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."
The announcement of these wunderwaffe plus the revelation that "all of these systems were known to the Barack Obama administration — even the cruise missile" makes it harder to understand why president Obama publicly mocked then presidential candidate Mitt Romney for suggesting that Russia was a threat; or blithely allow Russia to muscle itself into Syria; or stand by and allow the Russian election hacking to proceed unchallenged when all along he knew, or must have known.
The U.S. government under Obama knew what the Russians were doing. Obama was warned repeatedly by Eastern European governments that Russia was meddling in their own elections. And while Latvian elections don’t exactly rank high on the list of an American president’s priorities, the White House could have guessed what the Russians were gearing up to do — and should have sent them a forceful message to knock it off. Obama apparently issued a direct warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin when they met in person in September 2016, but it came too late and had little effect.
The lack of defensive cyber weapons to deter the brunt of the meddling obviously complicated matters (and still does). Still, if you can’t formulate effective cyber-defense measures, at least put together clear policies to deter future attacks—go on the offensive and freeze Russian bank accounts, threaten to publish embarrassing information about Putin and his inner circle, and so on.
Instead it looks like there was barely any deterrence from the Obama administration — and that’s on him.
Perhaps Obama hoped that if he didn't make an public issue of Putin's aggression the Russian would eventually come to his senses. Evidently Putin didn't. Donald Rumsfeld once wrote, "there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know."
The Russian program was a known known. What else are we about to find out?
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