The current crisis in Ukraine has many a politician and pundit in both Washington and Moscow drawing parallels with the dangerous days of the Cold War. “Welcome to Cold War Two,” said one leading US Russia expert as the Obama administration eyed sanctions against Moscow leaders in the face of possible Russian annexation of Crimea. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin’s chief propagandist issued a thinly-veiled threat suggesting Russia could turn the United States into “radioactive dust” with it’s ‘bigger-than-yours,’ 8,500-warhead nuclear mega-arsenal.
Relations between Washington and Moscow are at their lowest ebb since before the fall of the Berlin Wall. But things are nowhere near as bad as in the bad old days of yore. Here are the five most dangerous moments in postwar US-Soviet relations:
5- Superpower Thermonuclear Tests (1953): The US and USSR both tested their first thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bombs within months of each other in 1953. Two-stage thermonuclear bombs are exponentially more powerful than the first-generation atomic bombs of the sort used by the United States when it waged nuclear warfare against Japan at the end of World War II. The ‘Doomsday Clock,’ an internationally-recognized countdown to possible nuclear war, was set at two minutes to midnight in the wake of the superpower H-bomb tests, the closest it’s ever been to the apocalyptic 12:00 hour.
4- USSR’s First Atomic Bomb Test (1949): From 1945 until the summer of 1949, the US reigned supreme as the world’s only atomic power. The United States, unscathed by the ravages of a war that saw 20 million Russians die and much of the USSR reduced to ruin, took advantage its nuclear monopoly to expand its global hegemony, encircling the Soviets with troops, bases and hostile allied nations. Moscow scrambled to build a nuke of its own, and in 1949 successfully tested the nation’s first atomic bomb. Americans gasped a collective breath of fear, then set to stoking a furious nuclear arms race, ushering in the most dangerous era in recorded human history.
3- Able Archer 83 (1983): Many Cold War historians consider this period in late 1983 to be the closest the superpowers had come to nuclear war since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. US-led NATO powers conducted frighteningly realistic war games called Able Archer 83 in November, replete with encoded communications unknown to Soviet intelligence and a simulated of DEFCON 1 nuclear alert, the highest stage of US readiness.
Add to all this President Reagan’s bellicose “evil empire” rhetoric and potentially game-changing Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”), along with the first deployment of US Pershing II intermediate range ballistic missiles in Germany– within easy striking distance of all Warsaw Pact nations, and it’s easily understandable why some Soviet military leaders were convinced the United States was getting ready to launch a first-strike nuclear war, which Russian leaders correctly feared was Pentagon policy.
Throw in the USSR’s sudden shoot-down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 (which had strayed into Soviet airspace), an attack that killed 62 Americans including a sitting member of Congress, and there was a very real potential for the Cold War to go hot in the fall of ’83.
2- Berlin Crisis (1961): When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev issued an ultimatum demanding US, British and French withdrawal from occupied West Berlin, an enclave deep in the heart of communist East Germany, the Western allies dug in to defend the city. “We seek peace, but we shall not surrender,” declared a resolute President Kennedy, who responded to the crisis with a massive military buildup. Meanwhile, Moscow and its East German puppet government set about establishing ‘facts on the ground’ by building the infamous wall dividing Berlin, a city that had once again become the front line in a Cold War which, had it gone hot, threatened the extinction of all humanity.
1- Cuban Missile Crisis (1962): The US had long established an archipelago of hostile allied nations, military bases and nuclear missiles virtually surrounding the Soviet Union by the time Moscow snuck some missiles capable of striking much of the eastern United States into Cuba, where Fidel Castro’s successful revolution had taken a decidedly pro-Moscow turn even before the CIA attempted to destroy it in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs fiasco. Russian missiles within 100 miles of US soil were unacceptable to the Kennedy administration, still reeling from Berlin and the Bay of Pigs and sinking ever-deeper into the quagmire of Vietnam. A tense standoff ensued, escalating in late October as the US imposed a naval blockade of the island nation.
Kennedy proved a steady leader as a series of potentially catastrophic missteps that brought the world to the brink of nuclear warfare ensued and, with a little help from an unknown Russian submariner named Vasili Arkhipov, who refused to assent to the firing of nuclear-armed torpedoes after his sub was damaged by a US depth charge, the world was able to breathe a deep sigh of relief after America and Russia “stood eyeball to eyeball” in the biggest gamble of brinksmanship the world has ever known.