Reliable Security Information

Russian Nuclear Strike: Asteroid or Hurricane?

An asteroid strike could devastate the nation. But the proverbial one in a million chance is actually pretty close to the mark. We know enough of previous strikes to estimate a major impact every 20 million years or so. And it has been quite a while since the last one, so sometime in the next ten million years is a reasonable estimate; within the next 10 years, that's one in a million. Although the impact would be very high, the probability is very low. So risk - the product of these two factors - is also low; the nation spends a couple million dollars a year researching this threat and collecting preliminary data.

Damaging hurricanes are much more frequent - we can certainly expect another one in the next decade. Although a probability of 1.0, or 100%, is certainly high, it is reasonable for planning purposes. The impact though would be local - think Katrina - and so the risk to the nation as a whole is modest. Resources addressing this threat are generally multifunctional - weather satellites, meteorological centers, response teams, local building codes, etc.- so there is not an exact figure for funds dedicated to this threat, but some billions of dollars a year is probably the right order of magnitude.

A comprehensive Russian nuclear strike lies somewhere between these extremes. It is possible to argue that it is even less likely that an asteroid strike. An asteroid strike will actually happen, sooner or later, while a Russian nuclear strike will probably never happen. But "probably" is the operative word. The real probability of this event is the central question.

To give some perspective, what would motivate President Obama to order a comprehensive nuclear strike against Russia? Take a situation where the most senior leaders in the US government debate a set of circumstances and come to the conclusion that such a nuclear strike is the best of a bad group of options, and so recommends it to the President, and he says, "OK, let's go." He gives a launch order to the military and they actually carry it out, knowing full well that a retaliatory strike will doubtless follow. And, even lacking a retaliatory strike, the Nuclear Winter effects of a broad nuclear strike will probably devastate the entire world - the chickens would come home to roost. A comprehensive attack on Russia would turn out to be a comprehensive attack on the entire world, including the United States itself. What circumstances could actually evoke such an action? If this seems utterly far fetched, consider that Russia spends several hundred billion rubles a year defending against such a threat.

The same question, of course, applies to Russia. What set of circumstances could conceivably motivate the senior Russian leadership to conclude that they should launch a comprehensive strike against the United States, recognizing both retaliatory and Nuclear Winter considerations? How could a Russian leader conceivably come to the conclusion that such an action was in his nation's best interest, or even in his own personal best interest? At the height of the Cold War when the Soviet Union was seeking military domination of Europe, and perhaps even the world, there could have been some sort of a warped rationality in such a decision, but that time is long gone.

Consider also France and Germany, historic enemies who have warred against each other numerous times. France is now a nuclear power, and Germany has no such weapons. Theoretically, some circumstances could arise in which a French leadership would conclude that their best option would be to launch a nuclear strike against Germany. And how much effort does the German government put into protecting against this eventuality? Zero. And the reason is simple: there are so many hundreds, thousands, of positive interconnections between the two nations that such an eventuality has become totally unthinkable - certainly not worth spending real national assets on.

Russia's relationship with the West in general, and the United States in particular, is not up to the level of interconnectedness that now exists between France and Germany, but it is moving in that direction. With the United States there are even a number of efforts, sponsored by Nunn-Lugar legislation, which specifically address the nuclear balance. Certainly devoting more assets to broadening these interconnections is a much more rational approach than continuing to put large sums on both sides into totally nonproductive weapon systems.

The relationship is not straightforward as Russia is becoming increasingly autocratic. Its legitimacy is ultimately based on economic performance, but is energized by stoking nationalism. The leadership is involved in a continuous balancing act. On the one hand it is formally committed to ties with the democratic West, observance of human rights and the rule of law. But these ideals work to undermine the position of the top elite. So they are balanced with a continuing focus on the unique role of Russia, on the slights suffered from the West, on the historically validated need for a strong leader. This balancing act can work reasonable well while economic conditions are positive; now, thanks to the high market price for energy, the Russian economy does reasonably well. But waiting in the wings are a number of fundamentally serious problems.

  • The economy is inherently unstable with its heavy dependence on energy exports.

  • Health problems, including widespread alcoholism, undermine the capabilities of the work force and the confidence of the people in their government.

  • Although nationalist appeals are almost exclusively aimed at Russians, the demographic tide is running against this base of legitimacy. The number of Russians continues to fall drastically, while the Muslim population steadily climbs; by 2020 they will probably be a fifth of the population and may well outnumber Russians by the middle of the century. An influx of illegal immigrants, mainly Muslims, only exacerbates this problem.

  • Moscow still pays only scant attention to environmental issues. Extensive wildfires in 2010 gave visibility to the challenge, which global warming may well intensify. Generally it has been clear that neglecting environmental considerations can give a decided boost to a developing economy, but it comes at longer term costs that can bring development to a screeching halt. In particular, it worsens public health, which is already very poor in Russia.

  • As is true globally, the internet makes alternate information widely available, providing Russians with alternative views on real conditions within Russia and globally. In particular, everyday Russians learn more and more about how the elite are concentrating wealth into their own hands.

  • The Russian international position depends on both its economic performance and the willingness of the West to accept Russian transgressions against accepted legal and human rights standards and international business norms. The patience of the West is wearing thin on these issues and foreign direct investment – something that could help drive a real economic expansion – has dropped drastically.

The challenge for the leadership is that basing legitimacy on economic performance is a constant struggle, while deflecting attention from internal repression with references to Russia's special mission, the need for "managed democracy," and the imperative to stand up to pressure from the West.

But Russia and the West also face a number of common problems, including the rise of a newly assertive and economically successful China; the potential for nuclear proliferation and specifically nuclear terrorism by radical Islamic groups; disruptive impacts of global warming; global health challenges; and perhaps most importantly the corrosive impact of failed states and repressive governments on the global economy. Global economic turmoil would effect all nations. But protecting the position of Russia's ruling group demands that they firmly champion sovereign rights and reject any interference by one state in the internal affairs of another. This makes it extremely difficult to get Russian cooperation in addressing failed states.

The West has much to offer Russia in cooperative programs. The space program is an obvious example, a source of pride for both Russia and the United States, and a program in which Russia has been more or less an equal partner. Russia badly needs extensive infrastructure development, particularly in its thinly populated areas. Its technical development has badly languished from the time that its military and space technology was a high point of national pride. Now Russia's share of international patents, its presence in technology industries, and its promotion of new and innovative companies continue to decline. Russia badly needs to become deeply involved in the global technology expansion, something that would greatly aid the country but weaken its autocratic controls.

China is a particularly difficult issue for it poses not only potential military challenges to the United States, but even more so to Russia. So working together to draw China into a network of positive relations is essential to easing Russian concerns on the need to maintain strong military, and in particular nuclear, forces.

All this provides broad opportunities for the West to reach out to Russia and offer genuinely productive cooperation which could do much to energize the overall Russian economy and reduce pressures for military and nuclear development. It is easy for the Russian leadership to denounce, say, Western commentary on its legal proceedings or objections to perceived repression as outside interference in Russia's internal affairs. But it is much harder to reject offers of space, technology, medical and economic cooperation as interference.

So there is an opportunity for the United States to really "hit the reset button," to promote a whole new approach to US-Russian relations. This can begin with a clear policy statement that the United States seeks to develop as wide as possible a set of mutually beneficial programs to see each other as real partners in world progress. There will, of course, always be some divergences in common interests, but this needs to be reduced to the point that they are minor elements in the overall scope of positive exchanges.

US relations need to be clearly based on a foundation of universal principles - the basic principles that have been core values of US society, including the worth of the individual and fundamental human rights. These are not US values being foisted on the rest of the world, but universal values incorporated in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the founding documents of the Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and numerous international conventions.

The United States must treat the Russian government as responsible to work for the good of its citizens. The rule of law is an essential element of this responsibility. Each society has its own laws, and these codify the society's own standards. Holding the Russian government to its own stated standards has to be an essential element of US policy.

So the United States has to deal with the Russian government as the representative of the Russian people and not their master, making clear US expectations that it will live up to its own stated ideals. While the United States can comment on how well the Russian government does, or fails to do, this, the primary responsibility for judging the performance and competence of the Russian government rests with the Russian people. The United States can reference standard, independent assessments of government competence, such as the Freedom Index and the Corruption Perception Index; economic indicators as the GINI Coefficient of wealth inequality and per capita GNP; health indicators such as life expectancy, child mortality, and availability of medical facilities. Publicizing such information increases internal pressure on the government to improve performance. This is where the pressure has to come from. It also obliquely puts pressure on the US government to live up to the same international standards, so US socioeconomic development is in fact a n important element underlying US foreign policy.

So the basic US objective in regards to Russia is to develop an extensive network of positive interactions between Russia and the West, putting the risk of a Russian nuclear strike even below that of an asteroid. In fact, such a cooperative effort is essential to addressing the central strategic challenge of the XXI Century, avoiding global economic turmoil by developing global prosperity, bringing not only Russia but also China into a broadly cooperative effort. There are two basic sources of leverage in moving Russia in this direction:

  • The Russian government has formally accepted international legal and human rights norms. This gives other nations and international bodies a legitimate right to challenge Russian practices. This becomes more and more important as the Russian population becomes increasingly aware of the degree to which the Russian elite allocated national resources to its own use.

  • The government has to deliver on economic development. High income from energy sales helps to reduce the urgency of this challenge, but the failure to address underlying structural problems can help force the Russian government to be more open in broad relations.

Subscribe to SitRep: SitRep RSS Feed SitRep ATOM Feed