The American and Russian defense chiefs spoke by telephone on Friday for only the second time since Moscow’s February attack on Ukraine, the Pentagon said. The call between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu followed Russia’s recent missile strikes on energy plants and civilian facilities which have sparked fears that the conflict was escalating unpredictably ahead of winter. Austin “emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication amid the ongoing war against Ukraine,” said Pentagon spokesperson Brigadier General Pat Ryder.
But sixty years to the day after the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, the call highlights how American and Russian leaders are struggling to re-establish the key lesson from that era: communication and diplomacy are crucial to avoid catastrophe. U.S.-Russian communication remains sporadic at best. Just as worrying, U.S.-Russian nuclear talks are at their lowest point in decades. The scaffolding of treaties that helped support an uneasy peace for more than half a century is in disrepair, casting the stability of the global nuclear balance in doubt.
For weeks, strategists and pundits have warned that we are closer to nuclear war than at any point since Moscow’s decison to deploy nuclear-warheads and missiles 90 miles off the shore of Florida in the early 1960s. President Joe Biden made reference to it at a fundraiser earlier this month: “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Biden said, breaking from the usual restraint shared by Republican and Democratic presidents when talking about the world’s most powerful weapons.
In the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s face-off with Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev, when neither side knew whether the other was planning to use their nuclear weapons, the U.S. and Russia famously instituted the nuclear hotline in hopes of avoiding nuclear war. More important, the U.S. and Soviet Union pursued decades of diplomatic talks designed to avoid accidents and keep channels open, even though Washington and Moscow were sworn adversaries. Those treaties and regular avenues of communication allowed both sides to understand each others’s intentions, minimizing the risk of miscalculation.
Today, the nuclear hotline and back-channels remain open, albeit in different forms. The U.S. military on March 1 established a direct line with the Russian Ministry of Defense out of U.S. European Command headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, to ensure that the two countries’ pilots or warships do not mistakenly fire upon one another as they conduct daily missions in eastern Europe.
But many of the Cold War agreements—The Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas, Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities—no longer exist in force or function. “From 1962 to about 2013, Washington and Moscow were either actively negotiating some kind of agreement, or they at least had an understanding that the process was continuing, and our next negotiation is going to aim at a particular issue,” says Thomas M. Countryman, a 35-year career diplomat who retired in 2017 after leading the State Department’s nonproliferation efforts. “It’s something we’ve lost that had a value in reducing tension and increasing transparency.”
Biden has hinted at the cost of such lack of communication, admitting his team is still searching for answers to today’s conflict in Ukraine. “We are trying to figure out: What is Putin’s off-ramp?” Biden said. “Where does he find a way out? Where does he find himself where he does not only lose face, but significant power?”
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The lack of clarity increases the chances of miscalculation. Although U.S. combat forces are not in Ukraine, the threat of a misfired munition or unintended clash is a concern, particularly as Russia’s missiles frequently miss intended targets. Many of these missiles are capable of carrying either nuclear or conventional warheads. This is of particular concern because the U.S. has sent troops to multiple countries around Ukraine in solidarity with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance. With NATO’s mobilization of thousands of troops, hundreds of aircraft and naval ships in areas near Russian operations, the risk of inadvertent confrontation remains high, says James Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral who commanded all NATO forces in Europe.
“I worry about a Russian cruise missile that strays across the border and hits a U.S.-NATO command center, probably by accident—but the Supreme Allied Commander will be potentially reacting directly in real time,” Stavridis says. “That could open a path to rapid escalation that could drag Russia and NATO into a direct conflict, which is in no one’s interest.”
When he was Supreme Allied Commander, Stavridis says he frequently called on his opposite number in the Kremlin, Russian General Nikolai Makarov, or Dimitri Rogozin, the then-Russian ambassador to NATO. They wouldn’t agree on most things, he says, “but at least we were talking.” As much as the United States opposes Russian President Vladimir Putin and his blood-soaked military campaign in Ukraine, the fact Russia has 6,000-plus nuclear weapons “means we need a means to directly communicate and deescalate wherever we can,” Stavridis says. “Our approach should be ‘confront where we must, but keep the lines of communications open.’”
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Communication atrophy between the U.S. and Russia has accelerated in the last decade. Congress passed a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act in late 2014—and renewed since then—which restricts the Pentagon’s ability to work with Russia. The law was passed in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its continued involvement in the Ukrainian civil war. Things took a turn for the worse after American intelligence agencies uncovered that the Kremlin engaged in a multi-pronged campaign to meddle in 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
The Biden Administration suspended most bilateral engagements with Moscow after Putin ordered his unprovoked Feb. 24 invasion, including the so-called “Strategic Stability Dialogue,” which was created in 2021 to reduce the risk of nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia. The State Department has no immediate plans to restart those conversations, but has said it is open to talks on issues of mutual concern, such as arms reductions. Dialogue on such topics may not lead to the formal end of the war in Ukraine, but it does build trust. “It is unfortunate that Russian violations and failure to fully implement a range of obligations and commitments has diminished or in some cases eliminated guard rails painstakingly negotiated in the past,” a State Department official tells TIME. “It is in times of tension and conflict that such guard rails are most valuable.”
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