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Russia's Nuclear Threats Bring Back the Madness of the Cold War

Commentary: I'm not the only one worrying that Putin will launch a nuclear attack.

An atomic bomb test in 1946.
An atomic bomb test in 1946.
Getty Images

This story is part of War in Ukraine, CNET's coverage of events there and of the wider effects on the world.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is reminding me of a part of my childhood I'd rather not revisit.

I grew up during the Cold War, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, a town that's famous for the development of the atomic bomb. The past 10 days have echoed with the scary nuclear brinksmanship of that era as Russia ratcheted up concerns it was ready to plunge the world into an exchange of weapons humanity might not survive.

"To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside," Russian President Vladimir Putin warned as Russia launched its full-scale attack on Feb. 24, "if you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history." 

Action quickly reinforced Putin's words. On Feb. 28, Belarus, a Russian ally, approved hosting Russian nuclear weapons. A day later, Putin put Russia's nuclear weapons forces on higher alert while Russia conducted nuclear submarine and launch system drills. Despite this, the Ukrainians have fought back valiantly, slowing Russia's military.

Though the US has refrained from counterthreats, I've been amazed by how rapidly we've reconstituted the adversarial superpower worldview that set the tone of my childhood, when my hometown was no doubt targeted by the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal. My kids may not be watching the duck-and-cover civil defense videos I watched while growing up, but megadeaths and mutually assured destruction are fodder for mainstream discussion again.

It was never clear during the Cold War exactly how terrified we should have been about the prospect of full-scale nuclear war. What was clear was its constant presence in the popular psyche. In 1983, television movie The Day After depicted a fictional nuclear strike and the aftermath in a midwest farming community. A year later, the BBC released Threads, a docudrama of life in Britain after a nuclear war.

So far, the Biden administration has avoided rhetoric and action that could spark further escalation. The US explicitly chose to maintain its nuclear alert level, reported by The New York Times to be DEFCON 4, the second lowest level. (The Defense Department doesn't publicly comment on the level.) The US also postponed a Minuteman 3 ballistic missile test.

For the moment, I'm trying to take the advice of Rand researcher Edward Geist, a fluent Russian speaker who's spent decades scrutinizing Soviet and Russian nuclear issues. Thermonuclear war is never far from his mind: A Soviet poster with pictures demonstrating how citizens should respond to a nuclear attack hangs on his office wall.

So far, he sees Russia's nuclear threats as "mostly just signaling," an effort to tell the West not to get involved. Satellites haven't spotted the worrisome new deployments of ground based nuclear weapons or submarines leaving ports. Russia's heightened alert state, which state-owned media outlet Tass called a "special combat duty regime," looks to be a relatively minor staff increase in the nuclear command centers, he said.

The fact that we don't have a clear idea what Putin is thinking, however, is another echo of the Cold War. When the face-off was at its most tense, Kremlinologists famously tried to infer Soviet political dynamics by scrutinizing how its leaders behaved during military parades.

Today, the uncertainties are compounded by considerations of how rationally Putin is acting and what may be motivating him. Putin has a reputation for being a grounded if brutal leader. Given the challenges his military has faced, the absurdity of his justification for the invasion and his miscalculation of the severity of the international response, experts are now questioning how aware of reality he truly is.

Because dictators "conflate the survival of their rule with their personal survival," Geist said, there's a possibility Putin could become more desperate and dangerous if the Ukrainian war goes badly for him.

The West, too, has slipped back into Cold War habits.

The US is sending 3,000 more troops to Germany, Poland and Romania to bolster NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that allied US and Western European militaries to counter the Soviet threat. (Putin has decried NATO expansion as a threat to Russia and cited it as a reason for the Ukraine invasion. Since the Soviet Union's 1991 collapse, NATO has added former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and Warsaw Pact nations including Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Poland and Bulgaria. NATO suspended some relations with Russia after the country annexed Ukraine's Crimean region in 2014 and on Feb. 26 condemned its full-scale Ukraine invasion as "a grave violation of international law and a serious threat to Euro-Atlantic security.")

Putin's actions have "galvanized NATO," making it more cohesive and persuading some members to spend more on defense, says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a  disarmament focused nonprofit.

A 2018 photo of control panels in an underground Launch Control Center in Montana. An LCC is the main control facility for intercontinental ballistic missiles.

A 2018 photo of control panels in an underground Launch Control Center in Montana. An LCC is the main control facility for intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Lido Vizzutti/Getty Images

Though the US and Russia have dramatically cut their nuclear warhead stockpiles from an all-time high of about 65,000, the US and Russia each still have about 1,400 installed in delivery systems, Kimball said. For purposes of fighting a nuclear war, that's still "incredible overkill," he said. The term overkill, like the nuclear war neologism megadeath that refers to a million deaths, gives me the shivers.

He doesn't believe Putin is on the verge of launching a nuclear strike. The war over Ukraine, though, dramatically increases the likelihood that something could go wrong and lead to a cascade of retaliation. NATO and Russian military forces could come into close contact in the Ukrainian airspace or the Black or Baltic seas, which could "lead to an accident, miscalculation or shots fired," Kimball said. "These are the kinds of things that can lead to an escalation and conflict between Russian and NATO forces."

We have fewer nuclear weapons now but fewer legal constraints on them. Among the agreements that have expired are the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, which permitted reconnaissance flights that helped diminish uncertainty about what nuclear armed countries knew about each other.

The only pact left is the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which Russia and the US extended in 2021 for another five years. Thanks to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, arms control talks are now on hold.

Our failure to rein in nuclear weapons since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 helped pave the way for what's happening today. I fear that my children, even though they're not growing up in Los Alamos, will still have to worry about mushroom clouds in their future.