It may well be that a generation from now, historians will look back on the events this week as the moment that the Russian bear started to awaken from the hibernation of the post-Soviet years. Yesterday the Russian defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, announced that Russia intends to build a new generation of long range nuclear missiles, capable of reaching America and the capitals of Europe. He promised a new fleet of eight submarines, all armed with nuclear weapons, and hinted that he reckoned it was also time to launch a few more aircraft carriers to patrol the seas. It would be too much to say that 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians are on the march. But it would not be too much to say that this is a significant moment.
It is an irony that this new saber rattling is taking place in the context of a declining democracy in Russia. Mr. Ivanov is the leading candidate to replace Vladimir Putin as the top man in the Kremlin, and he knows that promising increased defense spending and a strong military is a sure vote winner. But that is not all that is afoot in Moscow. Russia has begun flexing its muscles on the world stage recently and has been receiving praise from its neighbors to the south for its show of independence from America. President Bush's plan to move American nuclear missile bases closer to the Russian border, into the eastern European countries that once made up the old Soviet empire, ostensibly to more accurately target Iran, have caused Russian hackles to rise, when they should be trying to help us.
Then there is the fact that the mullahs of Iran and their plans to build a nuclear capacity threaten to change the global order of battle. No one who has listened to the ravings of President Ahmadinejad doubts that the Iranian goal is to fire its first nuclear missile at Israel. But that is only the beginning. European Union leaders who tend to thumb their noses at American foreign policy objectives and accuse Israel of crying wolf should be in no doubt that the long range missiles North Korea has provided the mullahs are capable of reaching London, Madrid, Paris, Rome, and all the capitals of western Europe as easily as they can rain upon Jerusalem.
It is hard not to avoid the conclusion that the weakness with which the West has reacted to the Iranian menace — as well as the Iranian menace itself — is one of the things the Kremlin camarilla is watching. Not to mention the spectacle of President Chirac openly entertaining the notion of a nuclear Iran with a Gallic shrug. And it is hard not to see this as a more dangerous situation than in the days when the nuclear standoff essentially was a matter between America and Russia. This danger was underscored dramatically last month in an editorial page article in the Wall Street Journal by Secretaries of State Shultz and Kissinger and Secretary of Defense Perry and Senator Nunn.
Even before the latest rattling from Russia they called the emerging world situation "a new nuclear era that will be more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically even more costly than was Cold War deterrence. It is far from certain that we can successfully replicate the old Soviet-American ‘mutually assured destruction' with an increasing number of potential nuclear enemies world-wide without dramatically increasing the risk that nuclear weapons will be used. …," they wrote. "The United States and the Soviet Union learned from mistakes that were less than fatal. Both countries were diligent to ensure that no nuclear weapon was used during the Cold War by design or by accident. Will new nuclear nations and the world be as fortunate in the next 50 years as we were during the Cold War?"