In the spring of 1961, soon after my thirtieth birthday, I was shown how our world would end,” the Pentagon whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg wrote in his memoir. Forty-eight million Americans, or perhaps 71 million, would lose their lives as nuclear missiles hit, now-declassified studies estimated; 67 million would die in the Soviet Union, and 76 million in China. Long-term nuclear war meant, Ellsberg recorded, “the extermination of over half a billion people”, and the end of our civilisation.
Ever since Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, ordered Russian nuclear forces to a higher alert level—enhancing command-and-control staffing, and activating communications networks which are disassembled in peacetime to avoid accidental crisis—that Cold War nightmare has been resurrected.
There’s little doubt Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, driven by the ‘Akhand Russia’ fantasies of house-ideologues like Aleksandr Dugin, brought this crisis upon him. There’s a method to Putin’s madness, though. For the past two decades, the balance of nuclear weapons—the foundations of peace in Europe through the Cold War—has been dangerously destabilised. And in this nuclear crisis, the West isn’t an innocent party.
The nuclear genie, unleashed
From early in the century, the spectre of a Cold War atomic apocalypse apparently consigned to the past, Western powers began considering technologies to protect themselves from attack from emerging nuclear powers—Iran, for example, or North Korea. At its 2010 Lisbon summit, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) committed itself to a United States-led Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) umbrella—in other words, the ability to shoot down incoming missiles.
The decision was to unleash the nuclear genie, which Cold War understandings and agreements had kept firmly caged.
Leaders in Washington and Moscow had, in the 1960s, come to understand that BMD destabilised the nuclear-weapons balance. To ensure one side’s nuclear weapons got through the BMD shield, the other would have to make enough warheads to overwhelm the system—triggering an insane race for ever-more weapons.
In 1972, the two superpowers signed a treaty limiting their BMD facilities to two sites apiece, with 100 anti-ballistic missiles at each. This treaty was a key part of an interlocking system of agreements, capping both powers’ nuclear arsenals.
In 2002, though, the Cold War was over, Russia in ruins, and technological means to build a credible BMD shield were beginning to emerge. Russia furiously protested, arguing—correctly—that BMD systems eroded its ability to deliver assured retaliation against a nuclear first strike
Experts like Theodore Postol, moreover, warned that BMD technologies could be defeated—even through crude means, like sawing the fins off missiles, to make their trajectories unpredictable—meaning the investment wasn’t worth as much as claimed. Far from protecting continental Europe from nuclear attack, they gave potential adversaries reasons to make more warheads,
The United States, though, withdrew from the anti-ballistic missile treaty when it expired in 2002, brushing aside Russian objections. In Moscow, the decision was understood—rightly or wrongly—as part of a wider effort to destroy their power.
The West’s new missile arsenal
Even though the crisis in Ukraine is underpinned by Moscow’s worries over the eastward expansion of the NATO, it has an important nuclear-weapons subtext. In 1987, as part of the efforts to stabilise the Cold War balance of terror, the United States and Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which committed them not to “possess, produce or flight-test” surface-to-surface missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometres.
The short time needed for intermediate-range nuclear weapons to reach their target meant they were considered particularly dangerous: either adversary, after all, had no reliable way of knowing if a missile is carrying a conventional or nuclear warhead. Any intermediate-range missile launch, given the short response time, would have to be treated as a potential nuclear attack—with potentially catastrophic consequences.
From 2014, the United States began complaining that Russia was in violation of its INF obligations. Although the merit of the allegations has been debated by experts, President Donald Trump’s administration withdrew from the INF.
Leaving the INF wasn’t an impetuous or irrational decision—though it’s proved unwise. For one, the INF did not include China, which had acquired a massive array of intermediate-range missiles, and showed no interest in agreements to restrict their use. The United States’ military planning, moreover, accorded a central role to precision targeting using missiles. Within months of pulling out of the treaty, the United States military upgraded precision-strike missiles to cover 500-600 kilometre ranges, and began working on a 2,700-kilometre hypersonic missile.
In a 2019 study, experts Jacob Cohn and others argued that these new missiles could “contribute to a cost-imposing strategy against China and Russia by pressuring them to invest in expensive defences and resiliency measures rather than devote those same resources to power-projection capabilities.” In addition, the experts wrote, deploying these missiles in Europe and the Pacific would compensate for the physical vulnerabilities of the United States deployed in theatre.
This was all true—but reintroducing intermediate-range missiles to Europe, in a NATO closer than ever to Russia’s borders, had unacceptable consequences for Russia. Thus, Russia’s Red Star military newspaper proclaimed: “Russia will perceive any ballistic missile launched at its territory as a nuclear attack that warrants a nuclear retaliation.”
For the most part, Russian concerns over the new missiles—and fears that Western anti-ballistic missile technology were degrading their own capabilities—have been ignored. Even though the Russian president warned his own ministers of the dangers of being “drawn into an arms race,” it isn’t hard to see that he’s been put in a corner. The United States has declined to engage with Putin’s call for “a moratorium on the deployment of short and intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe”.
Putin’s new red lines
Last summer, Putin issued a new executive order stating in what circumstances he would order the use of nuclear weapons. Three were unexceptional: the use of nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies, the verified launch of ballistic missiles targeting these territories, or strikes which targeted critical infrastructure that would preempt its ability to retaliate against an enemy nuclear first-strike.
There was a fourth condition, laying down a new red line: aggression against Russia “with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” Economic sanctions are, among other things, weapons; the United States, moreover, appears determined to push Putin out of power, and replace him with a pro-Western leader.
European leaders, notably France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, have long suggested that a more meaningful conversation is needed with Russia on its nuclear-missile concerns. “Has the absence of dialogue with Russia made the European continent any safer?” he asked in 2019, as Putin’s fears over intermediate-range missiles escalated, “I don’t think so.”
Few experts believe events in Ukraine will lead to a full-blown nuclear crisis—both sides, after all, have an interest in not plunging the world into eternal darkness. The shadow of nuclear weapons, though, will hang over the New Cold War, just as it did over the old one. Ensuring strategic stability will be this era’s most fundamental diplomatic challenge.
The author tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)