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Russian Nuclear Roulette | The Nation

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Russian Nuclear Roulette

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A baccalaureate should be an occasion to celebrate the present and express optimism about the future, but I must come to you today with very bad news about Russia, my subject of study, and therefore with great alarm about the future. If America's post-cold war triumphalism has led you to believe we are now safer than we were before, I recommend an adage Russians use only partly in jest: "An optimist is an uninformed pessimist."

This article is adapted from Stephen F. Cohen's faculty address at the New York University baccalaureate ceremony in May.

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Stephen F. Cohen
Stephen F. Cohen is a professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University. His ...

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The bad news is this: Because of what has happened in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union ten years ago, you are graduating into a world more dangerous than ever before. For the first time in history, a fully nuclearized nation is in a process of collapse. The result is potentially catastrophic.

Most of Russia's essential infrastructures--economic, social, technological--are in various stages of disintegration. The state is virtually bankrupt, unable to reinvest in those foundations or even regularly pay the wages and pensions of its own people. The country has been asset-stripped, impoverished and left on the verge of a "demographic apocalypse," as a Moscow newspaper recently termed it. Technology is breaking down everywhere, from electricity and heating to satellites.

In these and other ways, Russia has been plunging back into the nineteenth century. And, as a result, it has entered the twenty-first century with its twentieth-century systems of nuclear maintenance and control also in a state of disintegration.

What does this mean? No one knows fully because nothing like this has ever happened before in a nuclear country. But one thing is certain: Because of it, we now live in a nuclear era much less secure than was the case even during the long cold war. Indeed, there are at least four grave nuclear threats in Russia today:

§ There is, of course, the threat of proliferation, the only one generally acknowledged by our politicians and media--the danger that Russia's vast stores of nuclear material and know-how will fall into reckless hands.

§ But, second, scores of ill-maintained Russian reactors on land and on decommissioned submarines--with the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons--are explosions waiting to happen.

§ Third, also for the first time in history, there is a civil war in a nuclear land--in the Russian territory of Chechnya, where fanatics on both sides have threatened to resort to nuclear warfare.

§ And most immediate and potentially catastrophic, there is Russia's decrepit early-warning system. It is supposed to alert Moscow if US nuclear missiles have been launched at Russia, enabling the Kremlin to retaliate immediately with its own warheads, which like ours remain even today on hairtrigger alert. The leadership has perhaps ten to twenty minutes to evaluate the information and make a decision. That doomsday warning system has nearly collapsed--in May, a fire rendered inoperable four more of its already depleted satellite components--and become a form of Russian nuclear roulette, a constant danger of false alarms and accidental launches against the United States.

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