While the strategic (megaton class) nuclear weapons never went away, for a short and hopeful time following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it appeared that the era of integrating nuclear weaponry into combined military formations was ending – as were the concepts of “limited” nuclear exchanges and “controlled” nuclear war fighting (concepts discussed and even “war gamed” during both the Clinton and Reagan Administrations). We were moving back to the basics of mutual assured destruction – which had actually worked for the U.S. and Russia and appeared to be working for newer nuclear powers such as India and Pakistan. The “nuclear option” was being left to politics in Washington and not bandied about during regional military confrontations.
As far as the United States was concerned, it turned its attention to precision guided munitions, and highly explosive but conventional cruise missiles. Tactical nukes and even intermediate range nuclear missiles began to be taken out of the arsenal. Things had come a long way from the “Pentomic” Army divisions of the 1950’s or from the atomic IRBM’s of the 1980’s – which had convinced the Soviets the West was preparing for a preemptive, decapitation strike. That sort of thing has been a Soviet concern since the US placed IRBM’s in Turkey in the early 1960’s, within range of their command centers and Khrushchev’s vacation dacha.
Of course more modem talks about American “global strike” hypersonic missiles sounds a bit too similar, but such precision weapons would not have nearly the decapitation potential of the earlier high kiloton and megaton class IRBM’s. Unfortunately, as of 2015, it appears that under President Putin, Russia is in the process of returning to yesteryear, when strategic (read nuclear capable) weapons systems are routinely deployed in Russian military exercises and Putin himself talks blithely about going on nuclear alert for confrontations such as in the Crimea. Specifically Putin said that he was prepared to put the entire Russian nuclear force on alert to respond as needed to any challenged to the annexation of the Crimea.
Now given that the Ukraine has no nukes (they gave them up based on Russian assurances of non-intervention) and that there was no chance in the world NATO or anyone else was going to intervene with conventional forces, much less nukes – what was the man thinking? Moving his strategic forces to alert would have likely forced the US to move up its defense condition and at that point accidents can begin to happen. It’s tempting to view his remarks as typical Putin hardball (I don’t think the man postures; it’s his true nature) but if we take a look at the massive Russian military maneuvers going on as I write, it appears that he has moved to routinely deploy strategic (nuclear) platforms in them all.
In a very real sense, Putin is now using his forces in much the same way that Reagan did early in his administration – to the point that Russian strike aircraft are openly staging mock attacks in Europe and against American Naval forces in multiple locations. In the 1980’s the Russians began to worry if Reagan himself was stable or if he was trying to provoke a controlled exchange which he felt the American’s could win, ending the “evil empire”. We now know that the early 80’s were a far scarier time that we ever knew at the time.
Unfortunately, the same thing may be going on now. There are clear signs that the Russians are cheating on nuclear arms treaties, with the implications that they are restoring their ability (which had gone away with an earlier class of IRBM’s) to effectively neutralize Western Europe with intermediate range atomic cruise missiles and to deploy entirely new types of highly flexible strategic weapons systems.
And President Putin has no hesitation to talk constantly about foreign enemies, enemies constantly attempting to literally destroy Russia with all sorts of plots and conspiracies. He talks not of just political jockeying on his borders (which might not be totally untrue) but thrusts at the heart of the nation itself. Russian sovereignty itself is touted as being at risk.
For those of us who grew up at the height of the cold war, there is an eerie familiarity to all of this. While it didn’t mean disaster then, there was always an elevated risk – and if nothing else nuclear posturing certainly elevates the stress levels in international relationships. There is some good evidence to think that President Reagan may not have fully appreciated the impact certain of his remarks and even jokes about “pressing the button” may have had. On the other hand, President Putin seems to rather enjoy the impact of his remarks. I’m pretty sure neither is a good thing.