By Trevor Busch
There is little doubt that nuclear weapons still represent one of the most dangerous threats to humanity that we have ever faced as a species. The fact that they have only been used twice in actual conflict, now almost 75 years ago, does not diminish their modern potential for destructive force, nor does it guarantee that they will never be used again.
Someday we may be able to look back from our lofty perches in the future about the nuclear age and be childishly dismissive about our fears as much ado about nothing. But it may just as easily come to pass that there will be no more future generations, at least none in a world that we might recognize, if we choose to succumb to what Lincoln would have called “the darker angels of our nature.”
In an address to the nation last week, former KGB boss and Russian president-turned-strongman Vladimir Putin took a page from his Soviet forebears by rattling a gigantic nuclear sabre at the West — especially the United States — boasting about a renewed Russian nuclear arsenal virtually impervious to all current forms of deterrence, including missile shield technologies so beloved by fear-racked Americans.
“Russia still has the greatest nuclear potential in the world,” said Putin in his address to parliament, a lead up to an upcoming election where the virtual dictator will put a democratic stamp on another term of authoritarian rule. “Nobody listened to us. Well listen to us now.”
Many were listening as Putin gushed over high-speed underwater drones, cruise missiles with “practically unlimited range”, a nuclear-powered ballistic missile, and hypersonic weapons capable of skirting U.S. defences at 10 times the speed of sound.
While we should be used to Russian blustering by now, there is always an edge to nuclear brinkmanship that should make the world sit up and take notice, which is exactly what Putin was probably hoping for. The Russians are often still stereotypically thought to be a backward nation out of step with the rest of the global community, even downright crazy. And while Russia no doubt marches to the beat of their own drummer, they have their reasons for shaking an angry fist at the West.
Strongmen have always been love-hate adored by the Russian people — Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Joseph Stalin, now Vladimir Putin — but more than this, fear of encirclement and foreign invasion are virtually imprinted in the Russian psyche. In the Middle Ages, the Mongols attacked and occupied Russia, Napoleon and his Grande Armée tried to bring them to heal in the 19th century, and twice in the 20th century Germany tried to annihilate Russia, not to mention the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West. Few countries can claim this kind of record. It says a lot about why Russians are almost pathologically suspicious about the West, built on a long stream of broken promises and ulterior motives.
Moves in recent decades to expand NATO right up to many of Russia’s current borders haven’t helped dispel this suspicion, especially since it has now been confirmed that in the dying days of the Soviet Union U.S. diplomats and administrations made a clear commitment to former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev that this would never happen in exchange for support for a unified Germany and other concessions. The U.S. decision in 2002 at the height of Bush’s War on Terror to abrogate the key 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to develop a global defense shield — a move which stunned Russia and the world — didn’t help matters, and prompted Russia to start developing a new arsenal, the fruits of which we are reaping today.
In a now little-remembered nuclear footnote from the past, shockingly Gorbachev had actually proposed the elimination of all nuclear weapons to U.S. president Ronald Reagan during the 1986 summit in Iceland, but Reagan refused to compromise because it would mean the death of his much-vaunted Strategic Defence Initiative, the so-called ‘Star Wars’, which he feared would cost him political capital at home. The two leaders came within a hair’s breadth of achieving what Gorbachev had proposed, but it ended in a debacle because Reagan was unwilling to let go of what was later proven to be billion-dollar boondoggle space fantasy.
Our arch neo-Cold warrior Putin is a different kettle of fish. Not that the Russians are totally blameless in this puzzle. While Russian aggression in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine continue unabated, and may do wonders to shore up Putin’s conservative and nationalistic power base, they do nothing to soften Western attitudes about Russia’s militaristic threats on the world stage.
Still, it is possible that Putin’s address is a tale “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” as Shakespeare might have quipped. The Russian military budget only topped $48.5 billion in 2017, a mere fraction of annual U.S. defense spending. On the other hand, Putin’s claims can only be ignored at our own peril. A sound concept that unfortunately does nothing to govern our fears, or the lust of a powerful few for gargantuan military spending.
Worse yet, suspicions must hover around U.S. president Donald Trump’s clandestine links to the Russian regime and allegations of Kremlin meddling in the 2016 election. What, for instance, were they hoping to achieve? If the Russians have a president in their pocket — as some have suggested — this ups the stakes to proportions we have never seen before or after the Cold War. Trump, for his part, issued a rare criticism of the Russian regime on Monday, calling Putin’s anti-American blustering “irresponsible” and attacking video footage that apparently shows Russian missiles targeting a map of Florida.
How far we seem to have fallen from the dying days of the Cold War, when the world finally believed it could breath a little easier without vast arrays of opposing missiles on both sides ready to touch off a nuclear conflagration at a moment’s notice. Now we have the prospect of a new Cold War, complete with a new arms race — the ossified neo-cons that control America’s vast military-industrial complex must be licking their lips in anticipation of future decades of unnecessary military spending.
And it must be pointed out that the superpower arms race of the Cold War bankrupted the Soviet Union to the point of collapse, while in the West the almost incomprehensible sums that were spent on nuclear weapons development, military hardware, and proxy wars like Korea or Vietnam — were they spent elsewhere — could perhaps have avoided the deepening social problems that are shaking the very foundations of liberal democracy today.
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. in a 1967 speech protesting American involvement in Vietnam. “Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam.”
If we are about to embark on a new arms race of Cold War proportions, some of these very same questions must again be asked. And today, like we couldn’t in the months and years following victory in WWII, we can look back on the utter fear and the abject waste of resources that was our Cold War experience with eyes hopefully more knowing than our predecessors.
And we should recognize something else: the world we live in today may not be able to sustain the massive expense and terrible waste of such a military build up, no matter what the neo-fascists in Washington and Moscow would have us believe as they quietly contemplate the obscene profits that could be made from fomenting a new ideological battlefield between resurgent superpowers hungry for vast new armies and militaries equipped with the latest in cutting-edge missiles and technologies.