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An RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile blasts off during a test launch from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome.
MAD: launch of the Sarmat, or ‘Satan 2’ ICBM on April 20, 2022. Russian Defence Ministry/ZUMA Wire

Ukraine war: Russian tests and Putin’s threats recall the nuclear fears of the cold war

Russia is reported to have held drills this week simulating “nuclear-capable strikes”. According to a statement by Russia’s ministry of defence, forces of the Baltic Fleet in the Kaliningrad region, conducted training sessions to “deliver mock missile strikes with the crews of the Iskander operational-tactical missile systems”. The Iskander has a range of about 300km, so missiles launched from the Kaliningrad region could strike targets in western Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic States and even parts of Germany.

The latest drills follow the unveiling, on April 29, of Russia’s new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The missile can deliver their payloads onto targets in the US up to 18,000km away.

Vladimir Putin said Sarmat “has no analogues in the world and will not have for a long time to come” and would be “food for thought for those who, in the heat of frenzied aggressive rhetoric, try to threaten our country”.

Mutually assured destruction

I am a researcher at RAF Fylingdales a ballistic missile early warning (BMEWS) station on the North York Moors. I have spent the past three years building the Fylingdales Archive, which charts the station’s 60-year history of watching the skies for signs of nuclear attack by ICBMs. BMEWS was built in response to the launch of Sputnik in October 1957. Sputnik was the world’s first artificial satellite, launched from the top of the world’s first ICBM, the R-7. The satellite demonstrated that the Soviet Union had the capability to place a nuclear weapon on a rocket and strike anywhere on Earth with little warning.

Early in 1958, in response to Sputnik, the US Congress signed into existence measures that form the foundations of modern strategic nuclear deterrence. In addition to BMEWS, Congress also approved the Atlas, Titan and Minuteman ICBM programmes. These technologies formed the basis of what became known as mutually assured destruction (Mad), meaning both sides of a potential nuclear conflict have enough firepower to destroy each other and the rest of the world.

Mistakes and miscalculations

Deterrence strategies such as Mad depend on a delicate game of psychological poker, the risk being that your opponent’s reaction might be far beyond what was anticipated.

The dangers of this did not take long to materialise. In the early 1960s, the US had its Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missiles stationed in Turkey and Italy, which Moscow felt could destroy Russia before it had a chance to retaliate. To level up their deterrent posture, Moscow started to deploy intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba.

CIA map of Cuba from the 1962 missile crisis.
Flashpoint: CIA map showing the Soviet military presence in Cuba at the time of the 1962 missile crisis. Karolis Kavolelis via Shutterstock

What ensued went into the history books as the Cuban missile crisis – a standoff between the US and Soviet Union, with, between them, 29,700 warheads (the US had 26,400 to the Soviet Union’s 3,300). Each of these weapons on average was tens of times more powerful than the weapons used against Hiroshima. Happily, sanity prevailed and none were fired.

Following this crisis, measures were put in place to ease nuclear tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. These included establishing a hotline between Washington DC and Moscow and limiting the number of operational ICBMs. But this period of relative detente proved to be short-lived.

The war scare and arms control

The early 1980s marked a period of renewed mistrust between the nuclear superpowers and a growth in the size of nuclear arsenals. By 1986, there were 70,000 nuclear warheads shared almost equally between the US and Soviet Russia. How close the two sides came to confrontation was illustrated by the “war scare” of November 1983. Soviet nuclear forces misinterpreted a Nato exercise called Able Archer 83 for the start of a nuclear attack. Soviet nuclear forces in Europe were put on five-minute standby to launch a preemptive nuclear strike.

Once again, constructive dialogues began between Washington and Moscow were renewed, culminating in the historic Reykjavik summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986, widely seen as the beginning of the end of the cold war.

The summit began decades of disarmament, beginning with the signing of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in 1987. The INF eliminated intermediate-range ballistic missiles from US and Soviet arsenals. It also paved the way for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (Start), which effectively put a cap on nuclear proliferation, at least between the world’s two big nuclear superpowers.

Vladimir Putin watches the launch of Russia's Sarmat ICBM via video link in his office in the Kremlin, April 2022.
Threat: Vladimir Putin watches the launch of Russia’s Sarmat ICBM in his office in the Kremlin, April 2022. EPA-EFE/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin pool/Sputnik

But the end of the Soviet Union brought an uncertain time for arms control processes as central command structures fragmented. The breakup of the Soviet Union also dangerously increased the number of countries with nuclear weapons. In 1991 Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine were left in possession of over 2,000 former Soviet warheads. Following the signing of the Budapest Memorandum in January 1994 these weapons were returned to Russia and became subject to disarmament process set out by Start.

Read more: Ukraine war: what is the Budapest Memorandum and why has Russia's invasion torn it up?

These arms reduction regimes were so successful that by 2012, 80% of the US and Russian nuclear peak stockpiles had been eliminated.

Eve of destruction?

But world leaders appear to have developed a renewed appetite for nuclear weapons. In 2019, countries such as China (US$10 billion – or £8 billion) and India (US$2.3 billion) have made significant invesments in their strategic nuclear forces. Meanwhile, the UK announced in 2021 that it will increase its stockpile from 180 warheads to 240.

Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the historic INF Treaty in September 2019, blaming Russia for deploying cruise missiles that breached the INF agreement, was also a bitter blow for disarmament campaigners.

Putin has used the threat of nuclear war several times in recent years. His movement of the Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad in 2018 was a direct threat to Baltic states such as Poland and Lithuania, both members of Nato. And now Russia is demonstrating that, if it wants, they are there to be used.

In the absence of arms control, nuclear weapons maintain their dangerous symbolic allure for leaders such as Putin. But the stark truth is that nuclear weapons have always put the world in catastrophic danger.

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