The Missed History Classes
No. 3 2015 July/September
Pavel Zolotarev

Deputy Director of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Why the Cold War Keeps Coming Back

This article was prepared as part of the research project “Social and Cultural Aspects of the National Security of the Russian Federation,” funded by the Russian Humanitarian Scientific Foundation.

Conflicts of interest, sometimes amounting to rivalry verging on war, are a natural state of international relations. Yet the fundamental distinction of the Cold War was that the menace looming behind this verge was not only fraught with mutual assured destruction, but could have obliterated the entire human civilization.

The book The Untold History of the United States, written by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick and recently published in Russia, quotes prominent American historian Arthur Schlesinger who presumed that “Men and women a century from now will very likely find the Cold War as obscure and incomprehensible […] Looking back at the 20th century, our descendants will very likely be astonished at the disproportion between the causes of the Cold War, which may well seem trivial, and the consequences, which could have meant the veritable end of history.” If today we once again talk about a Cold War, it only proves that no one learns from history.

The arms race and its rules

After the Second World War, there were no differences between the Soviet Union and the United States that could provoke their readiness for mutual destruction. Similarly, there are no such differences between Russia and the U.S. now. Yet the Cold War returned when three major factors concurred.

Firstly, the prospect of curtailing arms production caused fears in the U.S. that the Great Depression might return. Keeping the defense industry running in high gear required an external enemy.

Secondly, the nuclear bomb made the U.S. confident of its overwhelming military superiority over the rest of the world and tempted it to conduct foreign policy from a position of strength.

Thirdly, President Harry Truman, who lacked self-confidence, made concessions to anti-Soviet forces and the military, who admitted the possibility of not only open nuclear blackmail but also nuclear bombing.

These factors were a sufficient reason for launching an anti-communist and militarist hysteria within a couple of years. U.S. attempts to limit the zone of Soviet influence, contrary to the agreements on the postwar world order, forced Moscow to take countermeasures. The U.S. extensively used nuclear blackmail, and, after the Soviet Union had created nuclear weapons of its own, the Cold War solidified on the strong foundation of mutual assured destruction.

The initial period was most dangerous. The military on both sides viewed nuclear weapons as a usual, albeit very powerful, weapon. And despite the appalling consequences of the bombings in Japan, their use was provided for in strategic planning. The United States then had an overwhelming advantage in the number of both nuclear warheads and their delivery vehicles. Beginning from the Berlin crisis, American generals not only were ready to launch a nuclear strike but they also put pressure on the White House. General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of U.S. troops in Korea, proposed using nuclear weapons either against North Korean cities or against the Kremlin. This actually meant a new approach to warfare – the use of nuclear weapons in case combat operations did not produce the required result. This approach was later adopted in NATO’s nuclear planning, with Washington giving priority to tactical nuclear weapons.

The doctrine provided for using nuclear weapons in Europe only as a last resort, when a defeat became inevitable. But further analysis proved that this approach was unrealistic. In the event of a military conflict, tactical nuclear weapons would inevitably be employed in the very beginning, increasing the likelihood of large-scale use of strategic nuclear weapons, as well.

The disparity of their capabilities and the awareness of its perilous consequences prompted the sides to negotiate the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). However, the treaty was signed when it already began to lose relevance and was used since the mid-1990s to exert political pressure on Russia, causing Moscow to secede from it.

Seeking to achieve superiority not only in conventional forces but also in nuclear weapons in the European Theater of Operations, the Soviet Union deployed a large number of mobile medium-range missile systems. However, the United States responded to that easily and effectively by deploying in Europe a small number of Pershing II missiles with high accuracy and a short flight time to Moscow, thus making a decapitation strike quite possible. That was enough to force the Soviet leadership to sign a treaty under which all intermediate-range missiles were to be eliminated not only in the European part of the country but on its entire territory. Moscow had to eliminate three times more missiles than the United States. The expensive missile program proved to be a waste of money.

As regards strategic nuclear weapons, the policy conducted by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower had a significant impact on the arms race. Being a sober-minded politician who knew the reality of war and who had the experience of allied cooperation with Soviet troops, he believed that the most important thing was to ensure quantitative and qualitative superiority over the enemy. The deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe and Turkey significantly complemented the nuclear capability of aviation. In fact, the ground for the Cuban Missile Crisis was laid during Eisenhower’s presidency.

The crisis helped understand the danger of the nuclear deterrence policy, which was similar to the scare tactics used by street hooligans. In those years, there were no technical capabilities yet to prevent unauthorized missile launches. “Scare” could emerge at the level of a junior officer who had the technical ability to independently use the nuclear weapons under his command. It is noteworthy that during the Cuban Missile Crisis the nuclear deterrence factor proved effective, even though the U.S. nuclear arsenal was ten times bigger than that of the Soviet Union. This is also a lesson that should not be forgotten. The “unacceptable damage” criterion, proposed by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, was intended for other countries. For itself, the United States apparently dismissed the very idea of damage and sought to prevent any nuclear strikes against its territory.

It is important not to forget another instructive experience. In addition to the medium-range missiles, Moscow secretly deployed tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba. However, this secrecy did not allow using their deterrence capability. As a result, President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense McNamara made strenuous efforts to keep in check the military and politicians who demanded an immediate strike and invasion of Cuba. Had the Americans known about the tactical nuclear weapons, they would not even have discussed an invasion. It is not in the American tradition to sustain such casualties. Hence the conclusion: deterrence requires a balance between secrecy and demonstrative openness when the operational readiness of nuclear weapons is changed.

It was during the Cuban Missile Crisis that the Soviet Union and the U.S. developed the practice of direct contacts between their politicians and took concrete organizational and technical measures to prevent nuclear war. The fact that the Pentagon was headed by McNamara played a great role for the future development of relations between the two nuclear powers. A sober-minded and highly educated manager, McNamara formulated criteria for ensuring the required number of nuclear weapons, strategic stability, and a balance between the development of offensive and defensive strategic armaments.

Another important factor was that John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev clearly expressed their commitment to peace, despite pressure from overzealous politicians and the military. It was largely due to their personal efforts that the first ever nuclear arms control agreement – the Limited Test Ban Treaty – was negotiated and concluded.

The Cuban Missile Crisis brought about progress in another area, as well. Both countries developed rules of conduct that helped them create a system of nuclear arms control. Initially, they limited the growth of strategic nuclear weapons and missile defense systems, and then began to reduce them. This process continues to this day, despite current problems.

Why we have returned to the past

Relations between the two countries have now degraded to a level reminiscent of the Cold War. The West is demonstrating its strength (exercises near the Russian border, airlifts of additional heavy equipment to the training areas, etc.), sometimes showing signs of nuclear blackmail (the redeployment of strategic bombers to Europe for the period of the exercises, statements about a possible deployment of U.S. medium-range missiles in European countries on the pretext that Moscow violates the INF Treaty, etc.). Moscow is also acting in the Cold War spirit, and some of its actions are reminiscent of the initial, uncontrollable phase of that confrontation.

What has pushed us to the brink of danger? Let me offer some suppositions. There are several factors to consider.

The first factor is external. After the Soviet Union’s breakup, the United States continued to struggle for spheres of influence, although all successive presidents of Russia expressed readiness for rapprochement with the West to a level that did not rule out even a discussion of Russia’s admission to NATO. However, no one was going to discuss in earnest a strategic partnership with Moscow partly because the West felt euphoric over its “victory” in the Cold War and did not take Russia seriously, presuming that it would not be able to restore its potential any time soon. At the same time, it openly encouraged Moscow’s former allies which kept speaking of military threats coming from Russia. The U.S. sought to consistently spread its influence across the entire post-Soviet space, assuming that the traditional Russian presence there could be ignored.

The aforesaid, however, does not alter the fact that Russia made gross mistakes in relations with neighboring countries, and, unfortunately, the biggest mistake was its Ukraine policy, which triggered the current deep crisis between Moscow and the West. Russia had failed to find the right instruments for its policy towards neighboring countries and establish a balance between its natural historical responsibility before ethnic Russians and other peoples that had ties with it, and the need to maintain stability in neighboring states. The consequences of these mistakes will have a long-term impact on the already painful process of developing Russia’s new self-awareness.

And yet the U.S. policy towards Russia has caused broad anti-American sentiment in Russian society, including among young people who have never felt the atmosphere of the real Cold War. This sentiment is used by the Russian authorities for the sake of their home policy.

The second factor is internal. Russia’s attempt, made in the 1990s, to immediately jump into democracy and the market economy brought the country to the dangerous brink of possible disintegration. Criminals were making their way to power at both local and federal levels. And there came the time when a transition to authoritarian methods of government became logically justified. The Russian statehood was stabilized, but the strengthening of the state raised the level of corruption that was already deep-rooted. Protection racketeering ceased to be the domain of gangsters and began to be practiced by security agencies. “Manual control” came into conflict with the market economy mechanisms. The build-up of internal strain began to endanger authoritarian rule. By suppressing the opposition the authorities destroyed the potential for political development and raised the West’s concern about the revival of authoritarianism in Russia. The Russian ruling class, in turn, used the accumulated anti-American sentiment to boost patriotic enthusiasm, bordering on nationalism, and instill the perception that the world was a hostile place. Russia’s reincorporation of Crimea, undertaken in response to the pro-active Western policy encouraging regime change in Kiev, boosted public support for the Kremlin to a record high level, causing fears in the West that full-blown totalitarianism might revive in Russia. A vicious circle emerged.

The third factor is also internal. In the United States after World War II and in Russia today, this factor is linked with the defense industry. But the two countries faced diametrically opposed problems. The U.S. needed to limit the defense industry’s potential and, at the same time, prevent a slowdown in development. In contrast, Russia seeks to increase the potential of its defense industry in order to boost the country’s development. In the 1990s, the conversion of the Russian defense industry to civilian production failed. Some defense industry companies assumed a wait-and-see position, doing whatever they could to survive but losing qualified personnel. Others continued to produce Soviet-era weapons and military equipment, selling them to other countries. At the same time, the armed forces were in crisis as 80 percent of their weapons and military equipment were obsolete. There could be no delay in starting rearmament. The situation was highly critical, and the decision on rearmament was made amid a world economic crisis and before a slump in oil prices. As a result, the cost of rearmament exceeds the limit of permissible defense spending (which is less than two percent of GDP in NATO’s European member states). Developed countries spend less on defense than on education and health, whereas Russia has to cut social expenditures for the sake of defense. Under these circumstances, an external enemy comes in very handy for domestic politics. Anti-American sentiment has become in high demand, and patriotism is easily convertible into love for the authorities.

In addition to rearmament, the state apparently tried to solve another problem. Privatized enterprises became articles of trade at real estate auctions, rather than producers of goods and services. The state failed to stimulate production by small, medium-sized or large businesses, and the country fell farther behind technologically. It was then that hopes for new technologies were pinned on the defense sector.

These three factors have created a situation where people again talk about a Cold War. It is important, however, that two of these factors have internal causes. There is only one external factor – rivalry in the post-Soviet space. Therefore, there is every reason to say that the current problems in Russian-U.S. relations do not correspond to the state of mutual assured destruction characteristic of a Cold War.

How to manage risks

The world is different now and the main threats are common. The aggravation of relations between Russia and the United States is weakening their ability to counter real, not imaginary, threats. However, the practical experience shows that rational decisions rarely prevail in big-time politics.

But if we take the worst-case scenario for Russian-U.S. relations, we should single out two factors which emerged and were maintained during the Cold War.

The first factor is the tolerant attitude of the authorities to members of the intellectual class who (at least ideally) do not adjust to changes in the political situation, who do not give in to propaganda and who can critically evaluate government actions.

The second factor is the preservation and development of joint arms control experience and capabilities in order to neutralize the main threat – readiness for immediate mutual assured destruction.

It is obvious that official contacts today are much more intensive than before, largely due to modern means of communication, which produces an impression that top-level officials no longer need to meet personally and discuss problems with prominent scholars and politicians, whose role has generally declined. But this is the wrong way to go. At the height of Soviet-U.S. confrontation, the two countries organized Dartmouth Conferences and established other forms of communication. These meetings added an intellectual dimension to formal contacts and supplemented them with new ideas and non-standard solutions.

Another factor is the dependence of political leaders on the systems they themselves have built. When tensions grow, they come under pressure from the public opinion, the previously created atmosphere of hatred and patriotic enthusiasm inciting people to give a resolute rebuff to enemies, from the military who think in terms of readiness for armed conflicts, and political forces that bear no responsibility for the situation but demonstrate their “determination.” All these factors cause the authorities to make decisions that have disastrous consequences. Leaders like Kennedy and Khrushchev, who can stop the tragic chain of events, are rare to find. However, members of the academic community, who do not depend on the political climate, can be active in such situations and can stop risky developments.

Also, the issue of arms control, especially nuclear arms control, will be relevant in any scenario. The Cold War experience has shown that while one party has an advantage that allows it to hope for a military victory, there are always groups that try to persuade the government to use force, including nuclear weapons.

The potential of conventional and electronic warfare capabilities and cyberattacks in a military conflict can create conditions that will motivate the first use of nuclear weapons. It is hard to imagine any political leader making such a decision deliberately. However, the Russian and U.S. strategic nuclear arsenals have missile systems that are ready for immediate use but are vulnerable to the first enemy strike. These are primarily ground-based ICBMs. In an emergency, a political leader may be faced with a choice between using nuclear weapons immediately or losing them and suffering an inevitable defeat.

It is no coincidence that some experts have suggested working out measures to prevent a national leader from making such a responsible decision within a very short period of time (five to ten minutes) after receiving a signal from a missile warning system. The purpose is to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons use. However, this proposal raises doubts. For example, it is proposed to lower the operational status of missile systems that are vulnerable to a first strike in order to avoid a situation that could provoke their use upon receiving a signal from a missile warning system. At the same time, high-precision long-range conventional weapons are being developed.

Now that Russia and the United States are bringing their strategic nuclear weapons into compliance with the New START Treaty, it is unlikely that they will start negotiations on further cuts, especially as Russia insists on multilateral reductions, which are doubtful in the short term. There is also the unsolved problem of missile defense. It goes beyond the framework of Russian-U.S. relations and affects the interests of China. In other words, it has a negative impact on a possible transition to multilateral nuclear disarmament.

And yet, the task of reducing the risk of nuclear weapons use concerns all nuclear-weapon states and can be discussed in a multilateral format. The first steps can be simple and effective. They can be taken, first, by Russia and the United States and may turn out to be acceptable to other nuclear states. This is a separate issue, but we can outline an approach to it.

There is every reason to say that it is impossible to make a deliberate decision on the use of nuclear weapons in peacetime. This was ruled out even at the height of the Cold War. If a missile warning system reports a missile launch in the absence of an armed conflict, this can only be a computer error. It may be caused by a malfunction, jamming, changes in Earth’s magnetosphere from solar activity, late notifications of planned missile launches, etc. In accordance with the standing procedure, this information still must be reported to the top official authorized to make a decision on the use of nuclear weapons. Given the present state of mutual nuclear deterrence and the short flight time of the other side’s missiles, a decision on how to respond to a reported attack must be made under time pressure.

In peacetime, when a sudden nuclear attack is ruled out, the top leadership should be spared alarm information from missile warning systems. But to this end, the personnel operating these systems must be provided with conditions that would allow them either to foresee the appearance of false signals or promptly determine their origin.

An attempt to organize the work of operators of missile warning systems in this way was made in 2000, when Russia and the United States signed a memorandum on the establishment of a Joint Data Exchange Center in Moscow. The memorandum provided for cooperation between U.S. and Russian personnel, using their national facilities which were planned to be electrically interconnected in the future. Even at the initial stage, the Center could spare the top leaders the need to analyze unreliable information that could prompt them to make inadequate decisions and use nuclear weapons. It is necessary to return to the ideas of 15 years ago, and go even further. Both countries are building nuclear weapons command systems, involving spacecraft, which can serve as the first echelon of a missile warning system and transmit command information. Security largely depends on the reliability of various kinds of space systems. Therefore, joint monitoring of the situation in space is becoming an objective necessity. In addition, it would be advisable to invite other countries, for example China, to participate in the Center’s work from the very beginning. And this will already be an element of multilateral control and prevention of nuclear weapons use. We should move from the idea to create a Data Exchange Center to the establishment of a joint Center for the Prevention of Nuclear War. And if we speak of the need to lower the operational status of nuclear weapons in peacetime, then this should be done in the interests of recovering combat readiness to the required levels in order to strengthen the deterrent role of nuclear weapons during military confrontation.

Once a military conflict breaks out, other factors come into play, which can affect the possibility of using nuclear weapons. Additional measures will be taken to improve the operational readiness of nuclear weapons, and enhance their survivability and the survivability of control systems. It is important to consider a range of measures to restore and improve combat readiness, which could be used to prevent a further escalation of the conflict. To this end, such measures should be demonstrative, that is, sufficiently open.

Thus, the establishment of an international Center for the Prevention of Nuclear War would provide a fundamentally new element for the multilateral nuclear arms control regime. The deterrent role of nuclear weapons will grow, while the risk of their use will decrease.

Generally speaking, there are still no grounds in Russian-U.S. relations for reviving the Cold War and going to the brink of mutual assured destruction. In the presence of common threats, geopolitical interests can adversely impact bilateral relations only to a certain extent. But the current tendencies do not give hope for their speedy improvement. This is why the positive experience gained during the Cold War should not be forgotten.