Attitudes of New Leaders in Russia and U.S. Making Nuclear War Ever More Likely, Golts Says

Iskander Missile with Launch file photo

(Paul Goble – Window on Eurasia – Staunton, July 9, 2019)

The decision of Moscow and Washington to dispense with arms control agreements, the attitude behind that which holds that the most powerful countries must not be constrained by such accords, and the lack of understanding among the leaders in both capitals about the nature of war all make a nuclear war more likely, Aleksandr Golts says.

In a commentary entitled “Presidents without Brakes: The Threat of Nuclear War between Russia and the US is Becoming Ever More Real,” the independent Moscow analyst says that the end of the regime established by the arms control agreements has thrown the two countries back “to the 1960s, the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis” (

Adding to this danger, Golts continues, is “a new conception of nuclear weapons.” Until recently, “word leaders agreed that nuclear arms were political, that they existed only so that they would never be used. The horror of the possibility of their use was so strong that it served as a powerful barrier to the escalation of conflicts.”

But “today, the situation is completely different,” he says. Smaller and more precisely targetable nuclear weapons have prompted discussions about the possibility of using them in what many in Moscow and Washington describe as a limited nuclear war, as real weapons that could be really used.

Nuclear Mushroom CloudAnd such discussions have arisen because there has come to power “a new generation of leaders who cannot imagine what stands behind the word ‘war,’ not to speak about a nuclear one.” Khrushchev and Brezhnev weren’t brilliant politicians, Golts says; but they had both fought in a horrific war. And in the U.S., Kennedy and Bush the elder had as well.

All were terrified of war, but “now this fear has disappeared.” Leaders in both capitals speak with pride about the ability of their respective nuclear arsenals to destroy the other side, “even joking [as Putin did] that as a result [of such a nuclear exchange], Russians would land in paradise while their enemies would burn in hell.” The situation in the US is little better.

Now, American strategists openly declare that they expect Russia to use “nuclear weapons to achieve peace on their terms” and that as a result, the US has been forced to develop smaller nuclear weapons to use in response. “This is extremely dangerous because all models in the past suggest that “a limited conflict will inevitably grow into a universal one.”

According to Golts, “the main question for today is how likely is a nuclear conflict? I am certain,” he says, “that neither Moscow nor Washington thinks in categories of inflicting a first strike and unleashing a nuclear war.” That possible isn’t being including in the plans of either power.

“But if one thinks about the unthinkable,” one may avoid it, while if one refuses to think about it, it becomes more likely to happen as each side tries to get the upper hand by responding to what it believes the other is doing, often mistakenly because of the breakdown in communication and limits of the arms control regime.

Vladimir Putin said in an interview that when Russia annexed Crimea, he thought about increasing the level of the readiness of Russia’s strategic forces. “Imagine a situation when as the result of a serious crisis, more serious than even the Ukrainian, the Russian president took such a step.”

“There is no doubt,” Golts says, “that the US would do the same and from that moment, all of us who are residents of the planet would become hostage to the system of early warning about a rocket attack.” In 1914, emperors and premiers had about two weeks to decide what to do; now, “in the best case,” they will have “30 minutes” assuming the technology works.

Golts asks rhetorically “could this fatal course of events by prevented? There is an obvious means: new broadscale negotiations, the goal of which would be the establishment of a new system of arms control.” Many doubt that is possible given the lack of trust by the two sides after Crimea, but it is precisely to overcome that lack of trust that such talks are needed.

Even if such talks will not succeed in restoring a more trusting relationship between Russia and the West “at the government level, perhaps, it is rational to conduct talks for the sake of talks, so that such trust will arise at the personal level between particular diplomats, experts, and military representatives.”

The Conventional Forces in Europe talks lasted 18 years without the comprehensive agreement many hoped for. But “they did not break off even when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The historic meaning of these negotiations consisted precisely in the formation of a certain atmosphere, if not of trust then at least of mutual respect.”

The creation of such an atmosphere could help prevent what some leaders are now talking about so casually from ever occurring. Unfortunately, “for the time being, the chances for the beginning of such talks are few. The sides have happily destroyed the existing negotiations.” And it may take another crisis which if it doesn’t lead to disaster could lead to talks.

[featured images are file photos]

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