How Vladimir Putin learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

June 22, 2015

[youtube]https://youtu.be/VEB-OoUrNuk[/youtube]

In Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, the U.S. president, told that a rogue U.S. B-52 bomber is likely to drop its nuclear load on a Russian target, phones his opposite number, the leader of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party. Seeking to downplay the fact that Armageddon is close, he says, conversationally, “Now then, Dmitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the bomb. The BOMB, Dmitri. The hydrogen bomb.”

We’re talking about the bomb again; rather, we’re not talking about it. Barrack (Obama) doesn’t call Vladimir (Putin); reportedly, they dislike each other. What Obama had envisaged as a “reset” of strained relations with Moscow at the beginning of his first term has turned out to be a worsening. The BOMB is back at the top of the world’s agenda.

In Kubrick’s film, East and West, capitalism and communism, desperately collaborate to shoot down the errant bomber because, as the Soviet ambassador explains, one nuclear strike will trigger the Soviet Doomsday Machine, set to self-detonate if a nuclear attack is made, and to kill all life on the planet. It was designed to be the ultimate deterrent, and to be unveiled at the Communist Party conference in a few days time.

Their efforts are in vain. The bomber gets through, the Doomsday Machine fires – and the world ends as the film does, while the popular British wartime singer Vera Lynn sings the sentimental “We’ll Meet Again.”

One of the film’s many ironies is that the two superpowers are brought to joint action just before they destroy each other. Something, indeed, does go wrong with the bomb: It is used. In real life, rather than film, a nuclear bomb has never been dropped in anger since two were unleashed on Japan, on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at the end of World War Two. A 70-year period in which a weapon has not been used is extraordinary, and speaks to the deterrent nature of the technology. But, as the British nuclear weapons expert Heather Williams observed recently, “as long as nuclear weapons exist, there’s a chance they will be used.”

The tension between Russia and the West is ratcheting up. In March, the Russian ambassador to Denmark warned that country that its decision to join the European missile-defense system meant it had become a target for Russian nuclear missiles. When Russia annexed Crimea last year, Putin warned he would defend the annexation from any Western retaliation with nuclear forces. In April, a nuclear response was threatened if the North Atlantic Treaty Organization moved more forces into the small Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, formerly part of the Soviet Union, now European Union and NATO members.

When Dr. Strangelove was made, both the Soviet Union and the United States had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons — enough, indeed, to add up to a doomsday machine that could kill all life on earth. In the past three decades, there have been huge reductions in nuclear weaponry; in the past 20 years, the number of warheads in both states has been cut by 85 percent. Where there were 12,000 warheads in 1994, the new START treaty envisages only 1,550 on each side by 2018, and present and planned cuts make that goal likely. Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary for arms control in the U.S. State Department, noted recently that this “was still too many.” Obama himself has spoken about a desire to rid the world of nuclear weaponry entirely. Both Russia and the United States continue to uphold the reduction agreements.

But both sides are modernizing their nuclear forces and maneuvering bases into or closer to areas considered at threat. The United Kingdom’s  minister of defense, Michael Fallon, has warned that Russia is stoking tension in the Baltic states. Earlier this week, Latvian Foreign Secretary Edgars Rinkevics likened the situation to the near-war experience of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

The central question is the obvious one: Is it likely that Russia would launch a nuclear strike against a NATO country? The answer, presently, must be no, it is not likely, as a deliberate decision. The terror inspired by the reality of a nuclear exchange, the certainty of millions of deaths even if it were “contained,” the utter unpredictability of the outcome and of the nature of what parts of the world and humanity would survive would stay any rational hand.

Putin is rational, and he is using the threat rationally. He has decided that, since the beginning of his third presidential term in 2012, he must portray the West as a menacing force on Russia’s borders, a force that seeks to weaken the country’s government by encouraging a “fascist” revolution in Ukraine and by supporting antipatriotic nongovernmental organizations, which work against the national interest within Russia itself. The strategy is not only rational; it works. Russians now believe the West is once more their enemy, and seem to believe it more fervently than they did in the last decades of the Soviet Union.

But the key word is deliberate. The Strangelove option – the bomb that gets away from control of one side or the other – is much more likely in a period of tension. Russian command and control has been sloppy in the past. It is better now, as the country’s forces are modernized. But in a country keyed up by insistent propaganda prefiguring Western attack, a rogue decision is possible.

On the U.S. side, Eric Schlosser, whose 2014 book Command and Control was a frightening revelation of near-disasters, said recently that “once a nuclear weapon is fully assembled and mated to the weapons system, it’s a very dangerous thing. My book is extremely critical of the management of the American arsenal and yet we have not had an accidental detonation. We have not had the theft of a weapon and yet we’ve come close.”

Is it possible to decompress the situation? In a recent piece in the New York Review of Books, the financier and philanthropist George Soros called for a partnership between the United States and China to avoid war — a new form of hegemony that could control Russia. Earlier this week, the former Russian oligarch and convict Mikhail Khodorkovsky told the Atlantic Council that “when the current regime departs the scene, the United States and Western Europe must make every effort to facilitate Russia’s economic integration, and to promote technological exchange.”

But the “current regime” doesn’t look like it’s preparing to move. Until it does, or radically changes its strategy, we are closer than we’ve been in decades to being victims of “something going wrong with the bomb.”

19 comments

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“.. when the current regime departs the scene, the United States and ..”

Still obsessed with regime changes in economic/technical ruse.

Wish this Ash Carter stuck to his Physics at academia rather his poor-vision combined with power-abuse in encircling Russia with NATO forces is merely accelerating the pace of guaranteed mutual destruction of both-sides.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

Putin “plays hardball,” but is rational. The best reaction is calm, but firm deterrence. Don’t overreact, but don’t be cowed, because that would prove to Putin his aggressive tactics are working. Hopefully, U.S. military and others on the inside can take the measure of the situation and strike the right balance, to make sure Putin doesn’t go too far and cause a war.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

I think the author understates the real possibility of Putin resorting to low-yield, tactical nukes in certain situations. Russian military doctrine has reemphasized the role of tactical nukes and recent Russian military exercises simulated a nuclear attack on Poland. Putin is hoping to use the huge advantage Russia holds in tactical nuclear weapons to his advantage, to deter the West while Russia initiates conflicts in its former empire and seizes more territory. Under the new nuclear strategy of the U.S. (2010), more reliance for deterrent is put upon Western strategic forces, not tactical forces. This is simply not credible. The West needs enhanced tactical nuclear options in Europe to deter Putin and ensure deterrence against continuing Russian aggression.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

How about taking Putin off SWIFT?.. No bombs attached.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

THE POLICY IS DIVIDE AND CONQUER NOT INTEGRATE

I was involved in the assistance program to Russia after the fall of communism in the Soviet Union. The program was and is one of divide and conquer, hardly aiming to bring Russia closer to the West in any strengthened economic form. Any Russian leader confronted with this would take steps similar to those taken by Putin to prevent Russia from being broken-up and relegated to the status of a vassal state. The idea of using China to isolate Russia presumes that the Chinese are as stupid as we are. This is not the case. The US’s use of nuclear weapons though is much more likely than Russia’s. It is not irrelevant that we have been the only nation to use them and still celebrate this feat of arms. I was hardly pre-disposed to these views being raised like any ordinary American. Thirty years near the seats of American power will do this to you. It is not an experience that I wish on anyone.

Posted by St.Juste | Report as abusive

THE POLICY IS DIVIDE AND CONQUER NOT INTEGRATE

I was involved in the assistance program to Russia after the fall of communism in the Soviet Union. The program was and is one of divide and conquer, hardly aiming to bring Russia closer to the West in any strengthened economic form. Any Russian leader confronted with this would take steps similar to those taken by Putin to prevent Russia from being broken-up and relegated to the status of a vassal state. The idea of using China to isolate Russia presumes that the Chinese are as stupid as we are. This is not the case. The US’s use of nuclear weapons though is much more likely than Russia’s. It is not irrelevant that we have been the only nation to use them and still celebrate this feat of arms. I was hardly pre-disposed to these views being raised like any ordinary American. Thirty years near the seats of American power will do this to you. It is not an experience that I wish on anyone.

Posted by St.Juste | Report as abusive

Vladimir Putin in his speech at the 43rd Munich security conference back in 2007 warned about the consequences of what the West has been doing since then. Now let’s demonize him …

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Another scenario seemed to exist when the US alleged Assad had crossed the “red line” with chemical weapons and they positioned missile cruisers and subs off the Syrian coast, and Russia sent missile cruisers and other elements of the Black Sea fleet to confront them. Although they refuse to confirm or deny, one can guess both sides had tactical nukes to face “contingencies”. It was resolved by the removal of chemical weapons, but I have not noticed a detailed account of the “face-off”. Perhaps too alarming and “classified” ?
It showed the risk of a “poker game” bid up, with the players betting their cars, but not necessarily their houses and the lives of their families.
Hence there could be an public panic provoking clash between air and naval forces off the coast of Norway or Alaska with tactical nuclear missiles and torpedoes.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

In a report from a week or two ago, it said an American warship was heading close to Russian waters and was headed off by Russian planes, I think. If true, I was wondering if this was a way for the American military of giving Putin a little taste of his own medicine, what with a Russian submarine entering Sweden’s waters, Russian warships making sudden appearances too close to Britain’s shores, and so on. It’s a little disturbing to read that someone was quoted saying new Aerostat floating radar equipment were needed for American cities on an “urgent” basis in order to allow jets to shoot down low-flying cruise missiles. I just hope Putin and his colleagues fully understand that if they nuke any of our allies or us, that they are going to get nuked.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

The only way to be completely objective as to whether NATO and its allies or Putin’s Russia acts aggressively on the International stage is to disregard all qualitative information and look at the statistics of recent conflicts.
American conflicts

1. a. 2003 invasion of Iraq:
Documented civilian deaths from violence 140,147-158,767;
Total violent deaths including combatants 216,000
b. Syrian conflict (a result of the Iraq intervantion)
The death toll after nearly four years of civil war in Syria has risen to 210,060, nearly half of them civilians

2. Afghanistan war
50,000 recorded deaths

3. Pakistan 2004–2015 CIA Drone Strikes
Total killed: 2,467-3,976
Civilians killed: 423-965
Children killed: 172-207
Injured: 1,152-1,731

4.Yemen 2002–2015 US Covert Action
Total killed: 456-676
Civilians killed: 65-97
Children killed: 8-9
Injured: 88-217

Possible extra drone strikes
Total killed: 320-472
Civilians killed: 26-61
Children killed: 6-9
Injured: 78-105

Other covert operations
Total killed: 156-365
Civilians killed: 68-99
Children killed: 26-28
Injured: 15-102

Somalia 2007–2015 US Covert Action:
Total killed: 23-105
Civilians killed: 0-5
Children killed: 0
Injured: 2-7

Other covert operations: 8-11
Total killed: 40-141
Civilians killed: 7-47
Children killed: 0-2
Injured: 11-21

Afghanistan:
Total killed: 112-154
Civilians killed: 14-39
Children killed: 0-18
Injured: 1

Possible extra strikes:
Total killed: 149-198
Civilians killed: 0-3
Children killed: 0-2
Injured: 9

Libyan intervention: ( high cost in lives of bringing down Moammar Gadhafi)
Estimated 30,000 Died In War; 4,000 Still Missing 50,000 wounded

Putin’s Russia conflicts
1. Georgia
1,500 and 2,000 non-combatants killed

2. Ukraine
Conflict death toll 6,000

3. Casualties of the Second Chechen War (note some of these deaths occurred pre-Putin era)
11,000 servicemen have been killed. civilian death toll at 150,000

The greatest human rights violation is death. Everyone should have a right to life. If death by violence is an indicator of a countries aggressiveness on the world stage, NATO and its allies win this contest. Putins Russia barely made the 200,000. while NATO was at approximately 600,000. Furthermore, many of the Russia’s 200,000 were prior to the rise of Putin (war started in 1994 – Putin came to power in 1999). Look and verify the numbers and judge for yourselves.

Posted by Tigranes_Great | Report as abusive

@St.Juste’s comment should be read by all. We are the aggressor…and perhaps the world’s most dangerous country. What intellectually honest person would deny this? Name one other country that is more likely to engage in warfare against another country via traditional or economic weaponry than the US.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

@Tigranes_Great provides the data. Who can refute this with intellectual honesty?

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

@sarkozyrocks “We are the aggressor…and perhaps the world’s most dangerous country” Are you talking about France? Or did you just forget to change your screen name? Or maybe you’re just an honest American and have a thing for for former French presidents. Better be careful about these kinds of mistakes or the Kremlin won’t give you your paycheck.

Posted by jtmhoya | Report as abusive

@Neurochuck, just curious, where are you getting your information?

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

@Tigranes_Great

Abe Lincoln was responsible for killing a lot of people by starting the Civil War, in which hundreds of thousands of people died. Andrew Johnson didn’t start a war. Does this mean he was a better president than Abe Lincoln?

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

@Calfri I am a recently retired IT team leader/programmer contractor, and have never worked on government or military projects which required a security clearance, but have been “checked out” for work with telcos and banks etc, and although an Australian, the USA has issued me with multiple entry visas, and I have spent a fair bit of time in the US working or holiday travelling. So not leaking “privileged information”, but have time for reading etc.
For my previous comment, I used my memory of what at the time seemed a dangerous crisis. But as well as sources in the “American narrative” such as CNN, NYT, Reuters, BBC I do read other public Internet English reporting/viewpoints such as Hurriyet, Zaman (Turkey), Al Jazeera (Qatar), Al Arabiya (Saudi), Jerusalem Post (Israel), Times of India, Hindustan Times (India).

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

If Obama wanted to to reset relations why he supported rebels of Ukraine during revolt to remove earlier president?Actually he hard pressed Putin to speak of N.weapons when he Obama talked about NATO around Russia.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

To defend annexation,I doubt(If I am not wrong) Putin at that time ever spoke of Nuclear defense! He started speaking about N.weapons only when NATO started speaking to station emergency army on his border not any other time.This statement of the writer need to be checked.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

The same issue is being discussed in the context of Pakistan v/s India.Both sides current leaders feel strongly that N.attack is self destroying.Both will perish.This concept now has become universal.No one like to use N.weapon unless attacked nuclearly. The same is the case between Iran and Israel.The talk of N.weapons is just to create fear or to warn.Nothing else.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive