Now that Americans have spent the last three years discussing Russia and all number of alleged Kremlin plots, it is well past time to move on to alluring Ukraine. As we can expect front page stories for the next year or so detailing every scintillating detail of Kiev’s various and sundry intrigues, one can only hope that each and every American will be granted an honorary graduate degree [почетный диплом] in Slavic Studies.
True, ordinary Americans may prefer to devote their time to pondering such crucial issues as U.S. troops continuing to be slain in the endless Afghanistan quagmire or the meltdown of Central America. They could be forgiven for wishing to focus on the trade war with China that is giving American farmers more than a little heartburn and threatens the entire global economy. Climate change, too, must give way before the conferring of advanced degrees in Slavic Studies. American national security is at stake, after all. We practitioners in Slavic Studies ask that you please not get distracted [пожалуйста, не отвлекайся]. By the end of this year, every American should be able to identify the historical significance of the Cossack leader Ivan Mazepa and the geopolitical importance of the battle of Poltava. Certainly, many of us in the field of Slavic Studies have benefited handsomely from all this attention and enjoy going on national TV every evening—sometimes multiple times per day.
By comparison to the impeachment machinations, the escalating nuclear arms race receives only minor attention from the U.S. media. That is a tad shocking given that newly invigorated nuclear rivalry will cost American taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars in future outlays—perhaps trillions. Then, there is that possibility of a miscalculation among the powers that might actually destroy the planet, according to one astute former Secretary of Defense. One might feel somewhat better, of course, knowing that Russians, too, are suffering under the weight of the New Cold War. In fact, seven Russians perished recently in what could have been a “small Chernobyl [маленький Чернобыль],” when an experimental nuclear-powered cruise missile exploded during testing along the shores of the White Sea. A Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, rather brazenly fingered both the Kremlin and the Russian Ministry of Defense with a piece under the headline “It’s Simply Dangerous [Это Просто Опасно].” Americans could actually have similar misgivings about their government’s role in the precariously evolving arms race if more U.S. media—rather than those few publications that are devoted to tracking military issues—covered the topic and highlighted the exorbitant costs and risks associated with it.
This candid Russian-language analysis from Novaya Gazeta, which took the form of an interview with weapons engineer Andrei Gorbachevsky [Андрей Горбачевский] is explored in detail below in the hopes of better revealing more about that outlandish project, code-named Petrel [Буревестник], and the evolving Russian mindset toward the New Cold War.
As is typical in this Russian newspaper that pulls no punches, the interviewer begins with the following question: “The American television channel CNBC recently reported that the test of the Petrel missile near Arkhangelsk was the fifth in a row, and all five were unsuccessful. Is this an acceptable number of failures for a new project?” Gorbachevsky explains that some failures are inevitable, but this record illustrates an “emergency situation” and indeed a “failed development process.” He believes the project “should not have been sent for testing.” As to the accident itself, he reckons: “It is hard to say. Most likely, the explosion did not occur in the nuclear reactor itself, but somewhere in the systems of its support . . . there was no nuclear explosion, but there was damage to the reactor, hence the radiation leak [Сложно сказать. Скорее всего, взрыв произошел не в самом ядерном реакторе, а где-то в системах его обеспечения. Мог быть взрыв и рядом с ракетой. . . . То есть ядерного взрыва не было, но было повреждение реактора, отсюда и утечка радиации].” Apparently having some inside knowledge of this program, the engineer reveals, “we separately tested the engine, . . . rocket control systems, and so on. And individually, the systems worked. And when they brought everything together for testing, problems started.”
As to the logic of the program, Gorbachevsky notes that the program is almost completely unique in its attempt to build an “intercontinental cruise missile.” He explains that with such programs, the “important thing is to make that which the adversary does not have [Главное—сделать то, чего нет у супостата].” Not surprisingly, perhaps, the concept derives from the Soviet era. Actually, Gorbachevsky says that Russia does already have super long-range cruise missiles with a range of five thousand kilometers. However, “They are launched from a bomber, which, in order to strike the United States, must fly up to the northern border of Canada.” Still, these bombers approaching Canada, could be shot down.
The Russian engineer explains that the so-called Petrel missile could fly almost an unlimited range. After perhaps a twelve-hour journey from Russian territory, it could then hypothetically “sneak up on the U.S. from the south [подкрасться к США с юга].” While noting the weapon would only be for retaliation and could eventually be cheaper than ballistic missiles, Gorbachavsky contends that at present Russia is now fully capable of “destroying America many times over.” So, “this missile is only necessary in the circumstance that we and America depart from all arms agreements and beat each other with missiles until we are blue [эта новая ракета нужна только в том случае, если мы с Америкой выйдем из всех договоров о вооружении и будем друг друга лупить ракетами до посинения].” Even from an operational point of view, Gorbachevsky is skeptical that the missile could penetrate the United States without being detected given all the sensors watching over American skies. And then, it could be shot down quite easily, once detected.
The best explanation Gorbachevsky can find for this weapon is “domestic consumption.” He explains, the missile program is useful “from the point of view of public relations, for example, to say how cool we are and how much everyone fears us; also, from the point of view of financing for the builders [С точки зрения пиара, например: рассказать, какие мы крутые и как нас все боятся. С точки зрения финансирования разработчиков].” Noting from an engineering point of view that the shielding of the reactor must be minimized to allow the crazy contraption to take wing, the Russian weapons designer concludes by despairing that the nuclear-powered Petrel could “even explode on our own territory.”
Stepping back from the Novaya Gazeta article to consider the larger conundrum of global nuclear stability, it might be said that America is indeed a giant and rich country, so that a hundred billion dollars here or there for the new arms race doesn’t matter much. By contrast, Russia is similarly giant but not nearly so wealthy and, therefore, should be looking after its own people properly instead of wasting ever more resources on profligate nuclear weapons programming. Trying to maintain a large force of nuclear weapons on a shoestring budget endangers not only Russians, but also the West. In nuclear strategy, treating the opponent like a “cornered rat” has obvious pitfalls, not least the opportunity for accident and misperception flowing from pervasive paranoia and desperate attempts to rectify imbalance. So bent on rearming itself to face off with the West is Russia that its crucial civil sectors are perennially neglected, to state the obvious. It’s true, of course, that Russian mistrust and aggressiveness have helped to stoke the New Cold War, but so has gloating and arrogance on the part of the West. In a situation in which NATO military spending dwarfs that of Russia, American and European strategists should act with due restraint rather than competing to “poke the bear.”
Even as all Americans now seem to be experts on the sordid details of Ukrainian politics, it is worth reflecting on the role of Maidan crisis in overthrowing a reasonably peaceful era in European history that prevailed from 1991 until 2014. American politicians now are inclined to blame each other for not giving Ukraine sufficient support in their battle with Russia. But let’s all remember that it was President Barack Obama, who first wisely realized that the West absolutely should not resort to armed force in order to contest Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Next, Obama also insisted that the United States not provide Ukraine with lethal weaponry. That was also a wise decision by Obama. He understood that Russia would retain escalation dominance—no matter what. Predictably, moreover, the situation in eastern Ukraine has not improved markedly since those American weapons arrived in Ukraine during the first spring of the Trump administration (April 2017). Ukrainians continue to die—just the same as before. Arguably, the situation is even more tense now. Have readers already forgotten the dangerous crisis in the Sea of Azov from a year ago?
In the final analysis, Obama, unlike his bellicose vice-president, understood that the United States could not “save” Ukraine and that Ukraine and Russia must ultimately reconcile among themselves if there is to be a stable and prosperous peace in Eastern Europe. While the Europeans (including Russia) should be expected to be mature enough to solve that problem amongst themselves, Obama knew Americans should instead be devoting these precious resources to “nation-building at home.” Notably, that sensible vision did not include throwing away hundreds of billions on a new nuclear arms race.