Is Nuclear War with Russia a Real Possibility? A Thorough Look at an Escalating Conflict

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Is Nuclear War with Russia a Real Possibility? A Thorough Look at an Escalating Conflict

How Hot is the New Cold War

That’s been a question on a lot of people’s minds the past few years, and as Kremlin meddling in the election has become more obvious, it feels less farfetched. If Donald Trump is President, relations with Russia would probably get better in the short term, as Trump becomes Mr. Bigglesworth to Vladimir Putin’s Dr. Evil (long term, we’d become a subsidiary of Russian oil giant Gazprom). Now, if the polls hold and democracy doesn’t come to an end on Nov. 8, everyone’s least favorite grandmother will go toe to toe with Diet Stalin, and they, more than any other humans alive, will determine whether the world will descend into a nuclear winter in the near future.

Hillary Clinton described Vladimir Putin as a “bully” in a Democratic debate this year, and in 2007 said that Putin “was a KGB agent, by definition he doesn’t have a soul.” He shot back “I think at a minimum it’s important for a government leader to have a brain.” We know from leaked memos that she argued in favor of arming the rebels against the Russian and Iranian-backed Assad regime in Syria. She also trolled Putin, calling him the “godfather of right-wing, extreme nationalism” as a shot at his famous speech justifying the Ukrainian invasion to fight “extremists, nationalists, and right-wingers.” This has reportedly injected a personal element to this conflict.

Clinton pushed for a no-fly zone in Libya, and the only reason the Russians did not veto the resolution in the Security Council pushing for it is because they were promised that it would not facilitate regime change (or as Hillary called it “we came, we saw, he died”). She has also called for a no-fly zone in Syria, while acknowledging the need to negotiate past the whole “shoot down Russian planes” portion of that plan, and it’s highly dubious that the Kremlin would agree to the zone in the only middle eastern country housing a Russian base. Even if Russia were not buzzing US warships in the middle of the ocean, relations between Russia and the United States are not likely to get much better with Clinton as President.

However, she’s not the party most at risk of causing nuclear war—it’s the journalist murdering, polonium poisoning thug holed up in Moscow who debuted a shiny new toy this past week. Naming your enemy’s weapon “Satan” is about the highest compliment you can give them. When this intercontinental ballistic missile was born forty years ago, NATO came up with its catchy nickname, and its sequel more than lives up to the bidding, as Gizmodo bluntly put it: Russia Reveals ‘Satan 2’ Nuclear Missile Capable of Destroying Texas in One Blow.

So yeah, these things are scary, but not just for the West, as founder of Arms Control Wonk Dr. Jeffrey Lewis told Business Insider:

“In the US, we don’t think liquid-fueled missiles are a great idea — they’re dangerous. One exploded in Arkansas and blew the silo top off and threw the warhead a far distance. The advantage [with liquid fuel] is, you can put a whole bunch of warheads on them. [but] if you put all your eggs in one basket, it makes a really tempting target.”

Lewis also said the Russians focused on land-based missiles because they are “terrible” with launching nuclear missiles from submarines, so the benefit to this type of attack is that we know where it is coming from – even if per the Russian boasted design, we may not be able to tell where it is headed after launch. There are a lot of moving parts to this rocket, and many of them are coming from Kremlin PR.

As I detailed in my column asserting that Edward Snowden was unwittingly part of something larger and Russian influenced, war is not their best talent; the battle over our mind is the Kremlin’s specialty. Given that they have their own recent middle eastern quagmires in addition to the fact that they sacrificed more civilians and soldiers to World War II than Germany, Poland, Japan, India, the Philippines, Hungary, France, Italy, England, the United States, the Czech Republic, Finland, Canada, and Belgium combined, Russia is far more war weary than we are.

Disinformation is the centerpiece of Russian foreign policy, and this announcement was designed to elicit the exact reaction the West provided. We can’t help it; hyperbolic headlines work and Texas is a scale we can all understand. Can Satan 2 destroy America’s newest swing state? It’s possible.

Will it? Well that’s a much more complicated question.

The 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London served as a major turning point in Russian relations with the West. Litvinenko was a former FSB officer who focused on organized crime. Western governments believe his focus on Putin’s criminal syndicates resulted in poloniom-210 winding up in his system. It certainly wasn’t an accident, as this is the first known cause of death of its kind. US diplomats credit Litvinenko with coining the phrase “Mafia State,” which many use to describe Putin’s Kleptocracy.

After the Kremlin refused to extradite ex-KGB agent Andrei Lugovoy, whom the Brits asserted was involved in Litvinenko’s murder, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown expelled four Russian envoys. They responded by refusing to continue to issue visas to UK officials. The UK then froze contracts they had with the FSB, so Putin fired back by discontinuing cooperation on counterterrorism operations. Nearly a decade of diplomatic pissing matches later, NATO finally suspended all practical cooperation with Russia after they invaded eastern Ukraine. The Russian-backed dictator, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted by protests the Kremlin believes were influenced by the CIA, so Russia had to provide “humanitarian assistance.”

Poland reported that an “unprecedented increase” in close military encounters with Russia had now jumped to Cold War levels. In 2014, a Russian reconnaissance unit nearly hit a passenger plane with 132 passengers taking off in Denmark. Russia then tested a medium-range ground-launched cruise missile, and the United States government formally accused them of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. In this report prepared by the State Department, the US accounted for 1,643 Russian nuclear warheads ready to launch—a 6.8 percent increase from 2011. However, it’s likely that much of this Russian buildup was simply meant to match America’s trillion-dollar revitalization of our atomic keystones already well underway.

By the end of 2014, Putin revised the national military doctrine to list NATO’s military buildup on Russia’s western edge as their prime threat. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited Estonia the following summer and asserted that we would not hesitate to deploy heavy weapons in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania—or, in layman’s terms: “suck it Vladimir.”

A senior Russian Defense Ministry official called it “the most aggressive act by Washington since the Cold War.” Not long after Carter left eastern Europe, Putin pulled out of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, which limited the number of troops and weaponry that anyone could have on the continent. Putin complains that new members of NATO have not signed the treaty, while they assert that they will sign it once Russia abides by its 1999 Istanbul agreement, where they agreed to remove troops from Moldova and Georgia. In 2007, Russia “suspended” then “completely” stopped its participation in the CFE treaty starting last year. Andrej Illarionov, a former chief economic adviser for Putin told the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet:

”[Putin] could well say that the Bolsheviks in 1917 committed treason against Russian national interests by granting Finland’s independence. Putin’s view is that he protects what belongs to him and his predecessors.”

The Soviets annexed 11 percent of Finland’s territory during World War II, so a potential threat like Putin isn’t taken lightly. Even more so after he was posed the question of whether Russia would aim nukes at European targets if “the United States continued building a strategic shield in Poland and the Czech Republic” and Diet Stalin responded:

“If part of the United States’ nuclear capability is situated in Europe and that our military experts consider that they represent a potential threat, then we will have to take appropriate retaliatory steps. What steps? Of course we must have new targets in Europe.”

There is no doubt that Russia’s words and symbolic actions are troubling. But diplomacy and international relations are mostly tradeoffs and fluff designed to stoke egos in order to stave off crises. In the U.S.-led post-WWII order that Donald Trump and his lemmings so enthusiastically want to tear down, real military conflict between global powers has been basically nil. This is the most peaceful time in human history. The closest we get to major conflicts like the past are proxy wars.

We can lose our minds over the words and actions put out by Soviet propagandists designed to freak us out, or we can drill down into Russian actions to try to get answers. If a military conflict with the United States is possible, studying other battles instigated by Putin would be instructive. Luckily (for the purposes of this column, and unluckily for, well, humanity) we have a current example with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russia’s takeover of Crimea was remarkably peaceful for a forceful annexation of a foreign territory, as just six people died. Instead of busting down people’s doors, the Kremlin fed the flames of popular opinion, then one day a bunch of Little Green Men) from definitely not Russia showed up, started running things, and the peninsula was theirs. I don’t know about you, but I’m hearing the echoes of Wikileaks and Trump right now. History suggests that Russia will always turn to propaganda over war until they leave themselves no choice.

Putin is bogged down in a conflict to overtake parts of eastern Ukraine that many fear is some sort of beta test for his larger aspirations in the region. However, that portion of the war is less pertinent to the US example since Russia has no interest in taking our land (for now, Alaska could conceivably become a point of contention). Prior to any armed conflict, the Kremlin’s plan to invade Ukraine began with a silent coup. This reveals their intentions better than any successive action given that once you initiate war, you cede a good amount of control over future events. When they had the most control, they opted to limit the armed conflict. If Putin was interested in any type of takeover of the United States, he’d do it with a stooge like Trump, instead of dropping a nuke on our vast quantities of natural resources.

Even though the 24-hour news cycle needs a perpetual boogeyman, the Kremlin is not the existential threat they used to be. Russia has been reduced from a superpower to a regional hegemon who is significantly weaker than their portrayal in the media and how the Baby Boomers memberberry them. This chart illustrates the main reason why (up is bad for the Ruble, down is bad for oil).

When John McCain said that Russia was a gas station masquerading as a country, he wasn’t wrong. “The new normal” for the Ruble fell almost in tandem with “the new normal” for oil prices, mirroring it throughout Putin’s rule to date. According to Dr. Jeffrey Lewis:

“We’ve seen the failure of democratic institutions in Russia. It’s not the open and free society that we had hoped for at the end of the Cold War, and with that failure comes an insecurity on the part of Moscow’s leaders. At the bottom of the Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries. The way they deal with that insecurity is bullying and threatening their neighbors.”

India used to be allied closely with the Soviet Union, but now they are tied to the US, hence Russia’s pivot to China. Russia is at odds with Japan over the Kurile Islands to its east, has been battling various middle eastern radicals for centuries on its southwestern borders, believe territory to their west has been stolen, all the while aggressively expanding into the Arctic. The Kremlin is fighting various long term wars on multiple fronts, and they are beginning to feel squeezed, especially by the economic sanctions slapped on them by the US and Europe. This paranoia became obvious when Putin effectively created a Praetorian Guard in April, shaking up the police force and launching a force of 400,000 loyal to him.

Russia’s main point of contention with America is the NATO missile defense system that just debuted in Romania and was scheduled to expand into Poland by 2018. I say “was” because the plans have been put on hold as American and Russian diplomats no doubt are negotiating over its existence. This could be a sign of progress, or perhaps another example of Obama’s feckless foreign policy that is all too eager to adopt a vague and rudderless position on any issue that could potentially involve military conflicts.

Asking if we’re in a new Cold War is all media hype for now. For some reason, the Cold War is portrayed as a struggle without any bloodshed, when the quagmire in Vietnam was directly related to Soviet aggression (not to mention the Korean War and countless other skirmishes across the globe). There is nothing remotely similar happening today, as the toughest “battle” the West and Russia are waging is an economic one. Putin isn’t completely isolated against the West either, as he has a good relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Even though Trump and Putin are equated often, Hillary being a woman is not an issue. This is a country whose World War II hero was 25-year-old female sniper and all around badass Lyudmila Pavlichenko.

Putin may be an egomaniacal sociopath, but he’s still a rational actor (meaning that at the end of the day, he will always act in his own self-interest). He is not going to engage the West in a war if he doesn’t feel he must, especially given how many other projects he is pursuing. The disintegration of their economy was precipitated by falling oil prices and exacerbated by U.S. sanctions in response to a Russian invasion that they allege was a response to CIA meddling. The ruble is worth is worth half of what it was worth three years ago, and Putin is rightly worried that he could lose domestic support. His fear of a coup isn’t completely unfounded, especially given America’s history facilitating regime change.

Russia’s response to this potential threat is to ramp up their militaristic rhetoric and actions. No matter what culture you’re from, war is always the best way to consolidate political support. Pushing back against Russian expansion is one thing and Hillary should aggressively pursue it, but if the Kremlin feels like the US government is infiltrating Moscow and attempting to remove Putin, then perhaps we could see him match his words with some serious actions. This is a situation that demands delicate hands, not puny orange ones.

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