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The United States and Russia...strategic instability
From Foreign Affairs, Aug. 6, 2019
By Ernest J. Moniz and Sam Nunn
The year is 2020. The Russian military is conducting a large exercise in Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea that borders the NATO member states Lithuania and Poland. An observer aircraft from the Western alliance accidentally crosses into Russian airspace and is shot down by a surface-to-air missile. NATO rushes air squadrons and combat vessels into the region. Both sides warn that they will consider using nuclear weapons if their vital interests are threatened.
Already on edge after the invasion of Crimea, rising tensions in the Middle East, the collapse of arms control agreements, and the deployment of new nuclear weapons, NATO and Russia are suddenly gearing up for conflict. In Washington, with the presidential campaign well under way, candidates are competing to take the hardest line on Russia. In Moscow, having learned that anti-Americanism pays off, the Russian leadership is escalating its harsh rhetoric against Washington.
With both sides on high alert, a cyberattack of unknown origin is launched against Russian early warning systems, simulating an incoming air attack by NATO against air and naval bases in Kaliningrad. With only minutes to confirm the authenticity of the attack and no ongoing NATO-Russian crisis-management dialogue, Moscow decides it must respond immediately and launches conventional cruise missiles from Kaliningrad bases at NATO’s Baltic airfields; NATO also responds immediately, with air strikes on Kaliningrad. Seeing NATO reinforcements arrive and fearing that a NATO ground invasion will follow, Moscow concludes that it must escalate to de-escalate – hoping to pause the conflict and open a pathway for a negotiated settlement on Moscow’s terms – and conducts a low-yield nuclear strike on nuclear storage bunkers at a NATO airfield. But the de-escalate calculus proves illusory, and a nuclear exchange begins.
This hypothetical may sound like the kind of catastrophic scenario that should have ended with the Cold War. But it has become disturbingly plausible once again. Its essential elements are already present today; all that is needed is a spark to light the tinder.
Even after decades of reducing their arsenals, the United States and Russia still possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons – over 8,000 warheads, enough for each to destroy the other, and the world, several times over. For a long time, both sides worked hard to manage the threat these arsenals presented. In recent years, however, geopolitical tension has undermined ‘strategic stability’ – the processes, mechanisms, and agreements that facilitate the peacetime management of strategic relationships and the avoidance of nuclear conflict, combined with the deployment of military forces in ways that minimize any incentive for nuclear first use... Arms control has withered, and communication channels have closed, while outdated Cold War nuclear postures have persisted alongside new threats in cyberspace and dangerous advances in military technology (soon to include hypersonic weaponry, which will travel at more than five times the speed of sound).
The United States and Russia are now in a state of strategic instability; an accident or mishap could set off a cataclysm.
Not since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis has the risk of a U.S.-Russian confrontation involving the use of nuclear weapons been as high as it is today. Yet unlike during the Cold War, both sides seem willfully blind to the peril....
To paraphrase John F. Kennedy – who, during the Cuban missile crisis, had a closer call with Armageddon than any other U.S. leader – humankind has not survived the tests and trials of thousands of years only to surrender everything now, including its existence. Today, watching as the edifice of strategic stability slowly but surely collapses, Washington and Moscow are acting as if time is on their side. It is not.
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