While America’s ruling and chattering classes were chasing Moose and Squirrel, back on planet Earth the Russians have been busy building a doomsday bomb.
As Vladimir Putin alluded to in his March 1 address to the Federal Assembly, the Russians have developed, among other “superweapons,” a Doomsday Torpedo — an autonomous, unmanned stealth submarine armed with a 100-megaton thermonuclear warhead. For a sense of scale, 100 megatons is some 7,000 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. It’s twice as powerful as the biggest H-bomb ever built — the so-called Tsar Bomba, detonated by the Soviets on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in October 1961. Adding a touch that is both Biblical and Carthaginian, the warhead is “salted” with cobalt and optimized to submerge the East Coast of the United States beneath a massive radioactive tidal wave, thereby rendering the Atlantic seaboard uninhabitable for centuries. To repeat, this new weapon is autonomous, suggesting potentially alarming new degrees of meaning in the words “Russian hacking scandal.”
Russia has a rich history of military overkill, dating back at least to the Tsar Cannon — a 16th-century bronze mortar weighing nearly 40 tons and built to fire a 1,000-pound shot, proudly displayed outside the Kremlin Armory. It has never been fired. Nor, as it turns out, is the Doomsday Torpedo the Russians’ first autonomous doomsday weapon. The news triggered a small tidal wave of wistful memories, taking me back to the first few years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall more than a quarter-century ago, when I played a bit part in what now seems like an outtake from Stanley Kubrick’s cutting-room floor.
In December 1992, barely out of college, I found myself looking down with considerable awe on the onion domes of St. Basil’s from the top floor of an office building located just off Red Square. The spacious office belonged to Vitaly Katayev, a rocket scientist and senior Communist Party industrialist responsible for the development of ICBMs in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. With him was General-Colonel Varfolomey Vladimirovich Korobushin, recently retired deputy chief of staff of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces.
A year earlier, I had landed a job with a small start-up think tank whose mission was to try to make sense of what had just happened to the Soviet Union and what was likely to happen in that part of the world in the coming years. Like everyone else, I was astonished to be living through the events of that time. I was also thrilled to have a job in Washington that came with a regular paycheck. The man who hired me was a talented linguist, Russophile, and former seminarian named John Hines, who had made his name in the study of what Soviet military journals referred to as the “Operational Art” — basically, the Russians’ plans for the conquest of Western Europe. His prominence in this field brought him to the attention of the Office of Net Assessment, a corner of the Secretary of Defense organization little known outside the building but with a formidable reputation within Washington’s Cold Warrior fraternity.
Net Assessment was a Pentagon fiefdom belonging to Andrew Marshall, who had been part of a small group of defense intellectuals that one author dubbed “the Wizards of Armageddon.” They included Herman Kahn, John von Neumann, Daniel Ellsberg, Albert Wohlstetter, and Edward Teller — the father of the H-bomb. Ensconced within the RAND Corporation’s sun-drenched headquarters not far from the Santa Monica Pier, these physicists, game theorists, economists, and mathematicians dedicated themselves to wrecking the Soviet Union by any means necessary, including nuclear war. Now, having lived to see his life’s work bear glorious fruit, Marshall was intensely interested in a kind of post–Cold War postmortem: How had the Russians planned to do us in? How close had they come? What did we get right? What did we get wrong?
John Hines and I made several trips to Moscow together. Working through his connections, cultivated over many years, Hines would exhume old Communists and retired generals and cajole them into talking to us about how they had planned to blow up the United States. Although in many cases it didn’t take much cajoling: These Russians were grizzled veterans of the Great Patriotic War, reeling from the dizzying events of the preceding few years, embittered and impoverished by the collapse of the society they had built. They were walking relics headed for the scrapheap of history, but immensely proud of what they had accomplished in their day, and they wanted us to know about it. They were more than happy to talk to us, and in those days there was no one around to stop them. Hines did most of the talking; I mostly tagged along and took notes.
Katayev and Korobushin were among those most eager to tell their story. Katayev, the politician, was smooth and polished, a survivor and successful practitioner of Kremlin palace intrigue. Korobushin was different — a blunt foot soldier of the wartime generation who regarded nuclear weapons as a species of heavy artillery. These men had a message for us: We knew about your plans to destroy us by stealth; but we took care that your plans would have been futile.
Throughout the mid 1970s and up through the mid 1980s, I firmly believed that the U.S. was willing and capable of a first strike against us. We were very much afraid of this possibility, and so our main objective was to design a system that was capable of launching as soon as an attack was detected. I believe that we succeeded. But that’s not all. . . .
He paused a few beats before continuing.
Right now we have a system in place which will automatically launch all missiles remaining in our arsenal, even if every nuclear command center and all our leaders were destroyed. This system, which we called the “Dead Hand” (Mertvaia Ruka), would have been triggered automatically by a combination of light, radioactivity, and atmospheric-pressure sensors. Thus, there was no need for anyone to push a button.
Hines (after several seconds of pin-drop silence): “What about accidental triggering, by earthquakes, for example?”
Korobushin: “The system is not turned on. It is activated only during a crisis.”
Katayev: “It is important to understand that activation of Dead Hand assumes a situation that is extremely threatening to the political and military leadership of the state. The basic expectation is that all decision makers are dead when the command missiles automatically fire.”
Dead Hand was a stunning revelation. That night, over a bottle of Armenian brandy, we struggled to come to grips with it, always coming back to one question — the Dr. Strangelove question: If the point of a doomsday machine is to deter aggression, why didn’t they tell us about it? To my knowledge, this question has never been satisfactorily answered.
So why are Russians in the habit of building automated doomsday weapons?
One of my college professors liked to quip that for every neck there would always be two hands to throttle it. This was his way of summing up a key truth about international politics: Even without guns or swords, states will always pose a potentially existential threat to one another, and their intentions will never be entirely knowable. The best we can hope for in the international system is a kind of low-grade paranoia. Surveying the world from behind the safety of its two giant oceanic moats, Americans easily forget this insight. For the vast majority of us, war is a distant and abstract affair.
For Russians, it’s different. As a child growing up in Soviet Ukraine in the 1970s, I remember the war as a pervasive presence. Reminders of it were everywhere — from schoolyard games to the medals and campaign ribbons on the chests of veterans, to the constant drumbeat of official propaganda, to the living memories that people carried with them. My dad’s earliest memory was of waiting to be evacuated east to the Urals in October 1941 when a German plane strafed the train platform, killing a boy his age. My grandfather saw more than three years of front-line combat as an artillery officer. He never talked about it and firmly instructed his son not to ask: “You don’t want to know, and I don’t want to tell you.”
The pervasive memory of Germany’s June 1941 surprise attack colored all Soviet strategic planning throughout the Cold War. The Soviet military was haunted by the possibility of a successful American sneak attack that eliminated the Soviet leadership and left the Soviets unable to retaliate. The U.S. had long been committed to highly accurate land-based missiles that put Soviet ICBMs and their control centers at risk. The Soviet military worried that if the U.S. could successfully knock out their command-and-control system, it would turn the Soviet nuclear arsenal into a costly but useless heap of concrete, metal, and rocket fuel.
In the late 1970s, the Carter administration adopted a nuclear-targeting policy that the Soviets saw as a blueprint for launching a surprise first strike against the Soviet leadership. A few years later, the Soviet military saw Reagan’s Star Wars initiative as a system whose singular purpose was to make possible a preemptive first strike against the Soviet nuclear arsenal by protecting the U.S. from a retaliatory response. Almost all of our Russian interview subjects described the early 1980s as a “pre-war period.” Making a bad situation worse, the Soviet political leaders’ willful ignorance of nuclear strategy and technology raised serious and probably well-founded doubts among some in military circles that the politicians would have the brass to make the “right” decision in the midst of a crisis. The Dead Hand system emerged from this rather grim context.
The Soviets’ crushing defeat in the Cold War aggravated Russia’s security problems. From the standpoint of most Russian foreign-policy observers, NATO’s main goal since 1991 has been to capitalize on the collapse of the Soviet Union by permanently advancing its frontiers into the Slavic heartland. The Russians also see an unprecedented new strategic challenge in the rise of the European Union. If fully successful, European integration would create a massive new superpower on Russia’s doorstep, with a population of more than half a billion and an economy of comparable size to that of the United States. Accordingly, Russia’s principal objectives since the turn of the century have been the weakening and eventual dismemberment of NATO and the derailment of the European “ever-closer union” project.
In 2008, NATO announced that Ukraine and Georgia would become full members of the alliance. These countries are not backwaters of marginal interest to Moscow: Ukrainian and Georgian ports dominate the Black Sea, and without them Russia loses its secure access to the Mediterranean. Access to warm-water ports in the Black and Baltic Seas has been a central Russian objective since the days of Peter and Catherine. To lose command of these important bodies of water — for which Russia has fought numerous wars — would set the country back strategically by 300 years. More to the point, advancing NATO’s frontier beyond the Dnieper would nullify Russia’s strategic depth.
There is little question that Putin is an autocrat who has contempt for Western political norms. Like the proverbial scorpion, he does much of what he does because such is his nature as a KGB colonel. Nor is there any question that many millions of Russians see themselves as an imperial people, unfairly cheated out of their natural God-given right to lord it over their lesser neighbors. We need have no sympathy for this point of view. But poking the bear in the eye makes him angry and insecure, and that is in no one’s interest — including the bear’s.