How Russia Decides to Go Nuclear
Deciphering the Way Moscow Handles Its Ultimate Weapon
On March 18, 2018, Vladimir Putin was elected to his fourth term as Russia’s president, a position he can hold until at least 2024—and possibly beyond that, if he finds a way to circumvent the constitution. During the campaign, Putin stressed to Russians that he was just the kind of strong leader who could, as his supporters often put it, “raise Russia off its knees,” and he spent much of his time bashing his critics in the West, particularly in the United States. Putin’s hostility toward the West has been met in kind. In fact, so concerned have Westerners grown with his political meddling, regional aggression, and general efforts to play international spoiler that many of them contend we are entering a new Cold War.
Are we? To answer that question, we’ve put together this special collection of essays, featuring not only contemporary takes on that issue but also some of the most important Foreign Affairs analyses from the past seven decades. Many of these pieces had a decisive influence on how the Cold War was waged; all of them provide valuable insight into how we’ve gotten to where we are now.
We begin with George F. Kennan’s 1947 article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” published under the pseudonym Mr. X—a seminal document of Cold War U.S. foreign policy. In 1953, Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, reflected on the arms race that was unfolding before him. By 1959, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was advocating in the pages of Foreign Affairs for nations with different governing systems to find a way to coexist peacefully. That same year, Henry Kissinger, still in the early stages of his career, warned that in the search for a settlement with the Soviet Union, the United States must not lose sight of its strategic goals. His counterpart in the Democratic Party, Zbigniew Brzezinski, laid out a plan in 1961 for exacerbating splits within the Soviet camp.
In 1972, as superpower tensions eased with détente, Kennan returned to the pages of Foreign Affairs (this time under his own byline) to declare the problem of nuclear weapons “more serious and more urgently in need of solution than it was 25 years ago.” But even as ill will rose again in the 1980s, Thomas C. Schelling, pondering the failure of arms control, noted that he had “no reason to believe . . . that the threat of nuclear war is more ominous today than it has been for many years.”
Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the late 1980s and 1990s, leading scholars, policymakers, and journalists—including Jeane Kirkpatrick, McGeorge Bundy, John Lewis Gaddis, Graham Allison, Robert Blackwill, Philip Zelikow, and David Remnick—looked back at the Cold War’s course and considered what it meant for Russia’s evolution. They wrote about how the West should engage with the new Russia, the failures of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, and the ongoing dangers of nuclear proliferation.
More recently, top experts have come to Foreign Affairs to take stock of growing tension between the United States and Putin’s Russia. Blackwill and Philip Gordon argued that with Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it was time to once again “contain” the country. Emma Ashford, on the other hand, mulled whether such an adversarial stance would even work with Moscow, noting that “confrontation remains the path of least resistance.” And Odd Arne Westad, in examining the Cold War analogy directly, concluded that such comparisons “make no sense.” The new era “may turn out to be conflict-ridden and confrontational,” he argued, but it is no Cold War.
With Putin entering yet another presidential term, the course of U.S.-Russian relations will have enormous consequences for Russia, for America, and for the world. Read this special Foreign Affairs anthology to understand the Cold War’s past and what it means for the future.