When Will the U.S. and Russia Stop Acting Like It's Still the Cold War?

Mar 18, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

Sometimes it seems as if neither the United States nor Russia got the message that the Cold War ended almost two decades ago. Last week I wrote about the Dooomsday Device, a back-up defense system that Russia developed in the 80's. In the aftermath of a nuclear attack, it ensures that, even if no civilian and military leaders are still around to issue the command, a retaliatory nuclear attack will still be launched. Depending on your point of view, it's either the ultimate in deterrence or the most senseless act of revenge ever.

In fact, it was engineered in response to U.S. plans to develop the Strategic Defense Initiative (missile defense) at the height of the Cold War. The United States claimed that missile defense was just an innocuous defense from an initial attack. But the Soviet Union interpreted "Star Wars" as a shield behind which the United States could mount a nuclear attack, secure in the knowledge that Russia's retaliatory warheads would, in effect, be just rain falling on an umbrella.

Like missile defense, Dead Hand, as the Russians call their Doomsday Device, exists to this day. Except theirs actually works.

If Russia clings to a Cold War mentality in other ways as well, who can blame it? The era combined the best of both worlds:

  1. Stability, for those who believed in the illusion of deterrence, and ...
  2. Life on the edge, for those who knew the true extent to which the United States and the Soviet Union were actually at each other's throats during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Reagan administrations.

Recently discussions were held in Moscow between Russian foreign ministry officials and representatives of Global Zero, the disarmament group that comprises former heads of state, foreign ministers, defense ministers, national security advisors, and military commanders. But it turns out Russia's not ready for a new round of disarmament talks (at least not with those out of power).

The AP reports:

[Ground Zero member Richard] Burt said Russian officials appear to be concerned that steep cuts in their nuclear arsenal will leave them vulnerable to military threats.

"There is I think a feeling in certain circles in the Russian defense establishment that their conventional forces are rundown and as a result they're going to have to rely more on their nuclear forces," Burt said.

Hasn't that rationale informed many of Russia's defense policies -- as well as those of the United States at times -- since the dawn of the nuclear age? According to a 2003 Nonproliferation Review article by Harold Feiveson and Ernst Jan Hogendoorn:

For Russia, the end of the Cold War did impact the country's no-first-use policy -- but in an unexpected direction. In 1993 -- facing a precipitous drop in conventional military strength -- Russia renounced the 1982 policy of no first use, and changed its declaratory policy to maintaining the option to use nuclear weapons against any nuclear armed aggressor, including non-nuclear states allied with a nuclear weapons state.

Today, not only is Russia dragging its feet on disarmament, but, as Simon Saradzhyan reports for Zurich's International Relations and Security Network: [Russia's] 2000 Military Doctrine asserts that Russia "reserves the right" to use nuclear weapons first "in response to large-scale aggression using conventional weapons in situations [such as] regional war."

Not only is Russia dragging its feet on disarmament by continuing to retain the right to first use -- in a regional war, no less -- but, "Changes in the [follow-up] to the 2000 document include [allowing] use of nuclear weapons when repelling an aggression [in] even a local war." Bear in mind that Russia's "pledge to use nuclear weapons to defend itself and its allies failed to deter Russia's foes" in the regional conflicts that it's faced thus far in Chechnya and South Ossetia (not to mention Georgia). [Emphasis added.]

In fact, Saradzhyan quotes a retired Russian general who "argued that the new doctrine looks 'detached from reality'." Worst of all, he writes, "The planned expansion of the use of nuclear weapons will raise a lot of questions on how it conforms with" President Medvedev's May 2009 commitment to Global Zero, which, five months later, looks like a passing fancy on his part.

First Strike Culpability

If you believe that nuclear weapons provide a sound deterrent, it's likely you assume that first-strike capability is the backbone of deterrence. A policy of no-first-use would remove a weight from your pan of the scale that monitors nuclear balance and deposit it in that of your designated enemy's. In other words, if the United States declared no-first-use, its foe might jump to the conclusion that, should push come to shove, a red carpet has been laid out for it to strike first. Since U.S. nuclear installations are prime targets, the ability of the United States to retaliate would be severely compromised.

As Feiveson and Hogendoorn explain in their Nonproliferation Review article, it was the Eisenhower administration that first adopted first-use as national security policy. One of its directives read: "In the event of hostilities, the United States will consider nuclear weapons to be available for use as other munitions." [Emphasis added.]

Here we have as clear a depiction as one could want of how the military views nuclear weapons: There's no qualitative difference between them and conventional weapons. To the military, nuclear weapons don't constitute a fundamental break in the weapons continuum nor do they invoke visions of the apocalypse and evoke elemental ethical questions. They're just an inevitable development in the history of bombs. Of course, in recent years, because of the constraints on their use, the Pentagon has grown less enamored of nuclear weapons.

Forty years later, not much had changed. Of the Bush administration, the authors write: "... the United States was diplomatically disavowing the use of nuclear weapons except in certain extreme circumstances, and yet at the same time, hedging the disavowal to allow the greatest possible latitude for the use of nuclear weapons."

Despite what many think, hedging doesn't imply straddling two domains. Just the opposite in fact, it's defined as planting a barrier to protect your own. Either way, it's effect is to muddy the waters.

For example, does a state's first-use policy apply only to other nuclear states, or to non-nuclear states as well? What could possibly drive a nuclear state to attack a non-nuclear state with nuclear weapons?

The nuclear state might feel that the non-nuclear state is acting with impunity because it's protected by another nuclear state. More likely the nuclear state is operating under the assumption that the non-nuclear state is about to launch an attack with either the B or the C team of weapons of mass destruction -- Biological and Chemical weapons. Never mind that, a policy of first use against WMD runs the risk of watering down the concept of deterrence by diverting it into streams other than the nuclear.

Meanwhile, above the fray -- though not exactly occupying the moral high ground because it's got nuclear weapons, too -- stands China. Feiveson and Hogendoorn write:

China . .. remains the only declared nuclear weapons state that has maintained a largely unhedged no-first-use policy, and in 1995 reiterated its commitment that "China undertakes not to be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances."

During the U.N. Security Council meeting on disarmament that President Obama convened in September, as the Guardian reported ...

China pushed to have a clause included in today's resolution calling on weapons states to emulate its own "no first use" policy, but the US has long resisted such an undertaking, reserving the right to carry out a pre-emptive strike. But Obama is pressing the Pentagon to consider radical changes to US doctrine to downgrade the role of nuclear weapons.

One would hope that our next nuclear posture review disavows first use of nuclear weapons. Unless nuclear states can shed the Cold War mentality once and for all, it's hard to be optimistic about the long-terms prospects for disarmament.

Cross-posted at the Faster Times.