When Russian president Vladimir Putin unveiled a series of next-generation nuclear weapons technology in his state of the nation address on Thursday, a casual observer could be forgiven for seeing it as the opening salvo in a new Russian-American nuclear arms race, or even a declaration of a new Cold War. History, however, probably won’t see it that way.
The weapons — or perhaps more accurately, delivery systems — included nuclear-powered and nuclear-capable underwater drones and cruise missiles, both designed to evade missile defense systems. Putin was explicit about Russia’s reasons for developing these weapons, saying they were a response to the unilateral withdrawal of the U.S. from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in the early days of the George W. Bush administration.
That treaty was meant to preserve the Cold War balance of power and the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction by ensuring that neither superpower developed the means to stop a nuclear attack from the other. The Bush administration pulled out of the ABMT in order to form the Missile Defense Agency, a successor to Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, which has since developed a variety of antiballistic missile defenses including the MIM-104 Patriot missile system and the latest iterations of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor.
Although the Bush and Obama administrations took pains to insist that the deployment of these systems in European NATO countries was aimed at countering missile threats from rogue states like Iran, not Russia, the Russian government has never believed this. Even if these defenses aren’t explicitly intended to counter Russian nukes, Russia fears that the U.S. and NATO having the capability to do so would upset the nuclear balance of power. Putin has warned for over a decade that the NATO missile defense system could lead to a new arms race; Thursday’s announcements simply made clear that he wasn’t kidding about that.
As terrifying as the thought of nuclear-armed drones and “invincible” nuclear missiles may be, these revelations don’t actually change the balance of power between Russia and the U.S. in any meaningful way. For one thing, the Pentagon was already aware that Russia was developing some of these technologies, as indicated in the nuclear posture review ordered by President Donald Trump last year and published in January. The supposed threat posed by Russia’s military innovations are part of the justification for the new sea-based nukes the Trump administration wants to develop, as well as Trump’s stated desire to spend $1.2 trillion modernizing and expanding the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The key bit of context to keep in mind here is that the U.S. and Russia both possess enough atomic firepower that a nuclear exchange between them would wipe both countries off the map and basically cause the collapse of human civilization as we know it. If Putin wanted to nuke Florida — as in an animation he showed during his address that State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert described as “cheesy” — he already had the means to do so. His new gadgets don’t really make any difference in that regard.
The ability to elude U.S. and NATO defenses also sounds like a scarier feature than it really is, because these defenses are incredibly easy to elude. Ballistic missile defense systems perform spottily even under ideal test conditions and provide more the illusion of safety than safety itself. Even if a THAAD battery can knock down one or two incoming ballistic missiles, stopping dozens of them is a much taller order that current antiballistic missile technology can’t handle. That’s why the cornerstone of the U.S.’s nuclear defense strategy remains the promise of massive retaliation in the event of an attack.
In any case, a direct hit on Mar-a-Lago isn’t the kind of Russian nuclear mischief the administration is worried about. Putin stressed on Thursday that these new nuclear deployment systems were designed with defensive purposes in mind and that Russia would never launch a nuclear first strike. He’s probably not lying about that. For all his megalomaniacal tendencies, Putin surely has the presence of mind to understand that starting a nuclear war, particularly against the U.S., is guaranteed to end catastrophically and that his billions of dollars won’t be worth much in the post-apocalypse.
Rather, what the Trump administration fears is a supposed Russian doctrine known as “escalate to de-escalate,” wherein Moscow would either threaten or actually carry out a low-yield nuclear strike as part of a conventional conflict in its own backyard, betting that NATO would decide that avenging the loss of, say, Tallinn wasn’t worth ending the world after all.
This doctrine appears nowhere, however, in Russia’s published military strategy, in its large-scale military exercises, or in public statements from its officials, leading arms control experts like Bruno Tertrais and Michael Krepon to doubt that it really exists outside the fever dreams of American hawks and Russian neo-fascist revisionists. The notion of Russia crossing the nuclear threshold with the hope of de-escalating a conventional conflict is probably as absurd as it sounds.
Now, this doesn’t mean we can all rest easy, secure in the knowledge that global thermonuclear war is never, ever going to happen. Arms races are inherently dangerous and destabilizing, and nuclear arms races all the more so. Even if nobody intends to start a nuclear war, the more weapons in the world, the greater the likelihood of an accident or miscalculation spiraling into catastrophe.
Putin’s message to the U.S. is that we can’t hope to render ourselves or our allies invincible to Russian nukes, so there’s no point in our continuing to try, and furthermore that if Moscow interprets upgrades to America’s nuclear arsenal or defense systems as upsetting the balance of power, they will pursue their own technologies to counter them. The Trump administration’s most likely response to this gesture is to double down on its intent to strengthen the U.S. nuclear deterrent, even though the roughly 6,800 nuclear weapons already at our disposal are more than enough to obliterate Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and sundry other countries, with thousands of warheads to spare.
Meanwhile, the Russian weapons we really need to worry about are not its nukes, but rather the weapons of cyber and information warfare it is already using to meddle in our elections and take advantage of our polarized politics to stir up conflicts with fake news and social media trolling. Multiple national security officials have testified to Congress in recent weeks that these threats are ongoing and that U.S. defenses against them are woefully lacking.
Just this past week, retiring National Security Agency director Admiral Mike Rogers told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Trump had not granted him any specific authority to counter Russian cyber-operations and that in his opinion, Putin likely believes he has paid “little price” for interfering in the 2016 election. On Thursday, his nominated successor, Lieutenant General Paul Nakasone, agreed that Russia, China, and other foreign rivals don’t expect much of a response to these attacks from the U.S.
If the Trump administration insists on spending hundreds of billions of dollars upgrading our nuclear arsenal in order to pursue a new nuclear arms race with Russia, but drags its feet on upgrading our cyberdefenses to counter clear and present threats, it’s hard to see how this combination of policies would have any positive impact on our national security.