As U.S. policymakers confront threats on multiple fronts, the debate rages over which foreign power represents the greatest nuclear danger.
Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un represent nuclear threats, although their arsenals are of vastly different sizes. However it is not a clear cut choice as to which is the most dangerous for the U.S. and its citizens, writes Donald Kirk for Forbes.
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Should Washington worry about Russia or North Korea?
While Putin is committed to increasing Russia’s nuclear and missile capabilities, Kim is seemingly obsessed with developing nuclear weapons. According to Tom Countryman, assistant secretary of state at the State Department’s Bureau of InternationalSecurity and Nonproliferation, Putin is increasingly flexing his muscles from eastern Europe to the Middle East, and northeast Asia may be his next arena of choice.
Countryman has been highly critical of Putin for his aggressive rhetoric, which has raised the possibility of nuclear war. “The most dangerous development in the field of nuclear weapons is the reversal of a positive trend,” said Countryman. He claims that Putin has increased tensions with his Cold War-style rhetoric, although its unlikely that Russia will leave the nonproliferation treaty.
“I don’t think there is any country out there that would leave the treaty and develop nuclear weapons,” he said, with one notable exception. “North Korea has done so,” he said. “Nobody can beat North Korea for doing stupid things.”
North Korea merits its place in the nuclear conversation
Although his phrasing may be questionable, the secretive nation is a growing concern for U.S. defense analysts and is often featured in the same conversations as China and Russia when it comes to assessing nuclear threats. While it appears unlikely that North Korea has developed a hydrogen bomb, it is almost certainly working on fixing a warhead to a long-range missile that could reach the west coast of the U.S.
Air Force Lieutenant General Jack Weinstein, deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, counts North Korea as a threat alongside Russia and China. “We must focus on nuclear deterrence in other nations,” he said. “Others have modernized their nuclear weapons, and some have upgraded.”
“The Russians are developing ICBMs and nuclear bombers,” Weinstein said. “They are developing a whole new infrastructure for an ICBM force.” In addition he claimed that “the Chinese are doing the same thing” while North Korea continues to work on ICBMs.
As a result of the threat he believes that “the nuclear deterrence mission is number one in the air force and vital to our defense strategy.”
U.S. military struggling to contain threats on multiple fronts
However there is a certain tension between the threat posed by other nations and the capability of the U.S. to defend itself. The Air Force “is smaller than it has ever been, and the average age of weapons is older than it’s ever been.”
With that in mind Weinstein says that “the Air Force is fully committed to modernizing our nuclear force” with the nuclear deterrent forming “the foundation of our nuclear strategy.” Over in the State Department, officials seem to think that Russia is the most dangerous adversary that these weapons could be used against.
Countryman says that the old nuclear powers, the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia, “stopped talking about nuclear weapons as a source of national pride.” Now however Vladimir Putin has taken it upon himself to reverse that trend.
Putin using rhetoric to ramp up nuclear tension
He also believes that Putin’s words should not be taken lightly. “Rhetoric has an effect,” he said. “Words matter….They make it more likely nuclear weapons could be used. It’s important to avoid that chest-thumping. It is important for leaders not to go down that same path just because Vladimir did.”
Putin has been using rhetoric last heard in the communist period, and although the Soviet Union and its ideals may be dead there is a fear that the rhetoric heralds the resurgence of Russian nationalism. Countryman believes that this historic nationalism can be seen in Syria and Ukraine, as well as Russia’s dealings with neighbors that were previously satellite nations.
“Disagreement in Ukraine goes to the concept of European security challenged by a revanchist power,” he said. Nuclear weapons “are a political tool of the Russian federation” that NATO needs to understand. Countryman does not believe that fruitful negotiations can be held with the current Russian government.
For the first time in 50 years there is “neither an active dialogue with Moscow or anything scheduled on nuclear weapons” a worrying indictment on relations between Washington and Moscow. “Kremlin officials believe they understand the enemy’s pain level and potential reaction,” said Harrison Menke, a war-gaming analyst with the Science Applications International Corporation, but “the potential for miscalculation and escalation is high.”