A Cold War Do-Over or the Way of the Red Panda

In his recent address to the Federal Assembly, Putin announced that Russia is suspending its participation in the late Soviet-era Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and, shortly thereafter, the Russian parliament ratified this decision. Since then, many commentators have tried to make sense of this decision, often using terms such as “a new nuclear arms race” and “the likelihood of nuclear war.” But I am yet to hear from anyone what I think this actually means: a Cold War do-over. Also, I don’t think that this decision raises the chance of nuclear war at all because it remains too risky for either side. Those who think that nuclear wars are meant to be fought by blowing up lots of nuclear weapons don’t understand the term “strategy”: nuclear wars are fought by developing, testing and deploying nuclear weapons — or failing to do so. The side that fails to keep up and provide for the sine qua non of nuclear strategy — mutual assured destruction — is forced to forfeit, sue for peace and accept whatever terms are offered by the winning side. This is precisely what happened to the USSR under Gorbachev. It was thought at the time that the USSR would not be able to keep up with Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, a.k.a. “Star Wars.” Consequently the USSR folded, the country fell apart, and then Russia, which inherited the USSR’s strategic arsenal, signed a humiliating agreement that allowed Americans access to its secret strategic objects and required Russia to cut up for scrap many of its prized rockets and bombers. It later turned out that “Star Wars” was pretty much a bunch of Hollywood smoke and mirrors, as befits a president who was a grade B actor turned politician, but by then the USSR was no more.

What happened over the intervening decades can, I believe, be adequately described by the phrase “The agony of victory and the thrill of defeat.”


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