Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Doomsday aircraft – the two modernized Ilyushin 96-400M’s that Russia is developing as part of a special project codenamed “Zveno-3C” (Component-3C) – are not museum mockup displays or some props for a Dr. Strangelovian thriller. These specially equipped planes will be Putin’s flying command center and control centre, from which he can direct his forces into battle in the event that there is a nuclear conflict. This latest development is another step in Putin’s preparations for a “shooting conflict” with the United States. Moscow believes this is impossible.

U.S.-Russia relations have been on a collision course since the collapse of the Soviet Union driven by two diametrically opposed worldviews – democracy v. authoritarianism – and the dispute over the future of the former Soviet states, such as Ukraine. Moscow has declared the United States “unfriendly” and Russia its greatest security threat. It is now ready to wage a nuclear war against its perceived sphere, which Russia has used for centuries as its security perimeter.

Putin’s government is modernizing its nuclear weapons because it isn’t confident that its conventional precision-guided weaponry will win high-stakes conflicts with the United States. In 2020, Putin updated Russia’s nuclear doctrine to ensure that Russian forces have the upper hand over the U.S. military in a Doomsday scenario.

Putin’s warfighting strategy is more dangerous than that used by the Soviets during the Cold War. Although during the dark years of communism, Moscow was preparing for Washington’s decapitation and total annihilation in a mass nuclear strike, the USSR’s vast atomic arsenal ultimately became a psychological weapon that was never used in combat. Today, Russia’s doctrine, however, is more grounded in reality – Russian reality. Putin’s nuclear option is not a theory. It is a ready-to-use capability that can be used in combat situations. Contrary to popular belief, Putin wants the atomic weapons to be used in a limited use scenario. The Kremlin envisions fighting a limited nuclear war with Washington, over contested areas such as Ukraine and Crimea, the latter of which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.

Moscow also views non-strategic nukes, where Russia has an advantage over the United States in this area, as a reliable means to establish “escalation dominance.” Putin knows that a kinetic war between Russia and the United States, two of the most powerful atomic superpowers in the world, is difficult to stop once it has begun. Putin’s war planners envisioned the use of Doomsday arms to force Washington to agree to show a superior position. This would make it appear that any further escalation is a losing proposition for U.S. forces. Russia believes it can out-escalate conflict and will continue to increase the number of hostilities.

One example of Russia’s dominance in escalating decisions is its failure to respond or prevent Moscow’s cyberwarfare. Washington has not responded to Russia’s cyber intrusions in the U.S. government, military systems, including critical infrastructure and ransomware that disabled our food and energy resources. The Kremlin also used covert influence operations to undermine the U.S. election results. The concern of U.S. leaders has been that Putin might launch a devastating cyberattack against the United States, which is more dependent on technology than Russia for its daily existence. This would cripple the U.S. economy as well as daily activities.

Putin decided to raise his nuclear command and control (NC2) centre in the sky because he was concerned that he and his designees, the defense minister and chief general staff, with nuclear release authority may have to evacuate in case the space and ground segments of the NC2 are destroyed in an adversary’s strike. Putin wants to be able wage war on America even in such a scenario. He still wants full control over all three legs of Russia’s nuclear triad, which includes bombers, submarines, and road-mobile missiles. To operationalize its wartime nuclear doctrine, in early 2017 Russia deployed, in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a land-based cruise missile designated the SSC-X-8. Paul Selva, former Vice Chairman of Joint Chiefs, warned that the missile poses a threat to “most of our [U.S.] facility in Europe” and was “part of a larger deployment by Russia of land-based nuclear-capable cruise missiles designated the SSC-X-8.”

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Putin systematically invests in the modernization of Russia’s nuclear arsenal and the training of its nuclear personnel, the Strategic Rocket Forces. Although live nuclear testing is not permitted under the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Russia has been found by the U.S. intelligence community to violate the accord. Robert Ashley, the former director at the Defense Intelligence Agency said that Russia was likely to have violated the accord by secretly conducting nuclear tests using very low explosive power… creating nuclear yield.

Russia regularly deploys strategic bombers to overflight missions near U.S. borders in order to test and practice U.S. reactions to its breaching the U.S. Air-Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Moscow has also conducted mock nuclear attacks against the U.S. home. Russians practice nuclear launches regularly in simulation exercises. Putin presses the button.

Russia is the only country with the ability to destroy the U.S. homeland through nuclear strikes that can either be launched from land, water or air. It is clear that Russia is planning to engage in a nuclear war with NATO and the United States. Only question is how this conflict can be stopped or fought.