Feeling a Cold War Chill over Ukraine

Reflecting on the Ukraine crisis, in a July 20, 2014 CNN interview Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein agreed that U.S.-Russian relations are at Cold War levels. Reacting to Senator Feinstein's viewpoint, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul stated his judgment that "Mr. Putin is returning to a Cold War mentality [1]." How valid is this assessment? And are we therefore at greater risk of sudden, catastrophic nuclear conflict between the United States and Russia that so characterized the Cold War?

The Cold War was a 45-year, global struggle between two superpowers with separate political-economic systems; their combined nuclear arsenals peaked in 1986 with an estimated 63,476 nuclear weapons [2]. Nuclear war nearly broke out during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and, less well known, during the 1983 Able Archer NATO exercise.

But in the more than two decades since the 1991 end of the Cold War, Russia has become integrated into world financial markets, now supplying Western Europe with a large share of its energy resources. In 2010 Russia and the United States signed the New START nuclear arms treaty, reducing each country’s arsenals to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads.

So despite worsening US-Russian relations over Ukraine, the current picture looks very different from the Cold War.

But what about the risk of sudden, massive nuclear conflict between the United States and Russia – Is that risk increasing due to the heightend US-Russian tensions over Ukraine? In thinking about that risk, it is important to distinguish between the possibility of intentional nuclear attack, versus the risk of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons.

Today nuclear deterrence remains a foundational national security policy for both Russia and the United States. With approximately 900 nuclear weapons in each arsenal ready for prompt launch [3], an intentional nuclear attack by the United States or Russia would almost certainly result in a massive retaliation by the other side. Just several percent of these arsenals detonated over cities would destroy our societies. Therefore the Cold War situation of Mutual Assured Destruction continues as Winston Churchill described it in 1955: "safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation."

The Ukraine crises could prompt Russia and NATO to raise the alert levels of their nuclear forces even further. But so far that doesn’t seem to have happened.

Now, regarding the risk of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons, both militaries insist that it is safe to keep nuclear weapons on alert. However the danger of accidental or unauthorized launch of nuclear weapons is mitigated only through technological safeguards and military discipline. In other words, the United States is dependent for its daily survival on adequate Russian command and control of its nuclear weapons, and vice versa.

Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported on inappropriate behavior of US Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) launch officers —such as failing to protect missile silos in a simulated hostile takeover, cheating on proficiency tests on missile operations, and opening missile blast doors with launch officers asleep [4]. Reflecting on these incidents, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel remarked on July 9, 2014: "I think over the years we've let our focus on the nuclear deterrence aspect of our national security drift a little. That's somewhat understandable when we understand that for 13 years this country has been at war in long, large land mass wars," referring to the protracted US conventional conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan [5].

Reducing the risks of catastrophic accidents involving nuclear weapons and reducing the dangers from compromised nuclear command and control are very strong motivations for Moscow and Washington to keep talking about the shared nuclear threat, even during the current Ukraine crisis. Given what has recently come to light about US missile officers, what don’t we know about weaknesses in nuclear command and control?

Right now the US State Department does not anticipate any further nuclear arms control meetings with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the rest of Barack Obama's term in office. This is regrettable: President Putin and President Obama have much work yet to do on reducing the risk of nuclear war, beginning with finding a way to take hundreds of missiles off of launch-ready alert —this chill vestige of the Cold War.

[1] Dustin Volz, "Sen. Feinstein: The U.S. Is Now at Cold War Levels With Russia, National Journal.

[2] Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Global nuclear weapons inventories, 1945-2013,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 60, No. 5, September 2013, pp. 75-81.

[3] H. Kristensen and M. McKinzie, Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons, UNIDIR, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, Geneva, Switzerland, 2012.

[4] The Associated Press, Key findings in AP nuclear missile corps probe, July 8, 2014.

[5] Remarks by Secretary Hagel at a Troop Event, Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia, July 09, 2014.