In the 1950s and 1960s, Americans genuinely and rightly feared the prospect of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Schoolchildren regularly participated in air raid drills. Federal, state and local governments prepared for operations in the event of a nuclear emergency. More than a few worried citizens built backyard bomb shelters and stockpiled provisions.
Today, that old dread of disaster has all but disappeared, as have the systems that helped preclude it. But the actual threat of nuclear catastrophe is much greater than we realize. Diplomacy and a desire for global peace have given way to complacency and a false sense of security that nuclear escalation is outside the realm of possibility. That leaves us unprepared for—and highly vulnerable to—a nuclear attack from Russia.
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The most recent sign of American complacency was the death, a few weeks ago, of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty—a pivotal 1987 agreement that introduced intrusive on-site inspection provisions, destroyed an entire class of dangerous weaponry, and convinced both Washington and Moscow that the other wanted strategic stability more than strategic advantage. The New START treaty, put in place during the Obama administration, appears headed for a similar fate in 2021. In fact, nearly all the key U.S.-Russian arms control and confidence-building provisions of the Cold War era are dead or on life support, with little effort underway to update or replace them.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials from both parties are focused not on how we might avoid nuclear catastrophe but on showing how tough they can look against a revanchist Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin. Summit meetings between White House and Kremlin leaders, once viewed as opportunities for peace, are now seen as dangerous temptations to indulge in Munich-style appeasement, the cardinal sin of statecraft. American policymakers worry more about “going wobbly,” as Margaret Thatcher once put it, than about a march of folly into inadvertent war. President Donald Trump’s suggestion that the United States and Russia might explore ways to manage their differences diplomatically has produced mostly head-scratching and condemnation.
In my more than 25 years of government experience working on Russia matters, I’ve seen that three misguided assumptions underlie how the United States got to this point.
The first is that American policymakers think that because neither side wants nuclear war, then such a war is very unlikely to occur. Russia would be foolish, we reason, to cross swords with the powerful U.S. military and risk its own self-destruction, and many Americans find it hard to imagine that modern cyber duels, proxy battles, information operations and economic warfare might somehow erupt into direct nuclear attacks. If the Cold War ended peacefully, the thinking goes, why should America worry that a new shadow war with a much less formidable Russia will end any differently?
But wars do not always begin by design. Just as they did in 1914, a vicious circle of clashing geopolitical ambitions, distorted perceptions of each other’s intent, new and poorly understood technologies, and disappearing rules of the game could combine to produce a disaster that neither side wants nor expects.
In fact, cyber technologies, artificial intelligence, advanced hypersonic weapons delivery systems and antisatellite weaponry are making the U.S.-Russian shadow war much more complex and dangerous than the old Cold War competition. They are blurring traditional lines between espionage and warfare, entangling nuclear and conventional weaponry, and erasing old distinctions between offensive and defensive operations. Whereas the development of nuclear weaponry in the Cold War produced the concept of mutually assured destruction and had a restraining effect, in the cyber arena, playing offense is increasingly seen as the best defense. And in a highly connected world in which financial networks, commercial operations, media platforms, and nuclear command and control systems are all linked in some way, escalation from the cyber world into the physical domain is a serious danger.
Cyber technology is also magnifying fears of our adversaries’ strategic intentions while prompting questions about whether warning systems can detect incoming attacks and whether weapons will fire when buttons are pushed. This makes containing a crisis that might arise between U.S. and Russian forces over Ukraine, Iran or anything else much more difficult. It is not hard to imagine a crisis scenario in which Russia cyber operators gain access to a satellite system that controls both U.S. conventional and nuclear weapons systems, leaving the American side uncertain about whether the intrusion is meant to gather information about U.S. war preparations or to disable our ability to conduct nuclear strikes. This could cause the U.S. president to wonder whether he faces an urgent “use it or lose it” nuclear launch decision. It doesn’t help that the lines of communication between the United States and Russia necessary for managing such situations are all but severed.
A related, second assumption American policymakers make is seeing the Russian threat as primarily a deterrence problem. The logic goes something like this: Wars often happen because the states that start them believe they can win, but the United States can disabuse a would-be aggressor of this belief through a show of force, thus deterring conflict. Indeed, Washington seems convinced that showing the Kremlin it will punish Russian transgressions—through toughened economic sanctions, an enhanced military posture in Europe and more aggressive cyber operations—is the best path to preserving peace.
But, when dealing with states that believe they are under some form of assault, focusing on deterrence can be counterproductive. Rather than averting aggression by demonstrating the will to fight back, America might be unintentionally increasing the odds of a war. To a great degree, this is the situation the United States already faces. Years of enlargement of NATO and perceived U.S. involvement in Russia’s internal affairs have convinced the Kremlin that America poses an existential threat. In turn, Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, coupled with a string of aggressions against its neighbors, have convinced Washington that Moscow is going for the West’s jugular.
The United States experienced this spiral phenomenon with Georgia in 2008. Convinced that Russia harbored aggressive designs on its southern neighbor, Washington policymakers accelerated U.S. military training in Georgia, openly advocated bringing Tbilisi into the NATO alliance and issued multiple warnings to Moscow against military action, believing this firm resolve would deter Russian aggression. In fact, it had the opposite effect. Russia grew increasingly alarmed by the prospect of Georgian membership in NATO, while Tbilisi felt emboldened to launch a military operation in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia, which yielded an immediate and massive Russian military response.
Lastly, the United States assumes that Russia’s anti-American hostility flows from the internal nature of its regime, and therefore is likely to diminish when a more enlightened leader with more liberal approaches succeeds Putin. Sooner or later, the unsatisfied longing for freedom will produce new leadership in Russia that will advance liberal reforms and seek cordial relations with Washington, just as Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin once did. Compromising with the Putin regime, American policymakers believe, is not only immoral, but also unnecessary and counterproductive.
But the notion that Moscow hates us for what we are—a democracy—rather than the ways we influence important Russian interests is inconsistent with Russia’s business-like, if not cordial, relations with democracies that it does not see as threatening, including Israel, India and Japan. Moreover, Putin’s domestic critics include not only the country’s narrow slice of liberal reformers but also its wider expanse of hard-liners on the left and right who think he has been too soft on Washington. The reality is that Russia’s differences with Washington flow from a deep mix of geopolitical, perceptual, historical and systemic factors that will not go away once Putin eventually does.
Managing and containing the combustive mixture of volatile factors in the U.S.-Russian relationship is a daunting, but far from impossible, challenge. Washington’s approach must dispassionately balance firmness with accommodation, military readiness with diplomatic outreach—all without skewing too far toward either concession or confrontation. It’s a difficult balance, but the United States is not even attempting it at the moment. It will require more robust U.S.-Russian communication, as well as new rules of the game to deal with new weapons systems, game-changing cyber technologies and the shifting geopolitical order.
None of this will be possible, however, absent a recognition that real danger is looming—not a modern variation of World War II-style planned aggression, but a nascent World War I-type escalatory spiral that few recognize is developing. That danger could end catastrophically if nothing changes.
All statements of fact, opinion or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the CIA or any other U.S. government agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. government authentication of information or CIA endorsement of the author’s views. This material has been reviewed by the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information.