Day after day, the Russian president talks of using nuclear weapons. The American president says it’s been awhile since we “faced the prospect of Armageddon” like this. The UN secretary general says we’re all “just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.” A former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—the highest ranking US military officer—says Vladimir Putin is like “a cornered animal” and therefore “we need to back off that [Armageddon talk]” and urgently engage in real diplomacy before it all goes horribly sideways.
And as the rhetoric soars, so does the violence: Massive pipelines explode; the bridge to Crimea is aflame;, and Russia and Ukraine pound each other with ever-heavier explosives.
Enter NATO—which chooses this perilous moment for mock nuclear war games.
What. Too soon?
On Monday, the US-dominated military alliance kicks off two weeks of what we’re apparently calling “Steadfast Noon.” Fighter jets, nuclear-capable long-range bombers, refueling tankers—about 60 aircraft in all, from 14 nations—will zip back and forth across Europe, rehearsing for Armageddon Day. NATO, in a press release, says not to worry because no live nuclear weapons will be used. (That said, Belgium is both the official host of Steadfast Noon, and also one of the few European nations where US nuclear weapons are stationed.)
Six months ago, the Pentagon canceled plans to test-launch some of its intercontinental ballistic missiles. Even then, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine still young, the risk of a nuclear “miscalculation” was felt to be too high to proceed.
Today, the violence, rhetoric, and emotion—and the risks of miscalculation—are all incalculably greater. But NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg doesn’t see what the big deal is.
“It would send a very wrong signal if we suddenly now cancelled a routine, long-time planned exercise because of the war in Ukraine. That would be absolutely the wrong signal to send,” Stoltenberg told reporters last week.
As forehead-smackingly dim-witted as this sounds, NATO is not the only idiot in our global village. Russia, too, plans to hold mock nuclear war games—at the same time as NATO’s.
The Russian version of Steadfast Noon is called “Grom,” or “Thunder,” and according to the White House will involve large-scale maneuvers of nuclear forces and live missile launches. It is expected to start within days.
It turns out that Steadfast Noon and Grom are recurring exercises, and officially the US government emphasizes the routine nature of it all. Everyone’s just limbering up the nuclear war machine at the height of an international crisis—when Putin’s “a cornered animal” and we’re oddly close “to Armageddon,” a mere miscalculation from “annihilation”—but it’s all routine, nothing to see here.
Of course, even “routine” can go horribly wrong. Earlier this year, a “technical malfunction…during routine maintenance” caused India to accidentally launch a nuclear-capable supersonic missile right into Pakistan. To this day Pakistan is not amused—but we should all be grateful that Islamabad showed restraint back in March and did not assume it was under nuclear sneak attack.
Would Moscow or Washington keep its cool if a similar “technical malfunction” occurred during Grom or Steadfast Noon?
Thoughts like these have occurred to US war planners. A “senior US defense official” has been quoted from CNN to Reuters complaining that “[Russia’s] decision to proceed with this exercise while at war with Ukraine is irresponsible.” Other unnamed US officials note that it can be hard to tell the difference between an exercise and the opening moves of a nuclear attack. “This is why you don’t want to have extraordinarily overheated rhetoric at the same time you’re going to do a nuclear exercise,” observed one official to Reuters.
All of these nuclear war exercises, NATO’s and Russia’s, should clearly be called off in the name of basic common sense. Instead of pantomiming the destruction of each other—always remember, nuclear war would involve the mass murder not just of civilians but of children—we need Washington and Moscow to sit down and talk. We need that to broker peace in Ukraine, but also to rededicate to our mutual treaty obligation to seek a draw-down of all nuclear weapons everywhere—as the majority of the world’s nations have demanded. Sound Pollyannish? Disarmament day may be closer than you think. Even the terse NATO press release announcing Steadfast Noon closes with the assertion that NATO itself is preparing for “a world without nuclear weapons.”
For now, though, the US party line is that Russia’s exercises are reckless and should be called off, while NATO’s are excellent and should march onward. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so hair-raising. If the Cuban missile crisis 60 years ago was headed off thanks to “strategic empathy,” as Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel has written, today we’re apparently counting on “careless sociopathy” to see us through.
Steadfast Noon calls to mind another now-legendary NATO nuclear war exercise from the 1980s: Able Archer. Then as now, US-Russia relations were grim.
In June 1980, the US military woke up the White House national security adviser at 2:30 am because the early-warning system reported that Soviet submarines had launched hundreds of nuclear missiles—an attack that would utterly destroy the United States. In a second phone call, the military confirmed the attack, but before the president could be woken up, in a third phone call the military declared it a false alarm. The culprit was a defective 46-cent computer chip.
There were other false alarms in those days, and then in 1982 there was even the mysterious explosion of a Siberian natural gas pipeline—which went up with a blast so immense it was visible from space. (Many years later, this was proudly declared a successful CIA operation).
By 1983, Washington and Moscow could barely see each other through the murky fog of fear and distrust. The Reagan administration in May unveiled its ideas for a high-tech defense shield to shoot down incoming nuclear missiles—we still don’t have that by the way, but the Soviets were deeply spooked.
A few months later, on September 1, 1983, a Soviet fighter shot down a passenger jet flying from New York to Seoul that it had mistaken for a spy plane. All 269 passengers were killed. Then on September 26, 1983, it was the Soviet early-warning system’s turn to cry wolf. It reported incoming missiles from the United States. But the duty officer that night, Stanislav Petrov—today often heralded as the man who “saved the world”—simply chose not to believe this, and refused to inform his superiors.
Two months after the Petrov near-miss, NATO held its Able Archer nuclear war games. Like today’s Steadfast Noon, Able Archer was based in Belgium, billed as “routine,” and was a recurring event. But this time around, NATO was experimenting with some extra elements of realism: a new coded communications protocol, some long radio silences, and involvement of heads of state like Britain’s Margaret Thatcher.
All of this “realism” caused panic in a Kremlin already on edge from mysterious exploding pipelines, accidentally shot down passenger planes, glitchy warning systems, and talk that the United States might soon have a missile shield it could hunker down behind. Moscow became convinced it was about to be hit with a surprise nuclear attack—and that the Able Archer exercise was just a cover for it.
The US intelligence community (you may be shocked to hear) completely missed this at the time. A later review by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board noted that intel community made the “especially grave error to assume that since we know the US is not going to start World War III, the next leaders of the Kremlin will also believe that.” That’s one lesson we are steadfast in refusing to learn.