Increased Risk of Nuclear War

The increased risk of nuclear war was the sobering conclusion of remarks at a January 24 Global Minnesota event by Tom Hanson, the Diplomat in Residence at the Alworth Institute for International Affairs at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and a retired Foreign Service Officer.[1]

According to Hanson, we are now engaged in a extremely dangerous new arms race with a high risk of nuclear war. The U.S. is developing what it calls the Prompt Global Strike (PGS), which is a hypersonic, precision-guided, controllable-yield nuclear missile that can be delivered anywhere in the world within one hour.[2]

Moreover, just this past December, the U.S. confirmed that Russia has developed an undersea drone that can carry an enormous nuclear warhead that is capable of traveling underwater at speeds up to 56 knots to distances of to 6,200 miles and of submerging to depths of 3,280 feet. Russia calls the system “Ocean Multipurpose System ‘Status-6.” [3]

Others have sounded this alarm.

William J. Perry, U.S. Secretary of Defense (1994-97), last July said, “Today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.” One of the many reasons for his assessment is both the U.S. and Russia are enhancing their existing nuclear arsenal and developing long-range cruise missiles that can be armed with conventional or nuclear warheads.[4]

General Sir Richard Shirreff, who served as Nato’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in Europe between 2011 and 2014, said that an attack on Estonia, Lithuania or Latvia – all Nato members – was a serious possibility and that the West should act now to avert “potential catastrophe”.[5]

On January 26, 2017, the Union of Nuclear Scientists advanced its doomsday clock 30 seconds to make it only 2.5 minutes to midnight, the closest it has been to that fateful hour since 1953. Two of the group’s officials said, “In 2016, the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come to grips with humanity’s most pressing threats: nuclear weapons and climate change.”[6]

“Making matters worse,” they said, “the [U.S.] now has a president who has promised to impede progress on both of those fronts. . . . Mr. Trump’s statements and actions have been unsettling. He has made ill-considered comments about expanding and even deploying the American nuclear arsenal. He has expressed disbelief in the scientific consensus on global warming. He has shown a troubling propensity to discount or reject expert advice related to international security.”

Other reasons for the change in the clock are the following:

  • “North Korea’s continuing nuclear weapons development, the steady march of arsenal modernization programs in the nuclear weapon states, simmering tension between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, and stagnation in arms control.”
  • More specifically, “Russia is building new silo-based missiles, the new Borei class of nuclear ballistic missile submarines and new rail-mobile missiles as it revamps other intercontinental ballistic missiles. The [U.S.] is moving ahead with plans to modernize each part of its triad (bombers, land-based missiles and missile carrying submarines), adding capabilities, such as cruise missiles with increased ranges.”
  • “Doubt over the future of the Iran nuclear deal . . . in the Trump administration.”
  • “Deteriorating relations between the [U.S.] and Russia, which possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.”

Conclusion

I was unaware of these recent technological reasons to be more fearful of a nuclear war. But I share the Union of Nuclear Scientists’ concern about Donald Trump’s having his finder on the nuclear button. As expressed in other posts, I believe that he is so uninformed about so many issues and so temperamentally impulsive and insecure that he could push the nuclear trigger at the slightest perceived personal or national insult.[7]

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[1] Hanson’s analysis of the world order will be covered in a subsequent post.

[2] Prompt Global Strike, Wikipedia; Cong. Research Service, Conventional Prompt Global Strike and Long-Range Ballistic Missiles: Background and Issues (Feb. 24, 2016).

[3] Mizokami, Pentagon Confirms Russia Has a Submarine Nuke Delivery Drone, Pop Mech. (Dec. 8, 2016); Gertz, Russia has tested a nuclear-capable drone sub that could pose a strategic threat to US, Bus. Insider (Dec. 8, 2016).

[4] Hallin, The World, at the Brink of Nuclear War: “It is Only by Chance that the World has Avoided a Nuclear War,” Global Research (July 27, 2016).

[5] Cooper, Nato risks nuclear war with Russia ‘within a year,’ warns senior general, Independent (May 18, 2016).

[6] Krauss & Titley, Thanks to Trump, The Doomsday Clock Advances Toward Midnight, N.Y. Times (Jan. 26, 2017).

[7] Why Is Donald Trump Disparaging the Intelligence Community?, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 9, 2017); Comment: Other Observers Identify Trump’s Character Flaw, dwkcommenataries.com (Jan. 9, 2017); Comment: Another Columnist Nails Trump’s Character, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 10, 2017); Conservative Columnist George Will Condemns Donald Trump, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 8, 2016). Now New York Times’ columnist Charles Blow makes this explicit by calling Trump a compulsive liar: Blow, A Lie by Any Other Name, N.Y. Times (Jan. 26, 2017).

An Impressionistic View of the Russian Federation

Jill Dougherty
Jill Dougherty

On October 17, Jill Doherty, a Russia expert and frequent traveler to that country, painted a verbal impressionistic portrait of today’s Russian Federation.

Russia today is weak militarily and economically, primarily due to low world prices for oil and gas and also to sanctions against Russia. This also makes Russia weak militarily with forced reductions in military budgets. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, who came to power in 1999, knows that, but is nonetheless determined to put Russia back on the world stage.

He has done so by injecting Russia into the Syrian conflict and Middle East affairs.[1] He has created conflicts on Russia’s perimeter with Georgia and Ukraine. He is pleased that Russia is at the center of the U.S. presidential campaign: “they may not love us, but they fear us.” He hates Hillary Clinton, whom he deems responsible for demonstrations against Russia’s parliamentary election in 2011. [The original version of this post erroneously said it was the 2012 Russian presidential election.] With respect to Trump, Putin flatters him and plays to his ego just as he did in Germany when he recruited people for the KGB.

Putin is galled by expressions of Western triumphalism over the USSR. He has a big sense of resentment against the West and quickly reacts to Western slights against Russia. Earlier this month Russia withdrew from a nuclear security agreement regarding plutonium with the U.S. Even more recently, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for a war crimes investigation of Russia and Syria. Russia immediately responded by suspending talks with the U.S. over reducing violence in Syria, deploying sophisticated antiaircraft weapons in Syria and redeploying long-range ballistic missiles to Russia’s Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.[2] Putin also talked about installing military bases in Cuba, but Doherty believes this is bluster to upset the U.S. in its pursuit of normalization with Cuba.

Russia now has an ability to criticize the West and its faith in liberal democracy. Russia sees Trump as saying just that while Europe is turning away migrants and falling apart. Robotics and artificial intelligence are increasing threats to jobs in the West. Putin believes that Russia provides a moral compass for the world with its socially conservative values.

Putin does not want to invade the Baltic states nor war with the U.S. Many Russians today, however, expect such a war in the near future. They talk about Russian military prowess, including nuclear weapons. They are buying emergency supplies of food and candles.

Russia’s relations with China are very important to Russia, which knows China could “eat its lunch.” China sees Russia as very weak, but an important source of energy for China. Russia also worries about China’s activities in central Asia.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Russia was very weak and chaotic with fears of a civil war with nuclear weapons. But the USSR did not dissolve in important ways. Thereafter Russia was challenged to create a new national identity. Yeltsin even had a commission to do just that, but it never completed the task. Putin, however, has done so. These are the main elements of that identity: Russian tsarism; Russian culture (the great composers, musicians, authors, playwrights and ballet dancers and choreographers); Russian bravery in the Great War for the Fatherland (World War II); the Russian Orthodox Church and its social conservatism; and modern technological accomplishments and talents.

Doherty’s mention of the contemporary importance of the Russian Orthodox Church reminded me of the 2014 Russian film, “The Leviathan,” which shows the Church’s complicity in a local government’s corruption and the absence of law; it won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Advice for next U.S. President? Do not expect to reset U.S.-Russia policies; Putin does not want that. Instead he looks for U.S. weaknesses and then reacts. He strives to be unpredictable. Do not insult or denigrate him or Russia. Try for disarmament and trade. Continue space cooperation and encourage scientific cooperation in the Arctic. Stop Russian aggression against former USSR countries. Help Ukraine economically. Putin’s presidential term ends in 2018, but it is very difficult to predict what will happen then.

Putin does not trust a lot of people and relies on a small circle of advisers. He is very popular with the people, especially the young people.

Putin had seen chaos before: he was from Leningrad, where during World War II his mother almost died of starvation, and his older brother died of dysentery at age three. After the war, Putin served the KGB in Germany and Russia and saw more chaos.

Doherty is a former thirty-year CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent and former public policy scholar at the Kennan Institute. She holds a B.A. in Slavic languages from the University of Michigan and a M.A. from Georgetown University.

Her presentation at the University of Minnesota was sponsored by Global Minnesota, the University’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication and Minneapolis’ Museum of Russian Art.

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[1] E.g., Rosner, Israel Knows That Putin Is the Middle East’s New Sheriff, N.Y. Times (Oct. 17, 2016).

[2] E.g., Kramer, Vladimir Putin Exits Nuclear Security Pact, Citing ‘Hostile Acts’ by U.S., N.Y. Times (Oct. 3, 2016); Gordon & Sengupta, John Kerry Calls for War Crimes Investigation of Russia and Assad Government, N.Y. Times (Oct. 7, 2016); MacFarquhar, Behind Putin’s Combativeness, Some See Motives Other Than Syria,   N.Y. Times (Oct. 14, 2016); Sengupta, A Senior Russian Envoy’s Take on Relations with the United States: ‘Pretty Bad,’ N.Y. Times (Oct. 17, 2016).