The Long Anticipated Surprise
Vladimir Putin's announcement of a new series of strategic weapons including
- a missile able to strike the US via the South Pole,
- an autonomous underwater vehicle tipped with a hundred megaton warhead to devastate American coastal cities
- and a nuclear powered cruise missile capable of all azimuth attack
has raised fears that the Cold War is back. Pundits have gone on to explain that Putin is going through a legitimacy crisis caused by the decline of Russia as a great power, despite his ambition to restore it to first rank status. In fact a second fall of autocracy in Russia may give a future president the chance to succeed where Bill Clinton failed: to find a way to bring Russia into a peaceful great power path. Andreas Umland of the Wilson Center wrote "retrospectively, the early 1990s look like a historical moment whose promise was missed because of an enormous blunder in diagnosis, analysis, and prognosis."
But to rejoin the world as a second or third rank power is psychologically hard for Russia to do. It is bound to its Soviet past not just because many of its leaders were raised under that system but because it is held in thrall by the memory of glory imparted through power of nuclear weapons. Although Steven Walt assures us such are militarily useless, they are undeniably destructive. The world may have to survive them again until a future Bill Clinton can succeed a future Ronald Reagan.
Unnoticed in the storm of press frenzy is the fact that most of Putin's wonder weapons have been in development for some time. As Jeffrey Lewis of Foreign Policy points out: "all of these Russian systems predated Trump and his Nuclear Posture Review. In fact, all of these systems were known to the Barack Obama administration — even the cruise missile, which I now realize in retrospect some U.S. officials had been hinting at for some time." Lewis writes:
The real genesis of Russia's new generation of bizarre nuclear weapons lies not in the most recent Nuclear Posture Review, but in the George W. Bush administration's decision in 2001 to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the bipartisan failure by both the Bush and Obama administrations to engage meaningfully with the Russians over their concerns about American missile defenses. Putin said as much in his remarks.
The Drive reports that the Kremlin has been crashing flying nuclear reactors into the ground for a while now, including the Arctic, in pursuit of its secret cruise missile testing program. "As such, Russian flight tests of the weapon, successful or not, might offer one explanation about reported spikes in the amount of radioactive iodine-131 in the atmosphere appearing to originate from Russia’s northwestern Kola Peninsula on the Barents Sea in February 2017. This isotope is among the dozens of radionuclides that the Department of Energy recorded as being a byproduct from nuclear engine tests at the Nevada Test Site between 1959 and 1969."