Nuclear Missiles and Plastic Bags

What presents a greater threat to humanity, strategic nuclear missiles or disposable plastic bags?

Common sense suggests it would be missiles. Of course, the negative environmental impact of the unlimited production and irresponsible consumption of plastic is clear: carbon dioxide emissions are up, landfills on the mainland and islands made of trash in the oceans are multiplying, animals and birds are dying and harmful microplastic is building up in human bodies. However, similar to other environmental problems, plastic bags are slowly, almost imperceptibly destroying the human habitat, while nuclear weapons can annihilate this environment and humans almost instantly.

Meanwhile, today, international public opinion focuses on plastic bags much more than on nuclear missiles. The plastic bag problem is part of leading political parties’ programs. National and international projects to reduce plastic production are being adopted and successfully implemented. Prices for polyethylene containers in stores have increased sharply. Public awareness campaigns are being run to improve household waste disposal practices.

Unfortunately, nothing even remotely similar to that is observed with regard to nuclear missiles. On the contrary, even the very modest achievements in nuclear disarmament of the past 50 years are turning to dust before our eyes. Anti-nuclear symbolism has long gone out of fashion and has become an attribute of just a few outcasts.

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In early September, First Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Deterrence Robert Soofer stated that the United States planned to test a ground-based medium-range ballistic missile by the end of this year. Two weeks before that, the United States had tested a ground-based cruise missile with a range of over 500 km. Of course, Russia interpreted these US moves in the sense that the Pentagon had long been planning to withdraw from the INF Treaty, and Washington accusing Moscow of non-compliance with the Treaty was just an awkward attempt to justify its own unwillingness to comply with the INF Treaty.

However, most analysts on both sides are doubtful about the ability of the United States to promptly deploy new missile systems, whether ballistic or cruise. The common and not too new Tomahawk missiles were used in the August tests. With minimal modifications, they can take off from a mobile ground platform, which is not currently available. A full-fledged mobile complex with a new-generation cruise missile is unlikely to become a reality in the next three years. Analysts believe that the new-generation medium-range ballistic missile (LRHW project) will take about the same time to complete. Thus, current US activities in this area are sooner intended for political and psychological purposes rather than military and technical ones, which is fully consistent with the Trump administration’s general style.

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Russia has enough time and technical capabilities for an adequate response. Clearly, the 9M729 cruise missile, which caused great concern among the Americans during the discussion on the INF Treaty, is a very promising development, and its range can be significantly increased. Of course, there are corresponding achievements in the ballistic field as well. Take, for instance, such a wild card up the Russian Defense Ministry’s sleeve as the RS-26 Rubezh system. It is expensive, but reliable. It appears there are no fundamental technical difficulties in converting an ICBM into a medium-range missile. So, the big question is who will lead this race, and who will have to catch up.

Perhaps, Washington is pinning its hopes on the technological and economic superiority of the United States over Russia. But it will be impossible to realize this superiority any time soon: today’s armament programs have a lot of inertia, and radically changing the general Russia-US strategic balance in a matter of several years is clearly unrealistic either for Trump, or his potential successor, or even for a successor’s successor. The degree of inertia in this balance can be seen, in particular, in the fact that Moscow has retained its status of the second-largest nuclear superpower almost 30 years after the collapse of the USSR.

Of course, the geostrategic asymmetry between the United States and Russia still exists. If it had chosen to provide a mirror response to possible deployment of US medium- and short-range missiles in Europe, Moscow would have been forced to follow in Khrushchev’s steps and deploy its systems in the Western Hemisphere. It takes a very strong stretch of the imagination to see Russian missile launchers, for example, in Venezuela or Nicaragua. But at the same time, the Americans will also find it difficult to convince their European allies to voluntarily deploy ultramodern Pershing-3 missiles on their territory, thus becoming the closest potential targets for a Russian second retaliatory strike.

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It is widely believed that the main purpose of a new generation of US medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles is to deter China, not Russia. However, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff are unlikely to be able to prove this convincingly to Russia’s General Staff, especially amid the current deplorable state of bilateral relations. Similar to Europe, there will also be problems with deploying US ground-based missiles in the Asia-Pacific region. In addition, it is difficult to assume that several years ago China’s Central Military Commission did not consider the potential collapse of the INF Treaty and failed to begin to work on appropriate preventive measures. If, in the case of Moscow, Washington can still hope to economically and financially exhaust its adversary, there can be no such hope for Beijing.

Now, back to plastic bags. The current global environmental situation is that global environmental problems will inevitably only worsen over the next several decades, despite efforts to resolve them. The amount of plastic in the environment will increase. Global temperatures and sea levels will rise. Rare species of animals and plants will die out, natural resources will become scarcer and natural disasters will intensify.

But this seeming inevitability is no excuse to sit back and just hope for the possibility of a national environmental safety miracle, or think that nothing can be done anyway and just learn to live with the inevitable degradation of the natural environment. The goal of environmental movements is not to prevent degradation tomorrow, but to prevent a global environmental disaster the day after tomorrow.

The same should fully apply to the nuclear sphere as well. It must be honestly acknowledged that the historic task of an orderly and safe transition from the old model of nuclear arms control of the 20th century to a new model of the 21st century has failed to materialize. The current generation of politicians and statesmen has not shown the wisdom, responsibility or strategic vision of their predecessors. This means that the world is entering a dangerous period where security problems will only get worse.

How long will global instability last? It depends on many isolated variables and how they interact. Will Donald Trump be re-elected in November 2020? How far will the US-China confrontation go in the near future? How will a change of generations in the Russian government play out? How acute and universal will new unconventional security threats be? In a scenario that would be beneficial for everyone, this period of instability will last several years, in a worst-case scenario, it will stretch well into the next 10, 20 or even 30 years.

But, as with plastic bags, being aware of the fact that the situation will inevitably get worse is not a good enough reason to sit back and do nothing. The time for a new model of nuclear arms control will come sooner or later: the costs are too high and the risks of an upcoming “nuclear isolationism” are high as well. It is possible to bring an era of revived nuclear disarmament closer , if we borrow the methods used for dealing with the plastic bags problem, such as international expert cooperation, public awareness campaigns, involving pop culture stars, lobbying in parliaments, and much more.

If we discard the clearly obsolete myths and archaic stereotypes that make the nuclear sphere something mystical and sacred, the difference between nuclear missiles and plastic bags will not seem as big as we might think.

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