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A Reawakening Nuclear Nightmare

When lecturing, I often ask students and young officers if they have seen the movie “Dr. Strangelove.” About a third typically raise their hands. I then ask them what is the essence of good satire, and someone will eventually offer, “The truth?”

As crazy as Stanley Kubrick’s atomic-age cautionary tale was, that was the tension-edged atmosphere those of us older than 40 grew up with and remember.
Sadly, the dark cloud of nuclear Armageddon that had faded since the end of the Cold War following the break-up of the Soviet Union is looming once again.
Earlier this week, Russia made international headlineswith the unveiling of its RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), fittingly nicknamed “Satan 2” after its monstrous SS-18 predecessor.
While massive Soviet-era nuclear weapons are nothing new, Russian media claim the Sarmat, with its 6,000-mile range, capability to avoid missile defense systems and 15 independently targeted warheads, can “wipe out parts of the Earth the size of Texas or France.”
What should we make of such statements?
This latest announcement is as much bluster and intimidation as a menacing statement of capability. Back in 2014, for example, Russian media star Dmitry Kiselyov remarked on state-controlled Channel 1 that Russia was the only country in the world “capable of transforming the U.S. into radioactive ash.”
That statement was further evidence that Russia sees its nuclear capability as its great superpower equalizer in a world where it lags in almost every category other than oil and natural gas, space, and exquisite fine arts like classical music and ballet.
As a result, and coupled with the thousands of deliverable nuclear weapons held by both the Russian Federation and United States, it is clear we live in an increasingly dangerous world in which geostrategic tension and disagreement is high, both nations are significantly modernizing nuclear capabilities and discussion of reducing arsenals is muted.
The reality is that our world’s immediate existential threat, namely the possibility of a nuclear holocaust that could erase our civilization, can’t be wished away.
Russia’s increasing brinkmanship regularly reminds the world of its lethal nuclear capability, while its aggressive probing of international boundaries and norms — including both physical territory and the cyber domain — appears recklessly defiant, marginalizing Russia further as an international pariah.
Meanwhile, the prospect of an in-flight or naval accident or incident dramatically increases with armed US and Allied aircraft and ships encountering similar Russian platforms over Syria, and contentious regions such as the Baltic and Black Sea.
All this is taking place against the backdrop of the withering of long-standing arms control regimens. The Nunn-Lugar’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program is gone, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty has been canceled, the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) has been suspended, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is fraying and the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) and Open Skies treaty are being questioned.
This is important — and tragic — because besides reducing and regulating dangerous weapons and warheads, these treaties and conventions, built over decades of hard negotiation, were a key confidence-building measure during the Cold War and breakup of the Soviet Union. They involved legions of US and Russian diplomats, scientists and bureaucrats in near-daily contact. Whether they agreed or not, the process was fundamentally stabilizing as it also provided communication conduits between our distrustful nations.
Today, that confidence-building cushion is dangerously “bone-on-bone” and must be rejuvenated before the whole process collapses and we enter an all-out arms race.
But any discussion of nuclear challenges must include a step back to review what is driving Russia to these aggressive behaviors.
Certainly, the country’s immense 11-time-zone geography, with its vulnerable borders and difficult demographics, are factors. This, coupled with a difficult history that has included threats and invasions from virtually every direction, has meant Russia has developed a jaded, xenophobic view toward security along its vast periphery.
As a result, even peaceful NATO enlargement (of which I’ve always been an advocate) and rogue-nation-focused US missile defense have become tinder that fuels current revisionist Russia behavior.
This is why the United States and Russia must urgently reopen essential conduits and reestablish points of direct dialogue before we are inevitably engulfed by a cyber-fast crisis or incident. This must include senior diplomats and politicians, but also key operational military leaders on both sides that can frankly discuss issues and act as regional crisis “first responders.”
Considering the civilization-ending arsenals our nations possess, there is disturbingly inadequate contact.
Unfortunately, I fear that our population, distracted by the endless political election drama, is mostly oblivious to this growing threat. Meanwhile, fed by a steady diet of focused state-owned media, the Russian people, already on a psychological war-footing, are regularly reminded of perceived and mostly contrived existential threats to their society.
In 1982, my first assignment as a young lieutenant involved nuclear security for an atomic-capable field artillery unit. Our mission was to deploy to West Germany and, if need be, fire nuclear rounds up to 12 miles at Soviet invaders surging through the Fulda Gap.
We took this zero-defect nuclear responsibility extremely seriously. Back then, of course, nuclear deterrence ultimately worked for both nations. Today, though, mutual de-confliction and de-escalation mechanisms are nowhere near as robust as they were in the Cold War.
For anyone wanting to get a sense of the world so many experienced during the Cold War, I would recommend listening to a couple of numbers by Tom Lehrer, the 1960s Harvard bard of dark geostrategic satire — “So Long, Mom” and “We Will All Go Together When We Go.”
Yes, they are gallows humor. But they are also a reminder of a frightening world never experienced by our younger generations — one to which we never want to return.
Recently retired Brigadier General Peter Zwack is the Senior Russia-Eurasia Fellow for the National Defense University’s Institute for National Security Studies. He served as the senior US Defense Attache to Moscow from 2012-14. These are his personal views.