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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MAD About Nothing

After the New START agreement was signed last month, limiting Russia and the United States to 1,550 warheads each, U.S. President Barack Obama said he would like to pursue further reductions in both countries’ nuclear arsenals, including tactical weapons. This has sparked a heated debate among Russian security analysts. Many conservatives are warning that further reductions would render Russia’s strategic forces ineffective against the United States and undermine the entire concept of Mutually Assured Destruction — or MAD, the bedrock of nuclear deterrence.

How far would Russia’s number of warheads have to decrease — even while maintaining numerical parity with the United States — to undermine MAD and cripple Russia’s ability to deliver a retaliatory nuclear strike against the United States?

Maxim Shevchenko, host of Channel One’s “Sudite Sami” talk show, answered the question in an interview with Molgvardia.ru: “At 1,000 warheads, we will come defenseless against the West.”

Sergei Kurginyan, president of the Kremlin-friendly Experimental Creative Centre think tank, said on a recent “Sudite Sami” program that if Russia keeps decreasing its nuclear weapons, it could weaken its position to such a degree that the United States could “destroy us unilaterally without [Russia’s] ability to deliver a second strike.”

This fear is fueled by hawks like Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s envoy to NATO, who told RIA-Novosti on March 5 that NATO has a special division in Brussels that is “developing military —

including nuclear — plans against Russia.”

In 2006, Russia’s archconservatives received a moral boost from an unexpected source — U.S. professors Keir Lieber and Daryl Press, who in a Foreign Affairs essay wrote that MAD is coming to its end because of the United States’ overwhelming nuclear supremacy over Russia. Not surprisingly, the essay received a barrage of criticism from leading security experts dumbfounded about how the respected Foreign Affairs journal could have published such a spurious piece.

In reality, of course, MAD would not be undermined if both countries reduced their arsenals to 1,000 warheads. Nor would it be undermined if the number of Russian nuclear weapons falls significantly below that of the United States. The reason is that the definition of “nuclear parity” is much different today than it was during the Cold War, when it meant that Moscow had to have the same number of missiles and delivery vehicles as Washington. But now Russia can get away with a smaller nuclear arsenal — as long as it remains modern and mobile — and still be confident that MAD remains a viable deterrence against a nuclear first strike.

There are three main false premises driving the Chicken Little theory that MAD could be undermined in the near future, after which the United States would be tempted to launch a nuclear first strike against Russia:

1. The United States, starving for natural resources, could launch a nuclear first strike to take over Russia’s rich gas, oil and metals reserves.

The first logical question on this theory is what would be left of Russia after a U.S. nuclear strike, which would have to be massive — more than 1,000 warheads according to Kurginyan’s own estimate — to limit the likelihood of a retaliatory strike? Most of the country would be poisoned with radiation and uninhabitable for millennia. The “war spoils” would be of no value whatsoever.

2. The United States could launch a massive, coordinated attack against all of Russia’s nuclear delivery vehicles and — without missing a single target — completely knock out the Kremlin’s ability to deliver a single retaliatory strike.

The problem with this theory is that a significant portion of Russia’s strategic forces is mobile — on trucks, on the seas or in the air  — and, thus, no one could guarantee a successful hit of all of these targets. All it takes is the likelihood that at least one submarine-based ballistic missile, for example, would reach the United States in a retaliatory strike to deter a U.S. first strike.

Second, even if Washington were able to deliver a “decapitating blow” to Moscow’s command and control centers, Russia has a nuclear-survivable command post located deep within bunkers — reportedly in the Urals — that can give final authority for a counterstrike from submarines or other mobile nuclear delivery vehicles. Moreover, Russia’s “fail-deadly” counterstrike strategy assumes that for every successful first strike from an aggressor, Russia would launch at least 10 strikes in retaliation, strengthening MAD even further.

3. Ever since the United States pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, it has been trying to develop a strategic “nuclear shield” to protect its territory 100 percent against a Russian retaliatory strike. This would give Washington a carte blanche to launch a nuclear first strike.

There are several holes in this argument. Critics led by MIT professor Theodore Postol make a convincing argument that U.S. missile defense capabilities are grossly exaggerated by the Pentagon — and even more so by the Kremlin. They  believe that trying to strike an oncoming Russian warhead would be like trying to “hit a bullet with a bullet.”

And Russia’s “bullets” are highly advanced. It has 65 Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles with false decoys and the ability to make evasive maneuvers, which, by Russia’s own claims, can penetrate any “current or future missile defense system.” In addition, Russia is developing the even more advanced RS-24 missile, which is equipped with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles, or MIRVs. The probability of one warhead — and all it takes is one to inflict “unacceptable damage” to the United States — slipping through even the best of U.S. missile defense systems would be too high even for the most “Russophobic” U.S. general or president to take a risk.

Even if it were possible to improve missile defense capabilities, it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to build thousands of advanced interceptors, and the first question that Democrats and Republicans in Congress — and most U.S. taxpayers — would ask is: “What is the sense of spending so much money to protect against a country that we no longer regard as an enemy or threat?”

Russia can get away with this chicanery, using a massive propaganda campaign and its Kremlin-friendly television to successfully turn a nonenemy — the United States and NATO — into its top adversary. But in the United States, few would be convinced of the need to defend against a Russian attack. McCarthyism, the Red Scare and “duck and cover” drills ended in the United States in the late 1950s, and the Cold War ended in 1991. It is notable that Obama’s April Nuclear Posture Review clearly states that “Russia is not an enemy … [and] Russia and the United States are no longer adversaries,” whereas Russia’s new military doctrine, released in February, places NATO (read: the United States) as its No. 1 external military threat.

Although President Dmitry Medvedev signed the military doctrine, he sent a much more promising signal in his November address to the nation, indicating that he understands that Russia’s anti-West rhetoric is self-destructive. “We have nothing to gain from puffing up our cheeks,” he said. “We are interested in attracting investment, new technology and ideas. … Therefore, our foreign policy must be exclusively pragmatic. Its effectiveness must be judged by one simple criterion: the ability to improve living standards in our country.”

Furthermore, the Foreign Ministry’s proposal for a new strategy, leaked to Russian Newsweek on May 10, said the same thing: You can’t modernize the country without modernizing its foreign policy.

This means, as Medvedev suggested, Russia needs more pragmatism and deeper economic ties with the West and less cheek-puffing and fear-mongering about U.S. military plans against Russia, including a nuclear attack.

Michael Bohm is the opinion page editor of The Moscow Times.