President Vladimir Putin, crossing a post-Cold War red line, threatened to aim nuclear warheads at ISIS, then tried to soften his words by adding that “this is not necessary.” Necessary or not, with the Islamists’ proximity to Turkey, a NATO member, the statement was a clear challenge to Ankara and the Atlantic pact.
“The Kalibrs and KH-101 have proved to be modern and highly effective,” Putin told Russia Today, referring to sea-based and airborne cruise missiles. “And now we know it for sure: precision weapons that can be equipped with both conventional and special warheads, which are nuclear.”
He added: “Naturally, this is not necessary when fighting terrorists and, I hope, will never be needed.”
His heavy words do not help to deflate tensions with NATO. It’s just the latest in a string of provocations, starting with Ankara’s downing of a Russian jet near the Turkish-Syrian border, followed by Moscow’s economic penalties against Turkey and finally, in the last week, a Russian warship crossing into Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait with a serviceman on deck aiming a rocket launcher.
Russia is playing all the cards it has in the Middle East. The threat of “special warheads” is not directed at the Islamic State, but to Western opponents. It won’t come to that, but such banter is the measure of the gap between Russia and the United States, which are due to begin negotiations on Jan. 1. In the lead-up, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced a visit to Moscow next week to address the Syrian issue. But disagreements in the field serve to define their positions at the table.
Moscow has all possible military means in place. On Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that, for the first time, the Islamic State was hit by missiles fired from a submarine along the Syrian coast, near Cyprus: “The targets were two major terrorist positions in the territory of Raqqa, causing serious damage to stores of weapons and a mining factory.” Before the attack, the minister added, Russia warned both the United States and Israel, a country that has possessed nuclear weapons for some time but has hidden them for years.
For its part, Washington has tried to close ranks, aware that the strategy so far hasn’t been working. Yesterday, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter admitted as much before a Senate committee, announcing that the U.S. “is prepared” to send Apache helicopters and military advisers to the Iraqi city of Ramadi (where Russians are bombing).
But does that mean the United States is also prepared for a direct confrontation with the caliphate? “The reality is we’re at war,” Carter told the Senate. “That’s how our troops feel about it because they’re taking the fight to [ISIS] every day.” On Russia, Carter offered some meagre comments about how “Russia needs to focus on the right side of this war.”
For now, however, its focus is on degrading Turkey, as accusations between Moscow and Ankara continued yesterday. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu accused Russia of “ethnic cleansing” in Latakia, the stronghold of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the Russian ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin charged Turkey with “recklessly and inexplicably” sending troops in Iraqi territory without Baghdad’s permission.
The Baghdad government seeks support in Russia, which for some months has been handling deals with Iranians and Syrians from a coordination center in the Iraqi capital. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has asked NATO to intervene to force its Turkish ally to withdraw after the expiration of a 48-hour ultimatum from Baghdad to Ankara. Meanwhile, Shiite militias linked to Iran are preparing for an armed confrontation with the Turks if they remain on the outskirts of Mosul.
Iraq, like Syria, is now little more than a pawn in a game played by others.