The world lived through some very dangerous times in an era known as the Cold War. The one idea that kept the world from blowing itself up was a concept known as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). The aptly named acronym said it all. . Both sides could, without a doubt, destroy the other but with the assurance they would in turn be destroyed. While we would like to believe that it was reasonable governments and moral grounding that kept the world from being destroyed in a nuclear holocaust, it was more likely fear of their own destruction that kept the missiles from flying. The closest we came was during the Cuban missile crisis when, thankfully, cooler heads prevailed.
Toward the end of the Cold War there were some who spoke of a "winnable" nuclear war, using low yield tactical nuclear war heads. This of course would only work if neither side began to lose and resorted to strategic nukes. Throughout the late 1960s and through the end of the Cold War treaties were signed to reduce the number of nukes each side had as well as to begin the elimination of tactical nukes, those that could be delivered by cruse missiles, short range missiles or artillery shells. Why is this history lesson important? In a word or two, Vladimir Putin.
In his annual speech before the Russian Parliament recently Putin boasted about Russia's new nuclear arms and delivery systems. These included tactical warheads mounted on cruse missiles and a supposed underwater drone. He further touted a new "invincible" missile that would render NATO defenses useless. There is no doubt that Russia has set a course to improve and modernize its nuclear arsenal, and it cannot be taken lightly. This is substantially more than Putin figuratively riding into Parliament with his shirt off.
The West has dismissed the speech as political rhetoric in advance of the March 18th elections. This would be a valid observation if a western leader had done this to secure a needed constituency, but the Russian election result is not in doubt. Russia has been pounding its chest and showing off its military might for several years now.
During the administration of George W. Bush Russia invaded the former Soviet country of Georgia and occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia, forming them into so-called independent republics. During the Obama Administration it reestablished its position in the Middle East, building up a military presence in Syria to support the Assad regime. While these last indicated a show of force and reemergence into the world. Russia then went on to invade Ukraine and annex and absorb the Crimea and fully support the nationalist fighters who were attempting to break free of Ukraine. This was a clear violation of the Budapest Memorandum signed by the US, Russia and Ukraine meant to guarantee Ukrainian sovereignty and promise protection, following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Now add to this recent violations of NATO boundaries by Russian ships and aircraft or, in the recent case in the Black Sea, challenges of US aircraft with dangerous maneuvers.
While these actions are partially attributable to Russian revanchist desires, they also indicate a Russian test of western determination, and we are failing the test. I do not want to see a new Cold War or a new arms race, but it may not be up to the US to decide. It may be time to learn from the past. I would suggest every decision maker be given Thomas Schelling's excellent book "Arms and Influence", and if nothing else at least read the first chapter, "The Diplomacy of Violence." President Trump is calling for an upgrade to our nuclear arsenal and as much as this may disturb people on an emotional level it may be what is required to keep us safe.
The Russian government today, as those in the past, looks to military power to ensure its place in the world. The Soviet Union was a super power only in the military sense; it was never an economic power. Putin was raised in the era of Soviet power, and in the rarified confines of the KGB. It would be dangerous for the West to dismiss his remarks as bravado and a need to build himself up for the upcoming elections.
Putin and the Russian elites truly believe that they are rearming to protect Mother Russia. They have always seen our missile defense programs as intended, not to protect, but to negate a retaliatory strike against the West's first strike. In Putin's recent speech one of his major talking points concerned the invincibility of the new Russian missiles. He spoke of the US building up its arsenal and refusing to talk to Russia, then said "they will hear us now". A Pentagon spokesman in response stated that we reject the idea that anything America did would cause the Russian build up, as missile defense was never about Russia.
This is scary on several levels, most importantly in that it shows the failure of the US to understand Russia. Russia firmly believes this is a zero-sum game. The Russian Bear is a paranoid beast and firmly believes the purpose of NATO is to invade and conquer Russia. What the West should most fear is that Putin is beginning to buy into the winnable nuclear war scenario. Sanctions notwithstanding, every time the West fails to respond to Russian aggression we come closer to Putin seeing a viable and winnable war. Just as in the past when the world failed to respond to Japanese aggression and atrocities in China or Italian aggression in Somaliland (Ethiopia) and finally German remilitarization of the Rhineland and forcing the annexation of the Sudetenland, war became inevitable.
It has been more then 25 years since the end of the Cold War and most do not recall or have ever known what that time was like. Just as the desire to forget the First World War, labeled the war to end all wars, blinded many to the conditions that ultimately led to the Second World, we must remember the First Cold War before we experience something infinitely worse. There is time, but it will run out.