The nuclear rivalry between Russia and the West must not be allowed to escalate further. What’s needed is some sober thinking from both sides in three key areas: intermediate-range nuclear forces, tactical nuclear weapons, and possible cyber attacks against nuclear installations.

Russian troops are seen near truck-mounted Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles as they rehearse for the Victory Day parade in Moscow's Red Square, at a training field in the town of Alabino outside Moscow, Tuesday, March 18, 2008. Photo: AP

Some experts see the current state of Western-Russian relations as a new Cold War. However, this is a too simplistic schematization of the complex reality framing these relations. This is not to say that the rivalry between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic community is not increasing. Indeed, this rivalry poses a threat to the post-Cold War international security order and raises the perspective of the collapse of a number of strategic arms control agreements that have regulated the U.S.-Russia relationship during the last twenty years.

This confrontation, if not restrained, could bring the world to catastrophic consequences. In order to prevent that, a new relationship paradigm between the Euro-Atlantic community and Russia is needed. In the nuclear realm, this should be based on a “cooperative nuclear rivalry” between Russia and the West.

The current crisis between Russia and the West arose in 2014 from the conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine and by the Russian annexation of Crimea, but it has much older roots that date back to the beginning of the 1990s. This crisis is not a new Cold War, since there is no longer today a clash of ideological confrontation as there was during the true Cold War period between the U.S.-NATO system and the USSR.

What we are witnessing is essentially a confrontation between two visions of managing regional and global socio-economic power. It is a clash between the defining cultural and historical values underpinning Western and Russian societies in the post-Cold War era and it could be more dangerous and insidious than the Cold War itself. Indeed, the parameters of such confrontation are today, for instance, the control of vast global financial assets, raw materials, hydrocarbon resources (both traditional and non-traditional), information and use of the modern media at a scale never seen in the Cold War period.

Therefore, it is foreseeable that the confrontation between Russia and the West will not disappear soon and in fact, it will probably grow, in parallel with a deepness of the reciprocal mistrust until, in principle, there is a political capitulation of the adversary.

Last year was the centenary of the beginning of World War I, and the West-Russia rivalry must not be allowed to escalate further to the point of a potential World War III, which could become a full-fledged nuclear war. In particular the Euro-Atlantic community and Russia should strongly restrain themselves in returning to a nuclear arms race, in terms especially of new nuclear weapons and functional capabilities of delivery systems. Furthermore, Moscow and Washington should commence a strategic dialogue on how to restrain the introduction of new destabilizing disruptive technologies. These would involve ballistic missile defense and anti-submarine systems, the weaponization of outer space, cyber warfare, as well as conventional strategic arms.

In particular, this dialogue would be aimed at advancing at least the work already set out in the following three areas: Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, Tactical Nuclear Weapons and Cybersecurity of Nuclear Installments.

Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty

Under the INF Treaty, signed in 1987 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the two superpowers agreed to a total ban on any attempt “to possess, produce or flight test” ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers carrying nuclear or conventional warheads, as well as any effort "to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.” The INF systems were the most dangerous weapon systems in the European scenario during the Cold War, as a consequence of their short flight time and the possibility that the ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) could easily evade radar system detection.

In recent years, namely in May 2013 and in July 2014, Washington accused Moscow of violating the Treaty by testing a GLCM R-500 Iskander, with a range of over 500 kilometers. Russia has denied that it is breaking the INF Treaty and replied that the U.S. is in non-compliance with it. Firstly, by using systems resembling short-to-intermediate range missiles in their missile defense tests, and secondly, because of their intention to deploy GLCMs in Poland and Romania.

Despite this quarrel, it would be extremely dangerous for the withdrawal from the INF Treaty of Russia and the U.S. since it could boost the expansion of missile defense in the post-Soviet space and the deployment there, on the territory of the new NATO members, U.S. intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

Tactical Nuclear Weapons

It is generally recognized that Tactical Nuclear Weapons (TNWs) did not have much military value during the Cold War, since any form of conventional conflict in Europe would have involved a devastating response by the USSR, and hence the TNWs have even less military value in our epoch. The core military doctrine underpinning the need of nuclear weapons in battlefields is the logic of a limited “nuclear war,” which is a theoretical myth. Furthermore, the threat to use TNWs necessarily result in nuclear brinkmanship and, consequently, an escalation in military offensive and defensive systems according to the so-called “action-reaction syndrome.”

NATO’s TNW supporters argue that these weapons have the political value of guaranteeing U.S. commitment to the alliance, but the use of these weapons could trigger a nuclear escalation, all the way up to a full-fledged nuclear the World War III. Besides that, a new movement, known as the “Humanitarian Campaign,” which aims at banning and eliminating all strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, is gaining consensus and is supported by public opinion worldwide.

Therefore, it would be very welcome to see a Russian-American dialogue aimed at the removal of their TNWs from the European continent. Their deployment on the continent is particularly challenging due to the existence of frozen regional crises and the potential risk of new regional conflicts empowering forms of “hybrid warfare,” which might trigger the use of TNWs by miscalculations or accidents.

Cybersecurity of nuclear installments

In recent years, cyber attacks have grown in sophistication, number and destructive potential. Their lack of attribution, and hence the impracticability to define “who” would be a subject of deterrence and retaliation, makes high-level destructive cyber attacks against a state’s critical infrastructures, both civilian and military, one of the most serious challenge in our highly digital future.

In June 2013, Russia and the U.S. signed a cybersecurity agreement on the basis of the creation of a direct and dedicated hotline between the two countries, the exchange of technical expertise and the creation of a joint cyber working group.

Since then, given the deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow, there were not any significant developments. Of particular concern is the potential risk of using malware against the command, control, communications, and computer (C4) systems of their nuclear forces. Even if this scenario is “unthinkable” – a so-called “Black Swan” – this possibility cannot be ruled out a priori, due to the extreme catastrophic consequences that such an event could have. Therefore, the two countries should explore possible “cooperative cyber attack threat reduction” mechanisms by expanding their 2013 initiative, to avoid any form of cyber warfare against their national critical infrastructures, in particular nuclear ones, and associated information and communication technology (ICT) systems.

To conclude, Moscow and Washington should opt for a less conflict-prone and destabilizing approach by agreeing to transform the de facto rivalry into a cooperative nuclear rivalry by commencing a quiet and, at least at the beginning, behind-the-scenes strategic dialogue and cooperation in the above areas. Not just for the sake of their own bilateral relationship, but also for the world’s stability and security.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.