Russian nuclear talk is dangerous even if it may be a bluff

Ingram Pinn illustrationBy:Gideon Rachman

I never had much time for the Greenham Common women. As a mildly reactionary student of the 1980s, I regarded them – and their protest camp outside a British nuclear-weapons base – as silly and misguided. After all, decades of experience taught that nuclear deterrence worked.

ThirtIy years on and the nuclear peace is still holding. But I am becoming a little less secure in my belief that nukes will never be used.

There are three reasons for my anxiety. First, the spread of nuclear weapons to unstable countries such as Pakistan and North Korea. Second, the growing body of evidence about how close the world has come, at various times, to nuclear conflict. My third reason for worry is more immediate: a significant increase in threatening nuclear talk from Russia.

Both in private and in public, the Russians are now making increasingly explicit references to their country’s nuclear arsenal. A couple of weeks ago, I witnessed a prominent Russian warn an audience, at a private seminar in Washington, that “President [Vladimir] Putin has put the nuclear gun on the table.” The Russian president has indeed told an audience at home that outsiders should not “mess with us”, because “Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers”.

Last week, Pravda – the Soviet mouthpiece during the cold war – ran an article headlined, “Russia Prepares Nuclear Surprise for Nato”. It crowed that Russia has parity with the US in strategic nuclear weapons and boasted: “As for tactical nuclear weapons, the superiority of modern-day Russia over Nato is even stronger. The Americans are well aware of this. They were convinced before that Russia would never rise again. Now it is too late.”

My only hesitation in writing about this is that I have little doubt that one aim of all this nuclear posturing from Moscow is precisely to get western commentators talking about a Russian nuclear threat. Russia is desperate to stop the west supplying military aid to Ukraine. So, they want to get across the message that any such escalation would provoke a ferocious reaction from Moscow and – who knows – perhaps even the use of nuclear weapons.

Mr Putin seems to adhere to what Richard Nixon called the “madman theory” of leadership. The former US president explained: “If the adversary feels that you are unpredictable, even rash, he will be deterred from pressing you too far. The odds that he will fold increase greatly.” President Putin may be right in calculating that, by putting the nuclear gun on the table, he can always out-madman Barack Obama, the coolly rational US president.

Nonetheless, even assuming that the Russian nuclear talk is a bluff, it is still dangerous – since to make the bluff intimidating, the Russians have to raise tensions and take risks. Last week, General Philip Breedlove, commander of Nato forces in Europe, said that Russia had “moved forces that are capable of being nuclear” into Crimea. As fighting in Ukraine continues, the danger of Russia and Nato misreading each other’s intentions increases.

Historians of the cold war have shown that mistakes and miscalculation have brought the world closer to accidental nuclear warfare more often than is commonly realised. A recent report by Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, entitled, “Too Close for Comfort” documents several incidents. Some involved computer malfunctions that led either the US or the USSR to believe that they were under nuclear attack. As the report notes: “Individual decision making, often in disobedience of protocol and political guidance, has on several occasions saved the day.”

Several of the most dangerous near-misses took place during periods of heightened political tension between Moscow and Washington. The most famous such incident was the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962. A more recent instance – with a stronger contemporary resonance – was the Able Archer incident of November 1983.

In September of that year, the Soviet Union had shot down a Korean Air civilian airliner, killing 267 people. That tragedy, like the shooting down of a Malaysia Airways flight over Ukraine this year, had significantly raised east-west tensions with the Russians, then as now, accusing America of militarism and plans for world domination.

Against this background, Nato staged a military exercise that acted out a western nuclear strike on the USSR. Operation Able Archer was so thorough and so realistic that many in Moscow interpreted it as preparation for a Nato first-strike. In response, the Russians readied their own nuclear weapons. It appears that intelligence services alerted the west to how Able Archer was being seen in Moscow, allowing for de-escalation.

One lesson of that episode is that the existence of a “hotline” between Moscow and Washington is no guarantee that the two sides will not blunder. Another is that any ambiguous moves, involving nuclear weapons, can cause a dangerous panic.

My parents’ generation got grimly used to living in the shadow of the bomb. But for my generation, the very idea of nuclear warfare seems like something from science-fiction or even dark comedy, such as Dr Strangelove. But the world’s nuclear arsenals were not abolished after the cold war. Sadly, we may now be returning to an era in which the threat of nuclear warfare can no longer be treated as the stuff of science fiction.


Financial Times

  • arzatna1

    It is tough to trust someone like Putin. I wonder if his only hobby is Russian Roulette. Having such lethal arms as nuclear bombs under his control is dangerous . This guy is too trigger happy . God save the world !

    • Maborlz Ez-Hari

      Russia is the mother of the worlds grave errors.

      • 5thDrawer

        They even have voters from the graves. :-)))

  • nagy_michael2

    It seems Putin and Iran want to hasten the demise of the world. One seek to intimidate and seek power as the ruler of the work and the other looking to meet the Mahdi and fulfill its prophecy. followed by Israel, China and the ISIS of the world. and don’t forget the little puppets of Iran called Bashar and Nassrallah who wants to throw everybody under the bus in order to keep their noses high.

  • TheUSequalsTheIS

    i hope putin drops a nuclear bomb on the israelis :DDDD

    • The real lebanese

      If a nuclear bomb were to strike even southern Israel, Lebanon would be devastated both upon the impact and for the following years due to the radiation lingering around. Not that you care though.

      • 5thDrawer

        Paths of the winds ….

        • The real lebanese

          Even without the wind. The impact alone can allow radiation to travel thousands of miles. Ocean water will be poison also. There goes Lebanon’s economy.

          • 5thDrawer

            It has one after the last 3 years? ;-)))
            Might clean up Sidon’s Mountain ….
            But those who want to give it a whirl … just to be 1940’s style … should look at the Chernobyl footprint.

      • TheUSequalsTheIS

        but u do? hhhhhhh

        • The real lebanese

          Well I obviously don’t support any nuclear attacks anywhere on Earth… hhhhhhh

          • TheUSequalsTheIS

            wid the execption of a nuclear attack on iran hhhhh

          • The real lebanese

            Even a nuclear attack in Iran will ignite a fire in the rest of the region hhhhhhh

          • TheUSequalsTheIS


  • Btru2u

    M utually
    A ssured
    D estruction
    what goes around comes around

    • 5thDrawer

      Problem is, that too many think they are going somewhere after being dissolved.
      (Vaporized. Fried – fast or slow …. take your pick.)