The cold war balance of power was based on the concept of mutually-assured destruction. This means that an attack is deterred by certainty that it will be followed by a deadly retaliatory strike, with both sides being destroyed.
The acronym for this (MAD) is usually utilized in form of various puns, as in, that’s a MAD idea. In fact, the concept itself is the only reason why we didn’t have a major world conflict since the WW2, and the thing had all sorts of precedents in nature – we can see in animal kingdom that the more deadly the weapons the animals have, the less likely they are to actually fight, and instead resort to some ritualized dance.
Essentially, in a human society where everybody is armed, everybody is also polite, because offending an armed opponent gives you very good probability of getting killed. Even the very concept of “law and order” is based on the assurance that your life will be destroyed by imprisonment if you commit a crime, which essentially deters crime by a promise of retaliation by the state.
The cold war nuclear strategy was far more nuanced, sophisticated and complex than people usually give it credit for, thanks to the propagandists who portrayed the entire thing as insane accumulation of excessive amounts of weapons. In fact, the entire thing was very sensible and rational, albeit inherently dangerous.
Let’s see how it escalated through time. First, the Americans had the atomic bomb and threatened the Russians in case they were to overrun the western Europe. That bomb was Hiroshima-type, and was simply dropped from a propeller-driven airplane. The Americans had the advantage of having bases in Europe right on the Russian border, and Russia was within airplane reach. The Russians, however, had a problem. Not only were they late in developing the atomic bomb, they also had geography working against them. They could only fly a bomber from their territory to America to try to bomb it, and since the distance between Russia and America is far greater than the distance between Ramstein base and Russia, they were at a huge disadvantage, and their bombers had no realistic chance of reaching America before being shot down. The reason why the Americans installed all those northern air defense (NORAD) radars in Alaska and Canada was because the shortest path for the Russian planes was either over the north pole, or from Vladivostok to Alaska. Essentially, America was completely immune to a Russian attack, and the cold-war scare was merely a psyop for controlling their own population and for assuring the growth of military budget.
The Russians, on the other hand, didn’t like being in a position where the potential enemy can destroy them, and they can do nothing about it, so they worked very hard on developing technologies that would correct that. First they tried copying an American bomber, which succeeded, but due to the aforementioned geographical issues it didn’t solve anything. Simultaneously, they were developing rocket technology, and succeeded in creating a rocket that launched Sputnik in late 1957, and was essentially an intercontinental ballistic missile. The reason why Americans shat themselves when they detected Sputnik’s radio beep in orbit was the realization that the Russians could easily have, as Lyndon Johnson aptly put it, “dropped atomic bombs on them like rocks from a highway overpass”. The Soviets had the qualitative ability, but not quantitative: those rockets were few, they were more prototypes than robust weapons, and they took a really long time to fuel and prepare for a launch. This is the reason why the Soviets went on with the risky attempt of installing their short-range nuclear missiles on Cuba, to counter the threat of Jupiter missiles the Americans had already installed in Turkey and Italy. The American advantage was too great. You would never know it from the American media, however, because when they talked about the “missile gap”, they stated that the Soviets had a huge advantage over America, and that America is lagging behind.
In the 1960s, the wargame scenario would have looked like this.
Scenario 1, Soviet first strike. The Russians start fueling their rockets. This is detected by the Americans who declare DEFCON 2. The Soviets have strategic bombers in the air. Those are quickly intercepted by American fighters. The Soviets do not stand down, they launch short-range nuclear weapons at American bases in Europe. The Americans respond by leveling the Soviet ICBM launch sites with short-range nuclear weapons and shooting down Soviet nuclear weapons. The Soviets are issued an ultimatum: surrender or we nuke your cities. The Soviets surrender, as their nuclear weapons have already been taken out.
Scenario 2, American first strike. The Americans fuel their Atlas ICBMs, and prepare their European forces. They attack the Russian nuclear forces with their short-range missiles from Europe, and launch the ICBMs from America at the Soviet cities. The Soviet Union is destroyed.
In both scenarios, the world goes on just fine, as the level of radioactive fallout would not significantly exceed that in the Castle Bravo experiment. In the 1960s, the nuclear missile submarines were more of an experiment than an actual doomsday weapon. They were noisy, easily detectable and the missiles they carried had short range, necessitating a close approach to enemy’s coastal waters. The role they would have played in an actual conflict would have been marginal. In any case, America was at that point protected by the Nike Hercules nuclear-tipped anti-ballistic missiles. In the worst case scenario, America would have lost one or two cities, while the Soviet Union would have ceased to exist. This is hardly mutually-assured destruction.
This essentially remained valid throughout the 1970s. The Americans had a huge advantage in both missile numbers, nuclear submarines, and basically everything that influences the outcome. The number of the missiles and nuclear weapons fielded by both sides grew to such numbers, though, that it became inconceivable that life would go on normally after a nuclear exchange. Due to sheer number of the bombs that would explode, the radioactive contamination would have been huge, and although the Soviet Union would have been hit ten times more, enough bombs would probably hit America to destroy its industrial potential.
By the 1980s, everything changed. The Soviets finally fielded weapons that achieved full parity with the United States. This includes the nuclear ballistic submarines of the Delta and Typhoon classes, SLBMs that could reach America even if launched from the Soviet territorial waters, and the R-36 Voivoda ICBM, better known by the NATO designation SS-18 Satan. This designation itself tells volumes about what the Americans thought about it. It’s the ultimate enemy, it’s death itself. They had no defense against it, no chance of pre-empting it, and when that was fielded, shit got real. This, finally, was the time when the threat of nuclear annihilation became mutual. The mutually-assured destruction finally became exactly that, and America could no longer count on any degree of probability of survival even in the case of striking first. As a result of finally achieving true parity with the Soviets, they lived in true fear for a few years, contemplated building some kind of a sophisticated missile defense, and then decided to be friends with the Soviets because the game of intimidation was no longer fun.
After that point, the Soviets decided that the threat of war is over and they could finally try the long overdue reforms of their economy and the political systems, implemented glasnost and perestroika (essentially freedom of media and political activism, and reform, as a general trend), which ended up disastrously and destroyed their multi-state union and their economy. Their military degraded and the USA was left standing as the sole nuclear superpower. They exploited the opportunity by seizing all forms of strategic high ground and then decided it no longer matters much because the opponent doesn’t really exist anymore. Feeling no need to invest trillions of dollars in keeping their nuclear weapons up to date, they allowed everything to degrade, as strategic nukes were seen as a relic of the past.
The Russians, however, recovered under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. They worked very hard on restoring their military, on modernizing their industry, and on improving their economy. Some things they refurbished, some they scrapped, and in some cases they built new and improved versions. It was a huge job, in the span of 15 years, and they are only halfway through at this point. The quantity of their military potential significantly lags behind the Soviet maximum, but they make up for that with innovation and quality. In any case, it is interesting to observe how the roles have reversed, because by observing the degree of degradation of Soviet-era military equipment we can extrapolate that NATO military equipment from the same era degraded at the similar rates, and yet in Russia the degrading equipment had been replaced as obsolete or unreliable, while in NATO countries, no investments were made in refreshing the strategic deterrent, as it was seen as costly white elephant, something nobody really needs. In Russia, however, the strategic deterrent was seen as the only thing that can prevent America from raping and plundering their country forever with impunity, and its reconstruction was made a priority.
As a result, it is my opinion that the roles had been reversed, and there no longer is mutually-assured destruction, because the Russians have absolute supremacy in nuclear weapons, anti-ballistic and anti-aircraft defense, and probably also in electronic warfare. The Americans have unquestionable supremacy in conventional warfare, as this is the field where they invested significant resources and their assets are modern, well integrated and numerically superior.
The geopolitical result of this is that America assumes its nuclear supremacy or at least parity, it assumes its conventional military supremacy, and it assumes its economic and financial supremacy, and uses those to pressure Russia into submission. Their miscalculation is that when it comes to the use of force, the Russians will back down, as they always did so far, and America will have its way. However, the Russians understand that to back down amounts to acceptance of eternal servitude, and they also understand that in case of a nuclear conflict, they are in the same position relative to America as they were in the 1960s, only with the roles reversed. If a nuclear war were to break out today, Russia would have the choice of what to hit, when and how, and any kind of retaliatory strike on its military and its cities would not be anywhere near deadly. In fact, they might be better off with a nuclear war than they are now, with a Nazi-like blundering America formenting all kinds of evil, chaos and madness across the world, and using its force to pressure Russia in all kinds of ways, crippling its potential for growth and prosperity.
Since America simply doesn’t have the economic strength to invest trillions of dollars into rebuilding their strategic nuclear forces, which are fubared for the last decade or so, and is unwilling to stop pretending that it has superiority and stop forcing its way around the world as if it had the power to defeat anyone militarily, this, now, is the most dangerous point since the end of WW2, when America had the luxury of seriously considering the use of nuclear weapons, on which it had monopoly, to finally cripple all potential adversaries. We are now in a situation where Russia has the actual superiority, and America acts as if the roles are reversed and it calls all the shots. This is why MAD would have been a vastly preferable option, because when everybody knows they don’t have the supremacy, they tend to pick words and actions carefully and are not likely to go around offending and pressuring other powers like blundering buffoons.
The thing is, the Russians are not unreasonable, they just want the world to function as it was supposed to – they want to be able to freely trade and cooperate with other countries, and not be bullied into submission by America every time they actually succeed at something, and they also don’t want their friends to be killed off one by one, their borders surrounded by NATO bases and the Western press writing slanderous bullshit propaganda about them on a daily basis. Apparently, for America that’s too much to ask, and that’s why, in my opinion, we are on the brink of a nuclear war.
There’s a very simple way for America to both avoid investing trillions of dollars in modern weapons, and avoiding a nuclear war with Russia. Simply, treat Russia the way Austria treats Slovenia, or the way Denmark treats Norway. That’s all there is to it. Stop pissing on the Russians and expecting them to think it’s raining, because if you don’t they’re going to cut your dicks off and shove them down your arses.