In his annual state of the nation speech on Thursday, President Vladimir Putin boasted that Russia is developing new types of nuclear weapons that will be invulnerable to U.S. missile-defense systems and, more broadly, will nullify America’s effort to gain the edge in a revivified arms race.
To which the United States should respond (to the extent we respond at all): Go ahead, waste your money.
Putin’s new weapons include a nuclear-tipped cruise missile with an engine powered by a nuclear reactor and thus have unlimited range. A computer-generated video, displayed on large screens behind his podium, showed such a missile zipping across the Atlantic Ocean, circling South America, then sneaking up the Pacific Coast toward U.S. territory—all the while flying at sea-skimming altitudes and evading missile-defense radar.
This sounds like a very expensive weapon—and not a very potent one either, as the weight of an onboard nuclear reactor would only leave room for a pretty small nuclear warhead. If Russia wants to muddle our defenses, a smarter, cheaper way would be simply to launch two or three regular cruise missiles at each target. It is well-known that no missile-defense system has been tested against more than one incoming target at a time. To the extent this is a problem for us, we have been living with it since the dawn of the nuclear era. The solution we’ve adopted, however uneasily, is to maintain the ability to respond to such an attack with enough force that a foe is deterred from attacking in the first place. Nothing in Putin’s overheated speech changes that.
Some of the media have fallen for Putin’s hype. BBC’s online headline blares: “Russia’s Putin unveils ‘invincible’ nuclear weapons” CNN’s declares “Putin claims new ‘invincible’ missile can pierce US defenses.” Cheers to both for at least putting “invincible” in quotation marks. But the point is that nuclear weapons have always been “invincible,” in the sense that they’ve always been able to “pierce” defenses. If an interceptor happens to shoot one down, the attacker can send in another. The system to protect the U.S. from an ICBM attack is designed to fire four interceptors at each incoming warhead—which only means that the fifth warhead will get through. The reason the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed the ABM Treaty in 1972, banning strategic missile-defenses, was because both sides realized this fact: In an offense-defense arms race, the offense will always win—so why spend all the money on defense if it’s just going to spur the other side to overwhelm it with a little more offense at a much lower cost?
Putin also spoke of two new Russian missiles carrying multiple warheads, each of which can maneuver toward the end of its flight in order to evade missile defenses. Both missiles have been in development for a while and are well-known to Russia-watchers.
Finally, Putin mentioned an air-launched hypersonic missile, which could reach its target in half the time of present-day missiles. The United States and China have also tested this sort of missile, but as conventional weapons, designed for rapid strikes on targets outside the reach of jet fighters or battleships. If Russia really developed a hypersonic nuclear ICBM (which it hasn’t yet) and deployed a few dozen of them, they could pose a new sort of strategic threat, in that they could take out early-warning radars and perhaps a few other command-control sites before we could respond—thus leaving us open to larger waves of attacks.
But this doesn’t seem to be Putin’s intention. As with the other missiles, he touted it as a wonder weapon that can confound America’s missile-defense program. His obsession with missile defenses is itself a bit confounding. We don’t have—either now or in the Pentagon’s most ambitious plans—nearly enough anti-missile missiles to put a dent in an attack by Russia, which could fire thousands of warheads our way. Even in the aftermath of an American first strike (which Putin seems to imagine plausible), Russia would still have hundreds of warheads, way more than we could shoot down. Clearly, the American missile-defense program is aimed at dealing with small attacks, launched mainly by small nuclear powers such as North Korea or, perhaps in the future, a terrorist group.
Most likely, Putin’s speech was a response to the Nuclear Posture Review, a Pentagon document that President Trump signed and released in early February. The review called for the building of two new U.S. nuclear weapons—a submarine-launched cruise missile and a low-yield warhead for the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile—as well as continuing plans, approved by President Obama, to replace the aging fleet of land-based ICBMs and long-range bombers. The review also advocated a more seamless blending of nuclear and non-nuclear war plans, which many saw as dangerously lowering the threshold between nuclear and non-nuclear war.
The review portrayed these new weapons and modified war plans as responses to Russia’s nuclear activities, which its authors see as attempts to gain a strategic advantage. Now, Putin is lavishing his own new weapons and plans—in more theatrical fashion—as responses to what he sees as America’s never-ending quest to conquer the Russian motherland.
Does all this signify a revival of the Cold War? It seems so, though the setting is very different. During the real Cold War, the world was divided in two spheres: the West led by American capitalism, the East led by Soviet communism. The Soviet military had global reach, its ideology had great appeal, especially among rebels in certain third-world regions where the United States was backing the oppressors. Proxy wars were fought between allies of both sides; small wars that had no bearing on the superpower faceoff were often transformed into proxy wars through arms sales and more direct interventions.
Today, Russia is at best a regional power, with no foreign footholds beyond Syria and eastern Ukraine. Its military, though vastly improved after a decade of refurbishments and reforms, would be no match for ours in a direct confrontation. Its economy is tanking. Its ideology—a mix of nationalist bravura, strongman hero-worship, and nostalgia for an imperial past—has no appeal outside the erstwhile boundaries of the USSR (though, in a weird irony, our own president seems to be admiring, and perhaps envious, of its showmanship). This isn’t to say that Russia is a toothless tiger: Its nuclear weapons, presumably, can still explode; its air and artillery forces in Syria are killing a lot of people and could embroil others—at times it’s comes close to embroiling us—in a larger war. But Putin isn’t Leonid Brezhnev, much less Josef Stalin. Then again, Trump is a dim shadow of our own past presidents, too.
In the past, even in the otherwise bleak Cold War era, American and Russian diplomats would respond to escalating tensions—such as those reflected in the shouting contest between the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review and Putin’s parade-of-missiles slideshow—by getting together, exchanging mollifying sentiments, or simply talking about other things. This was the function of the nuclear arms-control talks during most of their 40 years of active life: to give the Russians and Americans something to talk about when political disputes made it impossible to talk about anything else. And talking about nuclear weapons—the main symbols of the two countries’ confrontation, and the instruments with which they could destroy the world if the Cold War ever turned hot—made it harder to launch the those weapons by relaxing the mutual fear that the other side was preparing to launch them.
But all that is in the past. Putin’s cult of personality, economic despair, and pathetic yearning for renewed empire—compounded by Trump’s shallowness, aversion to learning, denuding of the diplomatic corps, and the fact that he can’t make overtures to Moscow without flaming suspicions that he’s caving in to Putin as part of some collusion or kompromat—are just some of the obstacles to a revival of those halcyon days.
Halcyon days? As someone who lived through the years of duck-and-cover fallout drills, I admit it feels very weird to feel nostalgic for the Cold War. In Three Days of the Condor, the CIA official played by John Houseman says he misses “the clarity” of that era’s heyday.* That could be said today, multiplied severalfold, but there’s something missing to a degree that few could have foreseen: the professionalism, the seriousness, the effort—on both sides of the barrier—to see problems as problems, and to deal with them.
*Correction, March 1, 2018: This piece misstated that a line from Three Days of the Condor was spoken by a character played by John Gielgud. It was John Houseman.