Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian Studies and Politics at NYU and Princeton, and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen explains that President Putin’s speech to both houses of the Russian parliament on March 1, somewhat akin to the US president’s annual State of the Union address, was composed of two distinct parts. The first approximately two-thirds was pitched to the upcoming Russian presidential election, on March 18, and to domestic concerns of Russian voters, which are not unlike those of American voters: stability, jobs, health care, education, taxes, infrastructures, etc. The latter part of the speech was, however, devoted solely to recent achievements in Russia’s strategic, or nuclear, weapons. These remarks, though also of electoral value, were addressed directly to Washington. Putin’s overarching point was that Russia has thwarted Washington’s two-decade-long effort to gain nuclear superiority over—and thus a survivable first-strike capability against—Russia. His attendant conclusion was that one era in post-Soviet Russian-American strategic relations has ended and a new one has begun. This part of Putin’s speech makes it among the important he has delivered during his 18 years in power. (It is on the ACEWA website eastwestaccord.com.)
The historical background, to which Putin refers repeatedly for his own purposes, is important. Ever since the United States and Soviet Union, the two nuclear superpowers, acquired the ability to deliver transcontinental nuclear warheads against the other, three alternative approaches to this existential reality have informed debates and policy-making: nuclear-weapons abolitionism, which Cohen regards as an essential aspiration but not a realistic one in the foreseeable future; a quest for nuclear superiority, making a devastating first-strike immune to an equally catastrophic retaliation and thus “survivable” and thinkable; and mutual security based on “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD) and on the principle of “strategic parity,” which meant both sides should have roughly equal nuclear capabilities and neither should strive for a first-strike superiority.
During the preceding Cold War, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, both Washington and Moscow officially embraced the latter, mutual security approach. MAD, however fearful its reasoning, was accepted as the safest—only rational—approach, along with the need to maintain rough strategic parity. Hence the succession of US-Soviet nuclear arms control treaties, including reductions in arsenals. Nuclear technology continued to develop, making weapons ever more destructive, but MAD and the parity principle contained the technology and kept the nuclear peace despite some near misses. This approach reached its most hopeful apogee in the late 1980s when President Ronald Reagan and the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, expanded their understanding of “mutual security.” They agreed that any strategic “build up” by one side would be perceived as a threat by the other, which would then undertake its own reciprocal buildup. They agreed to end this perilous dialectic, which had driven the nuclear-arms race for decades, and indeed in 1987 abolished for the first (and last) time an entire category of nuclear weapons, those borne by intermediate-range missiles. This exceedingly hopeful opportunity, the legacy of Reagan and Gorbachev, was lost almost immediately after the Soviet Union ended in 1991. As Cohen wrote 10 years ago in his book Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, “The Cold War ended in Moscow, but not in Washington.”