Back in the USSR

By Thomas Claridge
Columnist, International Relations Graduate Student

As the wintry nights draw in and the festive season tiptoes closer, spare a thought for Sergei Karakayev.

As Commander of Russia’s Strategic Missile Troops, he must be quaking in his boots over the all-important question consuming the Kremlin this time of year; what present does one give to Putin?

Perhaps some socks? A CD? A region of Ukraine? What if he already has one!?

Sergei’s stress is understandable. Imagine the awkwardness of Putin opening your Christmas card to reveal yet another iTunes Gift Voucher.

Luckily, the top brass seem a bit more organised this year. No quick stop at a gas station on Christmas Eve for them. No sir! Instead, the Generals seem to have clubbed together to get a lovely new state-of-the-art nuclear torpedo for the President. Rumoured to weigh in at a staggering 100 megatons, ‘how excited he will be’, Sergei and the others excitedly chatter. Ever since the Purges of the 1930s, Russia’s generals have known the importance of keeping the boss happy.

Imagine the awkwardness of Putin opening your Christmas card to reveal yet another iTunes Gift Voucher.

Picture the despair then, the calamity, when on 10 November someone (no names mentioned) accidentally leaked the plans for this new torpedo on Russian TV. State-run Channel One was running an otherwise mundane report on Russia’s military, when briefly a detailed blueprint of the torpedo was mistakenly aired. Since then, the details of the weapon have been circulated around the globe. The long range nuclear torpedo had been dubbed ‘Status – 6’, and had been designed to ‘cause guaranteed devastating damage’ to an enemy country’s ‘important economic coastal area’s’ according to the televised blueprint. We’re talking about areas like New York City here.

A noticeably embarrassed Spokesperson for the administration, Dmitry Peskov, released a statement soon after; “It’s true some secret data got into the shot, therefore it was subsequently deleted.”

Whilst Dmitry and Sergei scramble for a replacement present, you may wonder why this matters to you. Apart from making your copy of Fallout 4 look a bit dull by contrast this Christmas to a massive aquatic nuclear warhead, does it really matter?

Regrettably it does Comrade. Ask yourself why have the elves at Russia’s military headquarters been tinkering away at such a naughty toy? If a copy of Braveheart will do for Sturgeon’s present, and a deceased pig will do for Cameron, why does Putin need a 100-megaton torpedo?

Here we come to the crux of the problem. This leak is the latest episode in a US-Russia rivalry that one would’ve thought ended when the Cold War did. In fact, some are claiming that the leak isn’t a leak at all (‘Heaven forbid!’ cries Sergei). It is apparently, in the words of NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, a not-so-veiled threat towards the US and its allies, continued evidence of Russia’s “nuclear sabre-rattling.”

If a copy of Braveheart will do for Sturgeon’s present, and a deceased pig will do for Cameron, why does Putin need a 100-megaton torpedo?

The whole story begins with the comparatively tranquil Cold War. Facing a dire economic situation domestically, Gorbachev sought to calm the international scene through a rapprochement with Reagan; thus allowing him to focus on his restructuring (Perestroika) of the shambolic Soviet economy at home.

As a result, Gorbachev announced to the United Nations a withdrawal of Soviet Troops from Afghanistan. He and Reagan signed the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Treaty, in which they agreed to “eliminate and permanently forswear all of their ballistic missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometres.”

It wasn’t all plain sailing however. At a summit in Reykjavik, Gorbachev proposed an agreement that would see “all nuclear weapons eliminated within 10 years.” Regrettably no deal was signed as it required Reagan to scrap his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). SDI was a largely impractical missile defence plan designed to shoot down incoming Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles’s in outer space, a plan thus dubbed Star Wars presumably for the striking similarity that threatening to blow up a planet for no real reason played in both films and reality.

Although no deal was signed, Gorbachev persisted in his pursuit of reconciliation, and reduced Soviet troop numbers in Eastern Europe by 500,000.

The importances of the above developments are two-fold. Firstly, it signifies that Soviet military strength going into the 1990s was not as strong as it could/should be, depending upon your point of view (a fact not to be lost on an ex-KGB officer named Putin, who was just entering politics at this time).

Secondly, the importance of Missile Defence Systems (in this case Reagan’s Star Wars project) to US-Russian relations cannot be overstated. As any budding student of International Relations knows, deterrence theory or Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) has been the life support upon which humanity has clung for the past seventy years in the face of nuclear oblivion. It is premised upon the idea that if one country ‘drops a big one’ on another, it can expect the same in return: everyone dies, no-one wins, and therefore the option is never taken.

The strongest justification for deterrence theory seems to be that if you are alive and sentient enough to comprehend how bad a safeguard for humanity it is, it has worked.

Regardless of the problems with deterrence, the important point is that the whole theory relies upon reciprocal vulnerability, and a Missile Defence System undermines just that. The shielded side can launch attacks with impunity, being less vulnerability to retaliation (just look at Israel’s Iron-Dome system). Therefore the USSR feared Reagan’s Star Wars missile defence project, for it undermined MAD to such an extent that it could theoretically allow the US to hold the USSR to ‘nuclear ransom.’

With regards to the modern day, and the woes of poor Sergei, consider rogue states. To protect against potential missile strikes from countries such as Iran or North Korea, in 2010 NATO approved the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defence system, the first major system proposed since Star Wars. The system was designed to counter any short or medium range missiles that might target NATO states, and agreements were reached to install the system in Turkey, Romania, and Poland.

The strongest justification for deterrence theory seems to be that if you are alive and sentient enough to comprehend how bad a safeguard for humanity it is, it has worked.

Putin quickly denounced Aegis’s real purpose as being to give NATO a “decisive military superiority” and to neutralize Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent, citing the mostly Eastern European location of Aegis’ installation locations as evidence. In response, the Kremlin raised a solitary finger to NATO, before announcing it would be developing “strike systems capable of penetrating any missile defences.”

Enter the ‘Status – 6’ nuclear torpedo.

The Russian Military is nothing if not stubborn (Stalingrad being a famous case in point). In addition to ramping up their missile strike systems, Russia made a further announcement a year after NATO launched Aegis. A staggering $650 billion (about £432.4 billion) modernization of its armed forces was to be undertaken, due to be completed by 2020 (the same year that Aegis will come online).

Rather than abandon Aegis in face of these minor Russian objections, NATO pressed on, refusing to look weak by caving into pressure from Putin.

In a tit-for-tat reminiscent of August 1914, the problems soon intensified. Following the recent Russian intervention in Crimea (itself a response to counter the growing influence of the European Union in Ukraine), NATO in response stepped up its military presence in Eastern Europe, claiming it was increasing both “the readiness and the preparedness” of its forces, a move NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg defended as “proportionate, defensive, and fully in line with our international commitments.”

Mr. Putin responded by claiming that any Russian’s in Ukraine were merely “volunteers,” and NATO’s move was unwarranted. The humble observer can only praise these resourceful Russian volunteers, who without any state support, seem to have acquired their own tanks and heavy artillery. If the average Russian has that kind of firepower knocking about in their backyard, by comparison America’s gun-problem seems fairly quaint.

“Putin quickly denounced Aegis’s real purpose as being to give NATO a “decisive military superiority” and to neutralize Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent… Enter the ‘Status – 6’ nuclear torpedo.”

More recently, in June 2015 Russia unveiled forty modernized ICBM’s at a military parade, a move once more quickly criticized by the tenacious NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg. Nothing if not predictable, Moscow swiftly criticized Stoltenberg’s swift criticism, with Mr. Putin claiming that Russia’s increased military spending was a justified attempt to “catch up” from the “chronic underfunding” of Russian military programmes during the 1990’s (one senses Putin was not a fan of Gorbachev’s previously mentioned demilitarisation policies).

Perhaps the above can illuminate why Sergei and the other generals thought Putin would appreciate a new nuclear torpedo this festive season. This year’s military escalation is just the latest move in a classic realpolitik competition between Russia and the US that, it sadly seems, was only put on hold between 1991 and the early 2000s.

To the observant eye, we have come full circle. In 1986 Reagan and Khrushchev discussed banning all nuclear weapons, agreed to reduce armament spending, and the US eventually abandoned its proposed Missile Defence System. Now in 2015, more nuclear weapons are being built, armaments’ spending is on the rise, and NATO is pursuing a new missile defence system in Russia’s backyard.

Perhaps the above can illuminate why Sergei and the other generals thought Putin would appreciate a new nuclear torpedo this festive season.

One would be forgiven for casting a furtive eye to the sky in search for the seemingly imminent opening salvos, and ponder drowning one’s sorrows in the pub this evening. I can imagine the Old Man from the John Lewis Christmas advert is for once feeling pretty smug with his house location. What most of us can no doubt see is the childish nature of this drama being played out before us. It seems the spectre of the Cold War is alive and well this Christmas.

Yet take heart, dear reader. For beneath this sad charade we must remember that our Russian counterparts, who perhaps find themselves in some equally small University town like ours, may also be worried about the current state of affairs. They may feel themselves back in the USSR, and to not be enjoying the sensation: just as we feel ourselves caught once more between two monstrous leviathans about to slug it out.

Our Russian counterparts may be reading a similar article that lays bare this regrettable situation, just as you do now, and find it equally as deplorable. Be comforted then. For we are, thanks to the size of the weapons being played with, quite literally all in this together.

After all, if the tensions and arguments of the Cold War can re-emerge, so can their answers. The world came together in reconciliation in 1991; it can do the same again.

It is that, Mr. Putin, not a nuclear torpedo, which you should be hoping for this Christmas.

—–

Feature image courtesy of Presidential Press and Information Office

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