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Are You Listening, America?

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Are You Listening, America?

Journalists watch as Russian President Vladimir Putin gives his annual state of the nation address in Moscow. (Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP)
Don’t you understand what I’m trying to say?
And can’t you feel the fears I’m feeling today?
If the button is pushed, there’s no running away,
There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave,
Take a look around you, boy, it’s bound to scare you, boy,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.

—Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction,” 1965
From 2002 until 2011, Paul Marcarelli, perhaps better known to American audiences as Verizon’s “test guy,” made a career starring in television commercials, wandering the width and breadth of the United States, holding a phone to his ear and asking the simple question, “Can you hear me now?” Verizon was, and is, in the communications business in which the ability to send a message is only as good as the corresponding ability to receive it.
On Thursday, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s much-maligned president, delivered his state of the nation address to the Russian Federal Assembly (the Russian national Legislature, consisting of the State Duma, or lower house, and the Russian Council, or upper house). While the first half of his speech dealt with Russian domestic issues—and any American who has bought into Western media perceptions that Russia is a collapsing state, possessing a failed economy, would do well to read this portion of the speech—it was the second half of the presentation that caused the world to sit up and listen.
In this portion of the speech, Putin outlined developments in Russian strategic military capability. The developments collectively signal the obsolescence of America’s strategic nuclear deterrence, both in terms of its present capabilities and—taking into account the $1.2 trillion nuclear weapons modernization program President Trump unveiled earlier this year—anything America might pursue in the decades to come.

Some Western observers have derided Putin’s speech as simple posturing, a manic effort to project Russian power, and with it global credibility, where none exists. Such an interpretation would be incorrect. There should be no doubt among American politicians, military leaders and citizens alike. “Every word has a meaning,” Putin told his audience. The weapons he referred to are real, and Putin meant every word he said.
“Back in 2000,” he said, “the U.S. announced its withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Russia was categorically against this. We saw the Soviet-U.S. ABM Treaty signed in 1972 as the cornerstone of the international security system. … Together with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty[START], the ABM Treaty not only created an atmosphere of trust but also prevented either party from recklessly using nuclear weapons, which would have endangered humankind. … We did our best to dissuade the Americans from withdrawing from the treaty. All in vain.”
“The U.S. pulled out of the treaty in 2002,” Putin observed. “Even after that, we tried to develop constructive dialogue with the Americans. We proposed working together in this area to ease concerns and maintain the atmosphere of trust. At one point, I thought that a compromise was possible, but this was not to be. All our proposals, absolutely all of them, were rejected. And then we said that we would have to improve our modern strike systems to protect our security. In reply, the U.S. said that it is not creating a global BMD [Ballistic Missile Defense] system against Russia, which is free to do as it pleases, and that the U.S. will presume that our actions are not spearheaded against the U.S.”
Building on his well-known position, delivered in his 2005 state of the nation address, that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century” that created “genuine drama” in which “the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself,” Putin said in his 2018 state of the nation address that “apparently, our partners got the impression that it was impossible in the foreseeable historical perspective for our country to revive its economy, industry, defense industry and armed forces to levels supporting the necessary strategic potential. And if that is the case, there is no point in reckoning with Russia’s opinion, it is necessary to further pursue ultimate unilateral military advantage in order to dictate the terms in every sphere in the future. …”
“We ourselves are to blame,” Putin said. “All these years, the entire 15 years since the withdrawal of the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, we have consistently tried to reengage the American side in serious discussions, in reaching agreements in the sphere of strategic stability.” However, Putin observed, the United States “is permitting constant, uncontrolled growth of the number of anti-ballistic missiles, improving their quality, and creating new missile launching areas. If we do not do something, eventually this will result in the complete devaluation of Russia’s nuclear potential. Meaning that all of our missiles could simply be intercepted.”
Putin pointed out that in 2004, he put the world on notice about Russia’s intent to defend itself, telling the press: “As other countries increase the number and quality of their arms and military potential, Russia will also need to ensure it has new generation weapons and technology. … [T]his is a very significant statement because no country in the world as of now has such arms in their military arsenal.”
“Why did we do all this?” Putin asked his audience, referring to his 2004 comments. “Why did we talk about it? As you can see, we made no secret of our plans and spoke openly about them, primarily to encourage our partners to hold talks. No, nobody really wanted to talk to us about the core of the problem, and nobody wanted to listen to us. So listen now. …”
“To those who in the past 15 years have tried to accelerate an arms race and seek unilateral advantage against Russia, have introduced restrictions and sanctions that are illegal from the standpoint of international law aiming to restrain our nation’s development, including in the military area, I will say this: Everything you have tried to prevent through such a policy has already happened. No one has managed to restrain Russia.”
This was a message delivered not just to the Russian Federal Assembly, but to the White House and its temperamental occupant, President Donald Trump, to the halls of Congress, where Russia-baiting has become a full-time occupation, and to the American people, who have been caught up in a wave of anti-Russia hysteria fueled by fantastical claims of a Russian “attack” on American democracy which, when balanced against the potential of thermonuclear annihilation, pales into insignificance. Putin spoke, and one would hope that throughout America the modern-day incarnations of Verizon’s Paul Marcarelli are making their way into the homes of every American citizen and the halls of power where those the American people elect to represent them reside, and calling out, “Can you hear me now?”
Based upon the reaction to Putin’s speech so far, the answer appears to be “no.” This refusal to accept the fact that there exists today a new reality carries with it the potential for catastrophic miscalculation. In Pat Frank’s 1959 novel, “Alas, Babylon,” an American Navy fighter aircraft flying over the Mediterranean Sea fires a missile that veers off target, striking an ammunition depot near the Syrian city of Latakia, setting off a massive explosion that the Soviet Union uses as an excuse to initiate a retaliatory nuclear strike against the United States.
It doesn’t take a stretch of imagination today to paint a scenario in which American and Russian forces clash over Syria. Indeed, a recent incident—in which Syrian militia forces, supported by Russian private military contractors, advanced toward Syrian oil and gas fields occupied by U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, only to be attacked by American fighter bombers, resulting in hundreds of casualties, including scores of Russian dead—underscores the fact that such clashes are no longer theoretical.
Russian and American aircraft patrol the same airspace. American and Russian troops face off on the ground below. American forces are charged with implementing a policy that is diametrically opposed to the one being pursued by their Russian counterparts. So far, clashes have been limited to proxies, but it is only a question of when, not if, American and Russian forces engage in force-on-force combat.
Syria is not the only geographical point of friction between the United States and Russia. Both the Baltic States and Ukraine find American and Russian forces facing off against one another. American ships and reconnaissance aircraft probing the waters and airspace off the Baltic coast and in the Black Sea have been aggressively challenged by Russian aircraft, oftentimes flying dangerously close to their American counterparts, prompting then-Secretary of State John Kerry to declare that the U.S. Navy would be justified in shooting down the Russians in “self-defense.”
The almost cavalier ease with which the idea of Russian-American combat is floated as a possibility by American decision-makers is born out of a misplaced notion of American military superiority which, while reflecting an accurate estimate of the situation 10 years ago, is no longer the case today. After Russia emerged victorious in its short war with the republic of Georgia in 2008, many shortfalls in communications, organization and training were revealed that underscored the second-class nature of the Russian military when compared with the United States and NATO. Russia undertook a crash program, restructuring its military units, professionalizing its ranks, and investing in top-of-the line equipment, including modern communications. The Russian military that occupied the Crimea in 2014 was orders of magnitude better than the one that fought Georgia six years prior. The Russian military fighting in Syria today (and facing off against the Americans in the Baltics and Ukraine) is even better.
The United States, in recent years, has transitioned away from almost exclusively training for low-intensity conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is once again preparing to fight large-scale combined arms engagements against “near-peer” forces whose training and/or equipment is inferior to the American military. Comments made by U.S. military officers who have recently deployed to the Baltics make it clear that they believe the superiority of American arms serves as a deterrence to Russian regional ambitions. The reality is, even if Russia were to pursue ill-intent against its eastern European neighbors that manifested in military aggression (and there is no indication that this is the case), the notion of American and NATO ground forces serving as a force in deterrence is not sustainable. In fact, in many categories, such as tactical communications, artillery support and armor employment, the Russians outclass their American counterparts. Recent war games show that Russia would defeat NATO in any conflict in the Baltics.
But the quality of the Russian military is not the point. What is important, at least in the context of a broader discussion on comparative nuclear posture, is that 20 years ago, when Russia was militarily inferior to the United States, the Russian leadership embraced a policy of nuclear “de-escalation,” which envisioned the early use of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia to offset the conventional military advantages enjoyed by the United States and NATO. Through this policy, Russia sought to leverage its strong capabilities in tactical nuclear weapons by making the cost of regional engagement too high for any potential opponent. The policy of nuclear de-escalation was born during the time of the Chechen crisis, in the late 1990s, when Russia feared the possibility of Western intervention in that conflict. It served as the backbone of Russia’s nuclear posture in both 2008 and 2014, when Russia intervened in Georgia and Ukraine, respectively. And it backed up Russia’s decision to intervene in Syria in 2015.
This Russian nuclear policy was noted in the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, which said that “Russian strategy and doctrine emphasize the potential coercive and military uses of nuclear weapons. It mistakenly assesses that the threat of nuclear escalation or actual first use of nuclear weapons would serve to ‘de-escalate’ a conflict on terms favorable to Russia. These mistaken perceptions increase the prospect for dangerous miscalculation and escalation.”
No truer words could have been written. And yet, the Trump administration seems in no hurry to undertake any actions vis-à-vis Russia that would reduce the possibility of any such miscalculation and escalation. While noting in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review that “arms control can contribute to U.S., allied, and partner security by helping to manage strategic competition among states,” the Trump administration went on to declare that “progress in arms control is not an end in and of itself, and depends on the security environment and the participation of willing partners.”
It was as if the entire history of U.S.-Russian arms control referred to by Putin in his state of the nation address never happened.
But it is not just history the Trump administration clouds over. The present and future is likewise shrouded in a cloud of wishful thinking that ignores the progress in Russian strategic capabilities promised by Putin in 2004 and delivered upon in 2018. “The United States,” the Nuclear Posture Review states, “remains willing to engage in a prudent arms control agenda. We are prepared to consider arms control opportunities that return parties to predictability and transparency, and remain receptive to future arms control negotiations if conditions permit and the potential outcome improves the security of the United States and its allies and partners.”
Noting that “there is no ‘one size fits all’ for deterrence,” the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review states that “the United States will apply a tailored and flexible approach to effectively deter across a spectrum of adversaries, threats, and contexts” in order to “communicate to different potential adversaries that their aggression would carry unacceptable risks and intolerable costs according to their particular calculations of risk and cost.”
While not specifically naming Russia, the Trump administration put Moscow on notice that it “must understand that there are no possible benefits from non-nuclear aggression or limited nuclear escalation. … [P]otential adversaries must recognize that across the emerging range of threats and contexts: 1) the United States is able to identify them and hold them accountable for acts of aggression, including new forms of aggression; 2) we will defeat non-nuclear strategic attacks; and, 3) any nuclear escalation will fail to achieve their objectives, and will instead result in unacceptable consequences for them.”
The Russian president heard the message the United States was communicating. “We are greatly concerned by certain provisions of the revised nuclear posture review,” Putin said, “which expand the opportunities for reducing and reduce the threshold for the use of nuclear arms. Behind closed doors, one may say anything to calm down anyone, but we read what is written. And what is written is that this strategy can be put into action in response to conventional arms attacks and even to a cyber threat.”
Putin further noted “that our military doctrine says Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons solely in response to a nuclear attack, or an attack with other weapons of mass destruction against the country or its allies, or an act of aggression against us with the use of conventional weapons that threaten the very existence of the state. This all is very clear and specific. As such, I see it is my duty to announce the following. Any use of nuclear weapons against Russia or its allies, weapons of short, medium or any range at all, will be considered as a nuclear attack on this country. Retaliation will be immediate, with all the attendant consequences.”
The wide range of strategic nuclear weapons unveiled by Putin in his state of the nation address have stripped bare the pretense of American nuclear deterrence, in which a potential enemy would be intimidated by the promise of assured nuclear destruction from engaging in conduct that threatened American national security interests. Russia, Putin said, is not, and will not, be intimidated by America’s nuclear arsenal. Moreover, Russia, taking a page from former President Ronald Reagan’s animus toward the notion of “mutually assured destruction,” or MAD, does not plan on engaging in a policy of passive deterrence.
Nine years ago, Russian strategic planners factored nuclear weapons into every facet of their military policy, including those involving non-nuclear scenarios. “We have corrected the conditions for use of nuclear weapons to resist aggression with conventional forces not only in large-scale wars,” Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian National Security Council, noted in 2009, “but also in regional or even a local one.” Patrushev later added that Russian nuclear doctrine did “not rule out a nuclear strike targeting a potential aggressor, including a preemptive strike, in situations critical to national security.”
There is a real risk that the United States will continue to minimize the true strategic capabilities of Russia, and brush off the words of Putin as mere posturing. The anti-Russian rhetoric of American politicians in Congress, fueled by the near panic generated by the ongoing investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller, only plays into the hands of those who treat the ongoing face-off between the U.S. and Russia as nothing more than a bluff. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Everything I have said today,” Putin stated in his state of the nation address, “is not a bluff—and it is not a bluff, believe me—and to give it a thought and dismiss those who live in the past and are unable to look into the future, to stop rocking the boat we are all in and which is called the Earth.”
There was a time when the threat of nuclear annihilation was taken seriously by those who held political office and high military position in the United States. America’s first generation of arms control and disarmament specialists were weaned on the premise, and promise, of mutually assured destruction, and all the horrors that entailed. By signing the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987, then-President Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev initiated a process of nuclear disarmament that, for the first time in the nuclear era, backed those two countries away from the precipice of thermonuclear conflict. It was only a half-joke when one experienced American weapons inspector, asked what he could see when peering inside a Soviet missile launch canister, responded, “C-h-i-c-a-g-o.”
Another inspector, a former analyst who monitored the impact of Russian re-entry vehicles in the Pacific Ocean from aboard a U.S. Navy intelligence gathering ship, noted with pride while monitoring Soviet “launch-to-destruct” operations involving SS-20 missiles, that she was one of the only people who could claim to have seen the Soviet warheads during both launch and impact and lived to tell about it.
Other inspectors, training to perform radiation detection tests at Soviet missile bases containing nine mobile intercontinental missiles aimed at American targets, conducted their preparations with Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” playing in the background.
This kind of gallows humor could only be invoked by those who had lived under the direct threat of imminent nuclear death and were prepared to wage war under such conditions. These arms control and disarmament experts are a thing of the past, replaced by bureaucrats and technicians for whom nuclear war is a hypothetical outcome of theoretical strategic game modeling, and not an ever-present reality.
There is a reason the Trump administration—and to be frank, those of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama before him—have treated nuclear disarmament and arms control so cavalierly. The United States walked away from the ABM Treaty, opening the door for the current crisis in U.S.-Russia relations. The Cold War-era START has expired, and the INF Treaty has been reduced to little more than a politicized foil, in which unsubstantiated claims of Russian noncompliance are bandied about to further demonize Moscow in the eyes of the American public.
The New START, which replaced the original START, is set to expire in 2021, with little or no effort being made to keep it alive or use it as a foundation for new, more meaningful arms control agreements.
The practitioners of what constitutes arms control and disarmament policy in America today, unschooled in the ultimate futility of nuclear conflict, actually believe America can fight, and win, a nuclear war. “If deterrence fails,” the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review notes, “the United States will strive to end any conflict at the lowest level of damage possible and on the best achievable terms for the United States, allies, and partners. U.S. nuclear policy for decades has consistently included this objective of limiting damage if deterrence fails.
In Pat Frank’s book, “Alas, Babylon,” the United States “wins” its nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union—only to survive as a Third World nation dependent upon Brazil and Argentina for its food supplies. But that book was written in 1959, too long ago to resonate with the policymakers of today.
The same can be said of the 1959 film, “On the Beach,” in which Gregory Peck plays the role of a Navy submarine officer condemned to watch the rest of the world slowly die from radiation sickness following a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Even the 1982 ABC television drama, “The Day After,” which helped change Reagan’s opinion about nuclear weapons and the Soviet Union, is considered old history and as such irrelevant for today’s post-9/11 strategic theorists.
“There is no need to create more threats to the world,” Putin said, wrapping up his 2018 state of the nation address. “Instead, let us sit down at the negotiating table and devise together a new and relevant system of international security and sustainable development for human civilization. We have been saying this all along. All these proposals are still valid. Russia is ready for this.”
The question is: Is America ready and/or willing to work with Russia in these highly politicized times?
Putin’s words are hanging there, much like the urgent query of Paul Marcarelli’s Verizon “test guy,” asking anyone who would listen, “Can you hear me now?” Let’s hope someone in a position of responsibility in Washington, D.C., is listening.
Otherwise, new life will be breathed into the old lyrics of McGuire’s song: “If the button is pushed, there’s no running away, there’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave … you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.”

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