Are the U.S. and Russia Sleepwalking Toward Nuclear Disaster?

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Are the U.S. and Russia Sleepwalking Toward Nuclear Disaster?
Published 5-03-2019, 07:07
The Sunday, February 24 edition of Russian state television’s flagship program News of the Week with Dmitry Kiselyov provided a detailed description of the "mirror like” response that Russia will take to any US installations of land based cruise missiles directed against Moscow following termination of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty.

The Sunday, February 24 edition of Russian state television’s flagship program News of the Week with Dmitry Kiselyov provided a detailed description of the "mirror like” response that Russia will take to any US installations of land based cruise missiles directed against Moscow following termination of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty.

The scenario focused on the new hypersonic Zircon missile system which can be launched from existing Russian submarines carrying the "normal” Tomahawk-like cruise missiles called Kalibr and which were used successfully in the recent operations against ISIL in Syria.We were told that the Russians are prepared to station such submarines holding 40 Zircons each just outside the territorial waters of the US economic zone, at perhaps 250 miles from the American East and West coasts.That would give them a 5 minute flight time to precision attack all five main American control and command centers of its strategic nuclear forces including the Pentagon headquarters.

In traditional military jargon, what Kiselyov was describing is called a "decapitating strike” or "first strike capability” that leaves the enemy unable to coordinate and muster any riposte.

How can we characterize this Russian broadcast? Is it a threat, pure and simple? Or is there something else that the Kremlin has in mind?

One might say that the intention was to warn the US to come to its senses and reconsider its withdrawal from the INF Treaty. Failing that, it is a warning not even to think about stationing cruise missiles in Europe, lest the Russians proceed with the Zircon deployment.

However, it is also possible to see the Kremlin announcement as presaging Russia’s taking absolute strategic military superiority over the United States, i.e., appropriating to itself what it accuses the United States of having tried to achieve vis-à-vis Russia with encirclement and the move of NATO to Russian borders

How do you interpret Russian intentions now?

The topic for the Discussion Panel is provided by Gilbert Doctorow,

Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, "Does the United States Have a Future?" was published in October 2017.

 

 

Expert Panel Contributions

By Martin Sieff

Senior Fellow, American University in Moscow; Former Senior Foreign Correspondent, The Washington Times

The message coming out of Moscow is extremely serious and needs to be recognized as such.

Its purpose is not to bully the United States but to send a sober warning that continued Western encroachments perceived as threatening Russia’s security must stop at once and that Washington must immediately launch a genuine dialogue and process of negotiation and compromise with Moscow to avert the very real - and even imminent - threat of global catastrophe.

When reasonable people truly believe they have been pushed relentlessly for years and even decades and then decide to draw a line in the sand, it is a mortal mistake to ignore their warnings and despise them.

The British and French reached that point in September 1939 when Hitler ordered his armies to invade Poland. Russia has reached that point now after a quarter century of relentless and increasingly hostile encroachment by the United States and its NATO allies from the West.

The immediate purpose of the Russian broadcast can certainly be seen as a desperate warning to the United States to reconsider its withdrawal from the INF Treaty and to abandon its determination to station cruise missiles in Europe.

However, it is even more serious when viewed in the context of the consistent pattern of Western encroachments on Russia over the past quarter century.

The pattern of economic sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies since 2014 can leave no Russians in doubt that ruling forces in the West appear determined to trigger a full-scale economic collapse at least as bad as that of the 1990s when millions of people starved to death in hardships comparable with the worst of the Great Depression in the West.

For the Russian people this threat alone - even when viewed outside the forward drive of NATO to embrace Ukraine and Georgia – constitutes an existential crisis and threat to their very survival.

The Zircon deployment should therefore be seen by US leaders in both the Trump administration and by both Republican and Democratic senators and members of Congress as an expression of genuine fear in Moscow that the US and its allies are forcing Russia into a situation where it may have no alternative except a last resort to war in order to resist relentless pressures that appear determined to destroy it.

No more irresponsible and dangerous policy towards a nuclear superpower can be imagined.

It is truly ironic that throughout the last quarter century of the Cold War, generations of American leaders were vastly wiser and more responsible and genuinely sought strategic dialogue and understanding and the reduction of nuclear tensions with the Soviet Union.

US policymakers need to return to that era of relative stability and sanity immediately.

By Ray McGovern

Former Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch, CIA

We are now back to the pre-1972 balance of terror -- largely because of what Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton did in 2001, when he urged on Bush Jr. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, and more recently because of his work against the INF Treaty culminating in the withdrawal announcement. The man has no respect for international treaties, in any case, but if he can destroy them, well that's even better. Who can plumb the madman's mind?

Is the Russian message on its new, high tech Zircon system an attempt to get the US to reconsider on INF? That would be a forlorn hope, but of course still possible, given the repeated emphasis on readiness to negotiate. I'd give it a 20 percent share of the motivation.

In reality, though, it is more likely to make the Pentagon argue that the Russians will certainly deploy Zircon anyway, and how, in any case, could that be monitored or restrained?.....not possible....especially in the present atmosphere of very high distrust and given a U.S. president not able to resist the MIC. So, the net effect of latest Russian announcement is likely to ensure INF treaty destruction and emplacements by U.S. in eastern Europe and on ships, rather than prevent them. Putin and advisers are surely smart enough to know that.

As for the question of Russia appropriating to itself a first strike or decapitating strike capability:

Here I do think you go too far. With the triad, there is and remains no such thing as "absolute strategic superiority over the U.S." In my view, all this is to be seen as DETERRENCE -- the balance of terror that, by a host of miracles, worked for two decades before 1972 when constraints were negotiated and implemented -- and then still more miracles to prevent the worst.

I hardly need to add that Pentagon planners would certainly play up/distort "Russians attempt to acquire absolute strategic superiority" for their own ends. That does not mean, of course, that you should not say it if you believe it to be true. As for me, I put it firmly in the category of deterrence -- a stark reminder that the strategic balance -- the "correlation of forces" -- is back to pre-1972, but worse, given the advances in technology and the destruction of the miracle of 1987, the INF Treaty, and details on the much shorter flight times - an unusually specific numbers of how volatile the situation is becoming.

I think highly relevant here Putin's remark this time last year at the time of his re-election. He was asked something like, If the West launched a nuclear attack against Russia and it was too late to stop it, would you really unleash the kind of retaliation that would destroy the whole world? He answered, "What would the world be like without Russia?" ... or words to that effect. So we are back to mutually assured destruction -- but worse than EVER before -- hair-trigger alert; launch on warning, and we're all dead or poisoned in a half-hour. Putin was, I think, trying to do his best to destroy any benighted view that Russia would absorb a nuclear assault without retaliating in kind. Retaliation -- deterrence is the name of the game here, in my view.

Finally, those who know Russian history are aware that the Russians have been attacked and occupied from East and West, North and South, with such regularity and duration that one might think them inured to attack. "Accustomed” to being attacked/invaded, of course, can be aptly said of no people — and surely no nation the size of Russia. Russia’s peculiar (mostly underdog) history is taught in the schools and is well known to Kremlin leaders and to Russians of all ages and beliefs. In contrast, Americans, when told that 26 million Russians died in WWII, are inclined to dismiss this as "Russian propaganda.”

Against the background of their own historical experience, the Russians are equally aware that — with few exceptions, like 9/11, U.S. citizens have relatively little direct experience with the unimaginable cruelties of war; that this largely accounts for the unconscionably blasé attitude often shown toward the possibility of war with Russia; and this, in itself, enhances the possibility of the U.S. doing something that could end up destroying not only Russia, but the rest of the planet as well.

At great expense in effort and wealth, the Russians developed an effective nuclear deterrent that maintained what they called a stable "correlation of forces,” to avoid the worst — barring the kind of computer glitch or madman that could end it all. Once the U.S. abandoned the ABM Treaty, they had to hedge against INF being next in line for the dustbin. If Moscow’s recent claims to highly sophisticated new weapons with a short flight time ate true, then they have built an impressive capability to deter-or-retaliate, so as never to let themselves be at a destabilizing disadvantage in the "correlation of forces.”

We are now fast approaching a highly destabilizing situation with about half the time either side has to launch on early warning. If, as seems all but certain, the two sides go ahead and deploy INF-type and strategic missiles, the time to react will be shortened to the point where it is a safe bet we can expect a nuclear exchange sooner, rather than later. Empirically, it is possible to look back at earlier times when glitches and faulty intelligence would certainly have brought nuclear destruction, had there not been enough time to think things through before reacting. Computers don’t think, and don’t give a hoot what happens to those of us who do.

By James Jatras

Analyst, former U.S. diplomat and foreign policy adviser to the Senate GOP leadership.

Regarding the Russian response to Washington’s tanking the INF treaty Gilbert Doctorow suggests, "One might say that the intention was to warn the US to come to its senses and reconsider its withdrawal.” The odds of that are very small, and the Russians know it. In general, "coming to their senses” is pretty much the last thing one can expect from the bipartisan US policymaking establishment. That’s true of pretty much any topic (think: Venezuela regime change) but especially applicable to anything relating to Russia.

"Failing that,” Doctorow suggests, "it is a warning not even to think about stationing cruise missiles in Europe, lest the Russians proceed with the Zircon deployment.” Ah, but they will think about it, and they will do more than just think about it. In the absence of a European peace movement of the sort that complicated Pershing deployment in the 1980s (and led in large part to the INF Treaty in the first place), Washington will assume European "leaders” will behave like the corrupt, craven quislings they are. The main exception are the Poles, who will positively jump at the chance to paint a target on their backs (hello, "Fort Trump”!), motivated by their characteristic mix of Russophobia and their heroic suicidal faith in a savior across the water. (How did that 1939 war guarantee from Britain work out?)

As for strategic military superiority, I can’t say from a technical perspective if the Russians can achieve it. Even if they do, the US side will not believe it. Even if some experts in the relevant methodological fields are sure that that is the case, they will be overruled by the entrenched noxious brew of ignorance and arrogance that defines American policy.

Almost exactly one year ago, in March 2018, President Vladimir Putin unveiled a new set of deterrent capabilities against "all those who have fueled the arms race over the last 15 years, sought to win unilateral advantages over Russia, [and] introduced unlawful sanctions aimed to contain our country's development.”(Hint: he was talking about the US and NATO.) "Nobody listened to us,” Putin said then. "Well, listen to us now.”

Of course, they didn’t listen a year ago. And they’re not listening today, either.

One is always mystified why Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov, and other Russian statesmen continue to refer politely to their Western "partners” even when it’s painfully clear that they have no Western partners. Surrounding Russia with military bases, imposing ever more sanctions, militarization of Ukraine, attacking the Orthodox Church, the Skripal hoax, the Steele Dossier, blaming Russia for "undermining democracy” in every western country – all are components of a full-spectrum campaign to destroy Russia’s economy, to destabilize its society, to replace its "regime” with one more to their "partners’” liking, and ultimately to dismember Russia.

While these "partners” – who, it should be noted, never that use that term about the Russians – claim they only want to change Moscow’s behavior, that isn’t true. There is nothing Russia could do short of surrendering its sovereignty and returning to the 1990s that would even begin mollify Russia’s "partners.” As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it in December 2018, America’s "mission is to reassert our sovereignty [and] reform the liberal international order,” and "we want our friends to help us and to exert their sovereignty as well.” But Russia and other countries that haven’t "embraced Western values of freedom and international cooperation” to Pompeo’s satisfaction aren’t our "friends” and thus have no such sovereign liberty.

In short, these Western "partners” hate Russia not for what it does, but for what it is: an obstacle to absolute domination by a US-led "liberal international order.” Russia’s deployment of the most powerful weapons imaginable perhaps can limit the military aspect of that agenda, but it cannot reverse it. Quite to the contrary, such actions, like Moscow’s defensive moves after the 2014 regime change in Ukraine or Russia’s 2015 deployment in Syria, are held up as further "proof” of Russians’ "typically, almost genetically driven” aggressiveness, in the words of former CIA Director James Clapper.

Nikolai Gogol likened the Russia of his day to a speeding troika, wordlessly hurtling towards its fate while "all things on earth fly by and other nations and states gaze askance as they step aside and give her the right of way.” Today, that reckless plunge describes not Russia but America.

Barring a miracle, this does not end well.

By Peter Kuznick

Professor of History and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University

On February 20, 2019, Vladimir Putin threw down the gauntlet, warning the United States that Russia was readying deployment of new nuclear weapons that could not only match U.S. intermediate range missiles if they were deployed in Europe but would exceed their capabilities. Whereas U.S. weapons would take 10-12 minutes to hit Moscow, hypersonic Zircon missiles on Russian subs would take only half that time to strike U.S. targets from waters off the coasts. Putin had made a similar declaration in his March 1, 2018 state of the nation address. He announced that Russia was developing five new nuclear weapons, all of which could circumvent U.S. missile defense. And he stated defiantly, "I hope everything that has been said today will sober any potential aggressor,” adding, "No one listened to us. Listen to us now.”

Putin’s bold declaration fell on deaf ears. No one listened. Trump turned U.S. nuclear policy over to the likes of John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, and Tim Morrison, three hawks who hated to see the U.S. constrained by international treaties. This trio reinforced Trump’s own reckless tendencies as he not only pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA with Iran, began the 6-month clock ticking on final withdrawal from the INF Treaty, and indicated opposition to extending the New START Treaty when it expires in early 2021, he welcomed an arms race with Russia, insisting that the U.S. would bury the Russians. Of most immediate concern is Trump’s planned withdrawal from the INF treaty, which U.S. ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman upheld as "Probably the most successful treaty in the history of arms control” and NATO defense ministers called "crucial to Euro-Atlantic security,” before NATO’s recent reversal. On March 4, Putin gave official notice that Russia too was withdrawing from the Treaty.

Putin’s February 20 and March 4 responses to the latest U.S. actions are understandable, but that doesn’t mean that they are wise. He knew that the nuclear parity that the Soviet Union had worked so hard to achieve in the aftermath of its retreat in the Cuban Missile Crisis had eroded after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russian nuclear and conventional capabilities declined to the point that Keir Lieber and Daryl Press could write in Foreign Affairs in 2006 that the United States had achieved its long-sought first-strike capability over both Russia and China. This meant, in effect, that if the U.S. struck first, neither country would be able to mount an effective response to a U.S. nuclear attack. The article sent heads spinning in Russia. Thus, Russia already had ample incentive to modernize and expand its arsenal even before George W. Bush’s proposed expansion of NATO to Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and the subsequent crisis that erupted in 2014.

Putin’s recent belligerence might provide assurance to nervous Russians and bolster his popularity at home, but the last thing that Russia or the rest of the world needs today is a new nuclear arms race. That, however, is what’s in the offing. The U.S. has already embarked on a 30-year modernization effort estimated to cost $1.7 trillion. All eight other nuclear nations are following suit to one degree or another. The U.S. goal is not only to make its nuclear arsenal more stable and efficient. It is, even more dangerously, to make them more useable. The new 5 kiloton W76-2 warhead will be available in September with other "mini-nukes” to follow. This is madness. The world is in a precarious position. Hence, given the fact that the U.S. and Russia have approximately 92 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons and that U.S. leaders are MIA, Russian leadership is desperately needed. Instead of threatening tit-for-tat retaliation or mirror imaging or symmetrical responses, as Putin has been doing, we need him to act as a statesman and avoid falling into Trump’s trap.

If the world required another wakeup call to understand how dangerous things have become, last week’s confrontation between India and Pakistan should have provided it. Current estimates that a limited nuclear war between those countries in which 100 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons were used would produce partial nuclear winter, destroying a substantial portion of global agriculture and leading to the eventual death of between one and two billion people across the planet. Donald Trump may not know anything about nuclear winter, but Vladimir Putin does. And he knows how to act. He should point to the Kashmir crisis, the demoralizing failure of the Hanoi summit, the greatly heightened tensions between the U.S., Russia, and China, the stupefying U.S. reactor deal with Saudi Arabia that would enable that thuggish nation to join the ranks of the nuclear powers and trigger Middle Eastern nuclear anarchy, and the impending collapse of the entire global arms control architecture, which could precipitate a 1980s-style nuclear arms race returning us to a world possessing nearly 70,000 nuclear weapons equivalent to 1.5 million Hiroshima bombs. He must demand we step back from the brink. He should call for a global summit to deal with this crisis that potentially imperils life on our planet. If he succeeds in restoring a modicum of sanity, he won’t even have to beg Shinzo Abe to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize. I’ll nominate him myself, confident that my Hibakusha friends at Nihon Hidankyo, who I usually nominate in recognition of their decades of leadership in the anti-nuclear struggle, will applaud my decision. We need to draw upon the courage and wisdom of Gorbachev at Reykjavik and the new understanding and extraordinary collaboration that was building between Kennedy and Khrushchev after the Cuban Missile Crisis, not the bombastic, myopic, bullying behavior of Trump, Bolton, and Pompeo if we are going to reduce the nuclear risk and begin solving the common, very real problems that we face collectively as a global community. I call on Vladimir Putin to provide that leadership at a time when narrow, parochial, nationalism prevails almost everywhere and no statesman of sufficient character and vision has emerged on the global scene to lead the world out of its present morass.

By Patrick Armstrong

Author of the Russian Federation SITREP blogs, former Canadian military analyst and diplomat posted to Moscow in the 1990s

As I concluded from reading his 1999 essay, Putin at the beginning had four broad intentions: to reverse economic decline, to re-establish central authority, to create a rule of law (or at least a rule of rules) and to make Russia count for something in the world. In 1999 I think he expected goodwill or at least benign indifference from the West. But, as time passed, he came to realise that that was not going to happen because the background rulers of Washington (deep state/borg/blob/neocons/exceptionalists/war party) would never permit Russia to rise. The destruction of Libya was the event, I believe, that finally convinced him that the West could not be trusted, that no lasting agreements could be made with it and that its present power must be endured. But, I believe he also understood that hubris would bring its downfall; Russia had to survive through the dangerous times until the inevitable nemesis. (Beijing ditto in its own way, in its own time). Painful, frightening, difficult, dangerous but, with the right preparations, survivable. This necessitated a change of emphasis: as he said at the beginning of the foreign policy/defence part of his speech "Russia has been and always will be a sovereign and independent state. This is a given. It will either be that, or will simply cease to exist”. In short, he and his team concluded Russia was in danger. For Russians, defence always comes first – Anglo-Americans have no comprehension of the Russian experience of war. . Last year he described some Russian super-weapons – obviously in development for some time – that checkmated Washington. He mentioned another one this time and a subordinate explained how it will nullify whatever Washington comes up with to replace the INF Treaty it destroyed. Whatever Washington can dream up tomorrow Moscow has already blocked. Already in April 2017 this key observation was published in Newsweek of all places (See https://www.newsweek.com/us-russia-nuclear-arms-race-over-and-russia-has-won-581704). Now that security has been ensured (and better, I think, than at any time in Russia’s thousand-year history), the original program can be resumed. Therefore, most of his speech (83% by word count) was about the program: birth rate, poverty, infrastructure, administrative simplification, rule of law/rules and modernising. Few in the West get this.

By Andrei Korybko

Andrew Korybko is a political analyst and radio host at Sputnik News

Russian Zircons Off The American Coasts: Chest-Thumping Or Realistic?

There’s a lot of talk about the message that popular Russian TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov conveyed late last month when he suggested that his country’s Zircon hypersonic missile-equipped submarines could deploy off both American coasts in response to Washington’s withdrawal from the INF Treaty. Some speculated that the Kremlin was speaking to the White House through Kiseylov because the prominent journalist works for a publicly funded media outlet, but that’s probably not the case because taxpayer-backed entities shouldn’t always be conflated with being state-run. It’s true that many of them across the world are, but it’s a stretch of the imagination to think that each and every piece of material that they produce is ordered by the government and reviewed by an official before release.

While it might be fun to think that President Putin personally directed someone to tell Kiseylov what to say, that’s probably not what happened, since it’s much more believable that this experienced media professional decided on his own to talk about this very realistic move that Russia could make under the current circumstances. After all, it’s not that far-fetched or original since even the most casual military observer could have predicted the possibility of Russia one day dispatching hypersonic Zircon missile-equipped submarines off of both American coasts. There’s nothing provocative about that either as long as such assets remain in international waters where they’re legally allowed to be stationed. Kiselyov therefore didn’t convey a message to the White House from the Kremlin; he just reaffirmed the most obvious response to the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty.

He more than likely did intend to send a message, though not to the American government but to his own people and those abroad. About the first-mentioned audience, Kiselyov was reminding them that hypersonic weapons will ensure their country’s defense from all conventional threats and that there’s no need to panic about a new arms race. No new military-industrial investments are needed and they shouldn’t worry about President Putin diverting his promised funding for the "Great Society” socio-economic national development program to defense initiatives instead. The international audience, on the other hand, is supposed to see that Russia is a rising Great Power that won’t back down from the US. It’s more than capable of defending itself with state-of-the-art weaponry and won’t be threatened by the US withdrawing from the INF Treaty.

Having said all of that, it’s predictable that Kiselyov’s remarks will be deceptively misportrayed by the Western Mainstream Media as "aggressive warmongering” by Russia despite their being presented as a defensive contingency measure that could be undertaken in response to the destabilizing move coming from the US. There’s no chance that his words will get Trump or any of his policy planners to reconsider their decision since they must have foreseen this obvious Russian response years ago yet nevertheless decided to go through with their actions anyhow. Even so, these latest developments shouldn’t be taken to mean that nuclear war is just around the corner, since Moscow’s possible Zircon countermove actually strengthens strategic stability by keeping the US in check and deterring it from using intermediate-range weapons against Russia.

DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.

 

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