Both Russia and the United States undertook major tests of their respective nuclear forces at the end of October 2017. Oddly, that was not sufficiently newsworthy and no coverage appeared in America’s leading newspapers. It’s particularly strange—and even ironic—because the steady drip of articles alleging every type of Russian conspiracy, from manipulation of social media to meetings with senior Trump administration officials to the supposed attempted penetration of voting systems, has been front-page news every day, playing no small part in accelerating the downward spiral in U.S.-Russia relations.
One half expects a spate of new revelations detailing the current administration leaders' unexplained fondness for borsht and pelmeni. All joking aside, a simple miscalculation in this most crucial bilateral strategic relationship could rather quickly destroy both nations and end life on earth. As long as American media outlets do not cover these nuclear exercises, which are ominous developments, they seemingly can escape any culpability for bringing on the “new Cold War,” its catastrophic risks and the related consequences.
Some would prefer to suggest that cyber tensions, election-interference allegations, accusations regarding nefarious activities in crises from Syria to Afghanistan to North Korea—not to mention the escalating proxy war in East Ukraine—are all discreet and complex issues demanding U.S. strategic attention, that will not, however, cumulatively lead to a U.S.-Russia nuclear showdown. But that all too tenuous assumption is belied by high-level assessments from the Pentagon, as well as these recent nuclear weapons exercises that admittedly have become quite commonplace. Even if the actual chance of military conflict remains thankfully low, it is extremely disturbing, and wholly contrary to the national interest. The stoking of further tensions with Moscow will cost Americans trillions of taxpayer dollars—a fool’s errand if there ever was one.
At one level, this is just a case of bad journalism—the failure to distinguish the titillating (e.g. the Steele dossier) from the truly important (e.g. nuclear force modernization and crisis doctrines). How poorly informed the U.S. political establishment is by such bad choices made regularly in the country’s newsrooms is suggested, for example, by the somewhat remarkable fact that neither the New York Times, nor the Washington Post, bothered to report on President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Iran on November 1 either. If Washington’s so-called “adversaries” are coalescing against it, America, so it seems, will remain blissfully ignorant. The newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta provided significant space to discussing both nuclear exercises. As I have done for years with my Dragon Eye column in sharing insights from Chinese press and academic writings, here I will endeavor in a new column called Bear Cave, to impart some perspective on Russian strategic viewpoints in the hopes of contributing in a small way to deescalating bilateral tensions, which now genuinely threaten world peace and stability.
The title of the Nezavisimaya Gazeta piece may itself convey some frustration with the pointlessness of the mutual show of force: “Moscow and Washington Frightened One Another with Nuclear Might.” In a rare bit of Russian optimism, the article observes that U.S. Strategic Command had actually informed the Russian Ministry of Defense regarding the nuclear exercises in advance in conformity to the START-3 Agreement. As a seeming point of pride regarding Russian status, the article observes pointedly that Beijing was not so informed, since it is not a party to such agreements. Dismissing any “politically correct blather” of antiterrorism doctrines for nuclear forces, this analysis suggests that “in fact, both Washington and Moscow were training for an exchange of nuclear blows against one another.”
The Russian analysis concedes that the Global Thunder exercise organized by U.S. Strategic Command “looks like a saber-rattling by the Americans of a nuclear cudgel in response to Russian training and combat launches of ballistic and cruise missiles last week.” In the Russian exercise, according to the article, four intercontinental ballistic missiles were apparently launched. Lest anyone be confused regarding the payload, the article explains these missiles are “intended to carry nuclear warhead payloads.” Three missiles were launched from submarines (both Northern and Pacific fleets), while the fourth was a Topol rocket fired from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. The exercise also involved a sortie of Russian bombers of several types and so the “entire nuclear triad of Russia was tested.” This exercise was undertaken with the direct participation of the supreme commander of the Russian armed forces President Vladimir Putin, according to the article, as if to underline that he is the only world leader who could likely reduce nearly the entire U.S. homeland to glowing rubble well inside of an hour.
Happily, the article does mention some additional context for the recent U.S. nuclear tests, including the ongoing North Korea crisis, which the Nezavisimya Gazeta article states was “provoked by Pyongyang.” And yet the next sentence states quite unequivocally that Moscow is “extremely nervous” regarding the continuous buildup of U.S. forces in Northeast Asia. That point raises yet another cost of the new Cold War. In addition to the risk of catastrophic war and enormous resources wasted on military rivalry, we may add the further escalation of regional conflicts, whether in the Middle East or Northeast Asia, that have resulted from deepening mistrust among the great powers, which now seem more interested in the concept of “relative gains,” vice genuine conflict management.
My first instructor in Russian politics, Professor Richard Pipes, told his charges some decades ago not to take seriously analyses of Russia written by people who have never been to Russia, nor speak a word of the Russian language. But one does not have to speak Russian to appreciate that the costs of the new Cold War will reach far in excess of trillions of dollars for Americans when expenses for additional nuclear and conventional systems are tallied together to meet “the high-end challenge.” This lamentable trend was actually noted among Russian experts as well. And while some Russian hawks are undoubtedly cheerful about such developments, as are some American hawks, the great majorities in both countries will suffer under such burdens. Instead of badly needed investments in infrastructure, health care, green energy and education, we, and Russians too, will have more nuclear (and conventional) weaponry.
Hawks may continue their boisterous rejoicing: there will be no relaxation of grave international tensions any time soon. The noxious fusion of neoconservative and neoliberal thinking in the Washington “Blob” will continue to coalesce around the supposedly grave “challenge to the liberal order.” And the Blob’s “grand Russian conspiracy,” which is long on xenophobia, innuendo and spooky techno-bling, but appallingly short on evidence or historical context, will regrettably stifle any progressive policy agenda that seeks to put first America’s domestic priorities.
Lyle J. Goldstein is professor of strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions in his columns are entirely his own and do not reflect the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. government.