective, it is understandable to see a real danger that someone in charge of those NATO forces might not believe in the nuclear escalation, and start or provoke a conventional attack. Now imagine this happens. NATO forces cross the border under some humanitarian pretense to secure a small part of Russia, maybe just one village. Now you have a decision to make - use nuclear weapons, likely escalating the conflict to a full-out nuclear war, i.e. Game Over, Earth - or allow them to take one village. And then one more, maybe?

You don't want to be in that situation. But the fact that they are there and that someone could be stupid enough, rightly makes you uncomfortable.

  • About you last scenario: what about the option to recapture the village with conventional military?
    – lalala
    Apr 4 '19 at 7:43

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