Russian tests and threats from Putin remind of Cold War nuclear fears

Russia is said to have held exercises simulating “nuclear attacks” this week. According to a statement from the Russian Defense Ministry, troops of the Baltic Fleet have held training sessions in the Kaliningrad region to “deploy mock missiles with the crews of the Iskander operational-tactical missile systems”. The Iskander has a range of about 300 km, so missiles launched from the Kaliningrad region can hit targets in western Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic States and even parts of Germany.

The final exercises follow the unveiling on April 29 of Russia’s new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The missile can deliver its payload to targets in the US up to 18,000 km away.

Vladimir Putin said Sarmat “has no analogues in the world and will not be for long” and that it would be “food for thought for those who, in the heat of frenzied aggressive rhetoric, are trying to threaten our country”.

Mutually insured destruction

I am a researcher at RAF Fylingdales, an early warning ballistic missile (BMEWS) on the North York Moors. I’ve spent the past three years building the Fylingdales Archive, which charts the station’s 60-year history of watching the sky for signs of a nuclear attack by ICBMs. BMEWS was built in response to the launch of Sputnik in October 1957. Sputnik was the world’s first artificial satellite, launched from the top of the world’s first ICBM, the R-7. The satellite showed that the Soviet Union had the ability to place a nuclear weapon on a missile and strike anywhere on Earth with little warning.

In early 1958, in response to Sputnik, the United States Congress signed measures that form the basis of modern strategic nuclear deterrence. In addition to BMEWS, Congress also approved the Atlas, Titan and Minuteman ICBM programs. These technologies formed the basis of what became known as Mutual Assured Destruction (Mad), meaning that both sides of a potential nuclear conflict have enough firepower to destroy each other and the rest of the world.

Errors and miscalculations

Deterrent strategies such as Mad rely on a delicate psychological poker game, with the risk that your opponent’s reaction will go much further than expected.

The dangers of this were not long in coming. In the early 1960s, the US had its intermediate-range Jupiter ballistic missiles stationed in Turkey and Italy, which Moscow believed could destroy Russia before it had a chance to retaliate. To bolster their deterrent stance, Moscow began deploying intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba.

CIA map of Cuba from the 1962 missile crisis.
Flashpoint: CIA map showing the Soviet Union military presence in Cuba at the time of the 1962 missile crisis.
Karolis Kavolelis via Shutterstock

What followed went down in the history books as the Cuban Missile Crisis – a standoff between the US and the Soviet Union, with 29,700 nuclear warheads between them (the US had 26,400 against the Soviet Union’s 3,300). Each of these weapons was on average tens of times more powerful than the weapons used against Hiroshima. Fortunately, common sense prevailed and no layoffs were made.

After this crisis, measures were taken to reduce nuclear tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. These include establishing a hotline between Washington DC and Moscow and limiting the number of operational ICBMs. But this period of relative calm proved short-lived.

The terror of war and arms control

The early 1980s marked a period of renewed distrust between the nuclear powers and a growth in the size of nuclear arsenals. In 1986, there were 70,000 nuclear warheads distributed almost equally between the US and Soviet Russia. How close the two sides came to confrontation was illustrated by the November 1983 “fear of war.” Soviet nuclear forces misinterpreted a NATO exercise called Able Archer 83 for the start of a nuclear strike. Soviet nuclear forces in Europe were put on standby for five minutes to conduct a preemptive nuclear strike.

Once again, constructive dialogues between Washington and Moscow were renewed, culminating in the historic 1986 summit in Reykjavik between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, which is widely regarded as the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

The summit kicked off decades of disarmament, beginning with the signing of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987. The INF removed intermediate-range ballistic missiles from US and Soviet arsenals. It also paved the way for the Strategic Weapons Reduction Treaties (Start), which effectively curbed nuclear proliferation, at least between the world’s two major nuclear superpowers.

Vladimir Putin watches the launch of Russia's Sarmat ICBM via video link in his Kremlin office, April 2022.
Threat: Vladimir Putin watches the launch of Russia’s Sarmat ICBM in his Kremlin office, April 2022.
EPA-EFE/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin Pool/Sputnik

But the end of the Soviet Union brought an uncertain time for arms control processes, as central command structures became fragmented. The dissolution of the Soviet Union also led to a dangerous increase in the number of countries with nuclear weapons. In 1991, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine remained in possession of more than 2,000 former Soviet warheads. After the signing of the Budapest Memorandum in January 1994, these weapons were returned to Russia and subjected to the disarmament process outlined by Start.

Read more: Ukraine war: what is the Budapest memorandum and why did Russia’s invasion tear it apart?

These weapons reduction regimes were so successful that by 2012, 80% of the peak nuclear stockpiles in the US and Russia had been eliminated.

Eve of destruction?

But world leaders seem to have developed a renewed appetite for nuclear weapons. In 2019, countries like China ($10 billion – or £8 billion) and India ($2.3 billion) made significant investments in their strategic nuclear forces. Meanwhile, the UK announced in 2021 that it will increase its stockpile from 180 nuclear warheads to 240.

The US withdrawal from the landmark INF treaty in September 2019 by Donald Trump, blaming Russia for deploying cruise missiles that violated the INF agreement, also dealt a bitter blow to disarmament activists.

Putin has made use of the threat of nuclear war on several occasions in recent years. His move of the Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad in 2018 posed a direct threat to Baltic states such as Poland and Lithuania, both members of NATO. And now Russia is showing that, if it wants to, they are there to be used.

In the absence of arms control, nuclear weapons retain their dangerous symbolic allure for leaders like Putin. But the stark truth is that nuclear weapons have always put the world in catastrophic danger.

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