Orlov is one of our favorite essayists on Russia and all sorts of other things. He moved to the US as a child, and lives in the Boston area.
He is one of the better-known thinkers The New Yorker has dubbed ‘The Dystopians’ in an excellent 2009 profile, along with James Howard Kunstler, another regular contributor to RI (archive). These theorists believe that modern society is headed for a jarring and painful crack-up.
He is best known for his 2011 book comparing Soviet and American collapse (he thinks America’s will be worse). He is a prolific author on a wide array of subjects, and you can see his work by searching him on Amazon.
He has a large following on the web, and on Patreon, and we urge you to support him there, as Russia Insider does.
His current project is organizing the production of affordable house boats for living on. He lives on a boat himself.
If you haven’t discovered his work yet, please take a look at his archive of articles on RI. They are a real treasure, full of invaluable insight into both the US and Russia and how they are related.
A lot of people seem to have lost the thread when it comes to nuclear weapons. They think that nuclear weapons are like other weapons, and are designed to be used in war. But this is pure mental inertia. According to all the evidence available, nuclear weapons are anti-weapons, designed to prevent weapons, nuclear or otherwise, from being used. In essence, if used correctly, nuclear weapons are war suppression devices. Of course, if used incorrectly, they pose a grave risk to all life on Earth. There are other risks to all life on Earth as well, such as runaway global warming from unconstrained burning of hydrocarbons; perhaps we need to invent a weapon or two to prevent that as well.
Some people feel that the mere existence of nuclear weapons guarantees that they will be used as various nuclear-armed countries find themselves financially, economically and politically in extremis. As “proof” of this, they trot out the dramaturgical principle of Chekhov’s Gun. Anton Chekhov wrote: “Если вы говорите в первой главе, что на стене висит ружье, во второй или третьей главе оно должно непременно выстрелить. А если не будет стрелять, не должно и висеть.»” [“If you say in Act I that there is a gun hanging on the wall, then it is a must that in Act II or III it be fired. And if it won’t be fired, it shouldn’t have been hung there in the first place.”]
And if you point out that we are talking about military strategy and geopolitics, not theater, they then quote Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances…” and believe that it is QED. Now, I happen to agree wholeheartedly with Chekhov, when it comes to dramaturgy, and I agree with the Bard as well, provided we define “the world” as “the world of theater,” from which the worlds of geopolitics and nuclear physics are both dramatically different.
Let me explain it in terms that a drama major would understand. If there is a nuclear bomb hanging on the wall in Act I, then, chances are, it will still be hanging on that wall during the final curtain call. In the meantime, no matter how many other weapons are present on stage during the play, you can be sure that none of them would be used. Or maybe they will be, but then the entire audience would be dead, in which case you should definitely ask for your money back because this was billed as a family-friendly show.
Back in the real world, it is hard to argue that nukes haven’t been useful as deterrents against both conventional and nuclear war. When the Americans dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they only did this because they could do so with complete impunity. Had Japan, or an ally of Japan, possessed nuclear weapons at the time, these attacks would not have taken place. There is a considerable body of opinion that the Americans didn’t nuke Japan in order to secure a victory (the Japanese would have surrendered regardless) but to send a message to Joseph Stalin. Stalin got the message, and Soviet scientists and engineers got cracking.
There was an uncomfortable period, before the USSR successfully tested their first atomic bomb, when the Americans were seriously planning to destroy all major Soviet cities using a nuclear strike, but they set these plans aside because they calculated that they didn’t have enough nukes at the time to keep the Red Army from conquering all of Western Europe in retaliation. But in August 29, 1949, when the USSR tested its first atomic bomb, these plans were set aside—not quite permanently, it would later turn out—because even a singular nuclear detonation as a result of a Soviet response to an American first strike, wiping out, say, New York or Washington, would have been too high a price to pay for destroying Russia.
Since then—continuously except for a period between 2002 and two days ago—the ability of nuclear weapons to deter military aggression has remained unquestioned. There were some challenges along the way, but they were dealt with. The Americans saw it fit to threaten the USSR by placing nuclear missiles in Turkey; in response, the USSR placed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The Americans didn’t think that was fair, and the result was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Eventually the Americans were prevailed upon to stand down in Turkey, and the Soviets stood down in Cuba. Another threat to the deterrent power of nuclear weapons was the development of anti-ballistic weapons that could shoot down nuclear-tipped missiles (just the ballistic ones; more on that later). But this was widely recognized to be a bad thing, and a major breakthrough came in 1972, when the USA and the USSR signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
Over this entire period, the principle that kept the peace was Mutual Assured Destruction: neither side would provoke the other to the point of launching a nuclear strike, because such a move was guaranteed to be suicidal. The two sides were reduced to fighting a series of proxy wars in various countries around the world, which were so much the worse for it, but there was no danger of these proxy conflicts erupting into a full-scale nuclear conflagration.
In the meantime, everybody tried to oppose nuclear proliferation, preventing more countries from obtaining access to nuclear weapons technology—with limited success. The cases where these efforts failed testify to the effective deterrent value of nuclear weapons. Saddam Hussein of Iraq didn’t have any “weapons of mass destruction” and ended up hung. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya voluntarily gave up his nuclear program, and ended up tortured to death.
But Pakistan managed to acquire nuclear weapons, and as a result its relations with its traditional nemesis India have become much more polite and cooperative, to the point that in June of 2017 both became full members of Shanghai Cooperation Organization, along with China, Russia and other Eurasian nations. And then North Korea has made some breakthroughs with regard to nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles, and as a result of that the US has been reduced to posturing and futile threats against it while South Korea has expressed some newfound respect for its northern neighbor and is now seeking rapprochement.
In 2002 the prospect of continued nuclear deterrence was set a major setback when the US pulled out of the ABM treaty. Russia protested this move, and promised an asymmetrical response. American officials ignored this protest, incorrectly thinking that Russia was finished as a nuclear power. Since then, the Americans spent prodigious amounts of money—well into the trillions of dollars—building a ballistic missile defense system. Their goal was simple: make it possible to launch a first strike on Russia, destroying much of its nuclear arsenal; then use the new American ABM systems to destroy whatever Russia does manage to launch in response. On February 2, 2018 the Americans decided that they were ready, and issued a Nuclear Posture Review in which they explicitly reserved the right to use nuclear weapons to prevent Russia from using its nuclear deterrent.
And then, two days ago, all of that came to a happy end when Vladimir Putin gave a speech in which he unveiled several new weapons systems that completely negate the value of US missile defense shield—among other things. That was the response the Russians promised to deliver when the US pulled out of the ABM treaty in 2002. Now, 16 years later, they are done. Russia has rearmed with new weapons that have rendered the ABM treaty entirely irrelevant.
The ABM treaty was about ballistic missiles—once that are propelled by rockets that boost the missile to close to escape velocity. After that the missile follows a ballistic trajectory—just like an artillery shell or a bullet. That makes its path easy to calculate and the missile easy to intercept. The US missile defense systems rely on the ability to see the missile on radar, calculate its position, direction and velocity, and to launch a missile in response in such a way that the two trajectories intersect. When they cross, the interceptor missile is detonated, knocking out the attacking missile.
None of the new Russian weapons follow ballistic trajectories. The new Sarmat is an ICBM minus the “B”—it maneuvers throughout its flight path and can fly through the atmosphere rather than popping up above it. It has a short boost phase, making it difficult to intercept after launch. It has the range to fly arbitrary paths around the planet—over the south pole, for instance—to reach any point on Earth. And it carries multiple maneuverable hypersonic nuclear-armed reentry vehicles which no existing or planned missile defense system can intercept.
Among other new weapons unveiled two days ago was a nuclear-powered cruise missile which has virtually unlimited range and goes faster than Mach 10, and a nuclear-powered drone submarine which can descend to much larger depths than any existing submarine and moves faster than any existing vessel. There was also a mobile laser cannon in the show, of which very little is known, but they are likely to come in handy when it comes to frying military satellites. All of these are based on physical principles that have never been used before. All of these have passed testing and are going into production; one of them is already being used on active combat duty in the Russian armed forces.
The Russians are now duly proud of their scientists, engineers and soldiers. Their country is safe again; Americans have been stopped in their tracks, their new Nuclear Posture now looking like a severe case of lordosis. This sort of pride is more important than it would seem. Advanced nuclear weapons systems are a bit like secondary sexual characteristics of animals: like the peacock’s tail or the deer’s antlers or the lion’s mane, they are indicative of the health and vigor of a specimen that has plenty of spare energy to expend on showy accessories.
In order to be able to field a hypersonic nuclear-powered cruise missile with unlimited range, a country has to have a healthy scientific community, lots of high-powered engineers, a highly trained professional military and a competent security establishment that can keep the whole thing secret, along with an industrial economy powerful and diverse enough to supply all of the necessary materials, processes and components with zero reliance on imports. Now that the arms race is over, this new confidence and competence can be turned to civilian purposes.
So far, the Western reaction to Putin’s speech has closely followed the illogic of dreams which Sigmund Freud explained using the following joke:
1. I never borrowed a kettle from you
2. I returned it to you unbroken
3. It was already broken when I borrowed it from you.
A more common example is a child’s excuse for not having done her homework: I lost it; my dog ate it; I didn’t know it was assigned.
In this case, Western commentators have offered us the following:
1. There are no such weapons; Putin is bluffing
2. These weapons exist but they don’t really work
3. These weapons work and this is the beginning of a new nuclear arms race
Taking these one at a time:
1. Putin is not known to bluff; he is known for doing exactly what he says he will do. He announced that Russia will deliver an asymmetric response to the US pulling out of the ABM treaty; and now it has.
2. These weapons are a continuation of developments that already existed in the USSR 30 years ago but had been mothballed until 2002. What has changed since then was the development of new materials, which make it possible to build vehicles that fly at above Mach 10, with their skin heating up to 2000ºC, and, of course, dramatic improvements in microelectronics, communications and artificial intelligence. Putin’s statement that the new weapons systems are going into production is an order: they are going into production.
3. Most of Putin’s speech wasn’t about military matters at all. It was about such things as pay increases, roads, hospitals and clinics, kindergartens, nurseries, boosting retirements, providing housing to young families, streamlining the regulation of small businesses, etc. That is the focus of the Russian government for the next six years: dramatically improving the standard of living of the population. The military problem has already been resolved, the arms race has been won, and Russia’s defense budget is being reduced, not increased.
Another line of thought in the West was that Putin unveiled these new weapons, which have been in development for 16 years at least, as part of his reelection campaign (the vote is on March 18). This is absurd. Putin is assured of victory because the vast majority of Russians approve of his leadership. The elections have been about jockeying for a second place position between the Liberal Democrats, led by the old war horse Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the Communists, who have nominated a non-communist oligarch businessman Pavel Grudinin, who has promptly disqualified himself by failing to disclose foreign bank accounts and other improprieties and now appears to have gone into hiding. Thus, the Communists, who were previously slated for second place, have burned themselves down and Zhirinovsky will probably come in second. If Americans don’t like Putin, then they definitely wouldn’t like Zhirinovsky. Putin is practical and ambivalent about “our Western partners,” as he likes to call them. Zhirinovsky, on the other hand, is rather revenge-minded, and seems to want to inflict pain on them.
At the same time, there is now a committee, composed of very serious-looking men and women, who are charged with monitoring and thwarting American meddling in Russian politics. It seems unlikely that the CIA, the US State Department and the usual culprits will be able to get away with much in Russia. The age of color revolutions is over, and the regime change train has sailed… all the way back to Washington, where Trump stands a chance of getting dethroned Ukrainian-style.
Another way to look at the Western reaction to Russia’s new weapons is using Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. We already saw denial (Putin is bluffing; weapons don’t work) and the start of anger (new arms race). We should expect a bit more anger before moving on to bargaining (you can have the Ukraine if you stop building Sarmat). Once the response comes back (“You broke the Ukraine; you pay to get it fixed”) we move on to depression (“The Russians just don’t love us any more!”) and, finally, acceptance. Once the stage of acceptance is reached, here is what the Americans can usefully do in response to Russia’s new weapons systems.
First of all, Americans can scrap their ABM systems because they are now useless. Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu had this to say about it: «То, что сегодня создаётся в Польше и Румынии, создаётся на Аляске и предполагается к созданию в Южной Корее и Японии — этот “зонтик” противоракетной обороны, получается, “дырявый”. И не знаю, зачем за такие деньги теперь этот “зонтик” им приобретать.» [“What is being built in Poland and Romania, and in Alaska, and is planned in South Korea and Japan—this missile defense ‘umbrella’—turns out to be riddled with holes. I don’t know why they should now buy this ‘umbrella’ for so much money.”]
Secondly, Americans can scrap their aircraft carrier fleet. All it’s useful now for now is threatening defenseless nations, but there are much cheaper ways to threaten defenseless nations. If Americans are still planning to use them to dominate sea lanes and control world trade, then the existence of hypersonic cruise missiles with unlimited range and drone submarines that can lurk at great ocean depths for years make the world’s oceans off-limits for American navy’s battle groups in the event of any major (non-nuclear) escalation because now Russia can destroy them from an arbitrary distance without putting any of their assets or personnel at risk.
Lastly, Americans can pull out of NATO, which has now been shown to be completely useless, dismantle their thousand military bases around the world, and repatriate the troops stationed there. It’s not as if, in light of these new developments, American security guarantees are going to be worth much to anyone, and America’s “allies” will be quick to realize that. As far as Russian security guarantees, there is a lot on offer: unlike the US, which is increasingly seen as a rogue state—and an ineffectual and blundering one at that—Russia has been scrupulous in adhering to its international agreements and international law. In developing and deploying its new weapons systems, Russia has not violated any international agreements, treaties or laws. And Russia has no aggressive plans towards anyone except terrorists. As Putin put it during his speech, «Мы ни на кого не собираемся нападать и что-то отнимать. У нас у самих всё есть.» [“We are not planning to attack anyone or take over anywhere. We have everything we need.”]
I hope that the US doesn’t plan to attack anyone either, because, given its recent history, this won’t work. Threatening the whole planet and forcing it to use the US dollar in international trade (and destroying countries, such as Iraq and Libya, when they refuse); running huge trade deficits with virtually the entire world and forcing reserve banks around the world to buy up US government debt; leveraging that debt to run up colossal budget deficits (now around a trillion dollars a year); and robbing the entire planet by printing money and spending it on various corrupt schemes—that, my friends, has been America’s business plan since around the 1970s. And it is unraveling before our eyes.
I have the audacity to hope that the dismantling of the American Empire will proceed as copacetically as the dismantling of the Soviet Empire did. (This is not to say that it won’t be humiliating or impoverishing, or that it won’t be accompanied by a huge increase in morbidity and mortality.) One of my greatest fears over the past decade was that Russia wouldn’t take the US and NATO seriously enough and just try to wait them out. After all, what is there to really to fear from a nation that has over a 100 trillion dollars in unfunded entitlements, that’s full of opioid addicts, with 100 million working-age people permanently out of work, with decrepit infrastructure and poisoned national politics? And as far as NATO, there is, of course, Germany, which is busy rewriting “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles” to be gender-neutral. What are they supposed to do next? March on Moscow under a rainbow banner and hope that the Russians die laughing? Oh, and there’s also NATO’s largest Eurasian asset, Turkey, which is currently busy slaughtering America’s Kurdish assets in Northern Syria.
But simply waiting them out would have been a gamble, because in its death throes the American Empire could have lashed out in unpredictable ways. I am glad that Russia chose not to gamble with its national security. Now that the US has been safely checkmated using the new Russian weapons systems, I feel that the world is in a much better place. If you like peace, then it seems like your best option is to also like nukes—the best ones possible, ones against which no deterrent exists, and wielded by peaceful, law-abiding nations that have no evil designs on the rest of the planet.