In Gorky Park, with nuclear worries

In Gorky Park, with nuclear worries
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On a recent Friday night in Moscow, I went for a stroll through Gorky Park, along the Moscow River. Mothers were pushing their toddlers in strollers; couples were walking hand-in-hand; people in paddle boats were cruising around a pond. I thought of how my own daughters would enjoy this scene.

And then, like a bath of ice water down my back, it hit me: these are the people at whom my country has thousands of nuclear weapons pointed, and whose country has thousands of such weapons pointed at us. The horrifying insanity of that fact left me breathless.

The U.S. military takes care not to intentionally target mothers with strollers. U.S. nuclear weapons are aimed at military targets, from nuclear missile silos to military bases and production facilities. But many of those targets are located not far from cities, and the terrible destructive power of nuclear weapons does not discriminate.


If U.S. and Russian plans for nuclear war ever were carried out, tens of millions would die — including, in all likelihood, everyone I saw in Gorky Park. Much of the human civilization built up over thousands of years would be obliterated. More than a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, we continue to rest our security plans on threats to kill more people than Adolf Hitler ever did.

Today, both Russia and the United States are modernizing their nuclear forces to keep these threats robust for decades to come — though their forces’ total numbers are limited by treaties (thank goodness). The U.S. program is expected to cost $1.2 trillion over 30 years, and the Trump administration has added new, smaller nuclear weapons that critics warn might seem more usable should war come. Russia’s program includes entirely new types of strategic weapons, from an intercontinental torpedo designed to blow up U.S. coastal cities to a nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed cruise missile.

In both countries, these efforts are going forward with only the most limited public debate.

There is no doubt that the United States needs strong military forces — including, for now, an effective nuclear deterrent. Russia is ruled by a thug who has invaded nearby countries (more than once); props up Bashar Al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria as it massacres civilians with poisonous gas; assassinates opponents on British soil; and ordered his intelligence agencies to interfere with the U.S. 2016 presidential election.

The United States needs to firmly push back against threats to its interests and values.

But even during the depths of the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet leaders understood that despite their global confrontation, they had to work together for mutual survival. They built the nuclear arms control regime together, and they built the global effort to stem the spread of nuclear weapons to others. Ronald Reagan assailed the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” funded anti-communist rebels around the world, demanded that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall — and negotiated arms control agreements that led to the first real reductions in nuclear arms. Today, we, too, ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

To make progress toward reducing the risk, Americans need to understand that while we feel threatened by Russia, Russians also feel threatened — and Russia has quite a long list of complaints of its own about American behavior (some justified, some less so). Diplomacy will have to help address the concerns of both sides, not just American fears.

So, in the classic Russian phrase, what is to be done?

First, at their next summit, President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election MORE and Russian President Vladimir Putin should restate the fundamental point that Reagan and Gorbachev once made: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Second, they should direct their governments to make the compromises necessary to resolve the charges of violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that each side is making against the other. Third, they should extend the New START Treaty for five years, keeping its cap on nuclear forces and the inspections and data exchanges that enhance transparency and predictability. That would give negotiators time to work out a follow-on agreement.

Then, U.S. and Russian experts need to revitalize in-depth “strategic stability” talks, to explore both sides’ concerns and how they might be addressed. From Europe to the Middle East, they need to discuss ways to resolve or tamp down regional conflicts and tensions that might someday bring U.S. and Russian forces to blows. Washington and Moscow need to agree to fully implement accords to prevent dangerous military incidents, and allow observers at military exercises.

And they need to get our militaries and nuclear scientists talking to each other again; today, the world’s most powerful militaries and largest nuclear complexes are proceeding in almost total isolation from each other, which poses a danger to everyone.

The nuclear danger remains very real, and we need urgent action to address it — including public pressure. I want my daughters, and those families in Gorky Park, to live to a ripe old age, and perhaps one day even get to know each other.     

Matthew Bunn is a professor of practice at Harvard Kennedy School and is co-principal investigator for the Project on Managing the Atom at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.