Even though the Cold War has been over for more than two decades, the threat of a nuclear attack remains an ubiquitous one. There are times when we can forget that the United States and Russia both have the nuclear capacity to eradicate all life on the planet, but those times are becoming increasingly rare as tensions between Russia and the West continue to deteriorate due to the ongoing situation in Ukraine.
The years following the collapse of the Soviet Union were tumultuous and tense at times, but the progress made between Russia and the West was unprecedented. Although the United States and Russia were still rivals in many areas, the days of proxy wars and military standoffs were gone. Aside from the occasional bump in the road, this progress more or less continued unabated until early 2014.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, Ukraine underwent a series of mass protests starting in November of 2013 that eventually ended with a five-day revolution that saw then president Viktor Yanukovych overthrown and a new pro-European Union government formed in Kiev. However, this victory was met with a series of much more violent counter-protests in East and South Ukraine, where the majority of the population was pro-Russian and refused to support the newly formed government in Kiev.
These counter-protests eventually turned into armed revolts in many areas, with pro-Russian militants and pro-government soldiers openly fighting one another. It wasn’t too long after this that Russia began sending unmarked troops and military equipment into Ukraine. These unmarked troops began to take control of key positions within the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Although Russian president Vladimir Putin initially denied that Russian troops were active in the area, he eventually admitted that this was untrue, shortly before Russia annexed Crimea.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea was met with universal condemnation from the nations of the West, with the United States going so far as to accuse Russia of orchestrating the unrest in Ukraine in the first place. The United States and its allies have applied economic sanctions on Russia as reprimand for the nation’s involvement, both admitted and alleged, in the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
This entire situation has served to eviscerate relations between Russia and the West, undoing much of the progress that has been made in the last 20 years. As a result of this, a frightening trend has emerged where the United States and Russia are starting to pull some old tricks from the Cold War playbook.
The latest such trick comes from Russia, which recently announced the revival of its Soviet-era “Nuke Train” concept. Known officially as the Combat Railway Missile Complex, it was actually banned under the previous Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II) treaty that the United States and Russia signed back in 1993. However, the Nuke Train wasn’t forbidden by the New START treaty that the two countries signed back in 2011.
The idea behind the Nuke Train is that it acts in much the same way that a ground-based nuclear ballistic missile submarine does, except that it’s less expensive to operate. These trains will be roaming the Russian countryside at any given and will be hidden among similar looking passenger and cargo trains. The hidden and constantly moving nature of the trains makes them exceedingly difficult to track by satellite and hard to target by foreign militaries.
Unlike the Soviet-era Nuke Train predecessors, the new trains, which bare the name Barguzin, will be designed in such a way that it’s virtually impossible to distinguish them from a commercial freight train. Each train will hold six RS-24s, each of which are capable of carrying four Multiple Independently Targeted Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs). To put that more simply, each train will be capable of carrying and launching two dozen intercontinental ballistics missiles armed with thermonuclear warheads.
While the RS-24 isn’t Russia’s most powerful ICBM, it makes up for that by being much faster and more accurate. With speeds of more than 20 times the speed of sound, the RS-24 is one of the fastest ICBMs in the world, which means it’s much harder for the intended target of one of these missiles to react in time to protect itself.
Russia’s renewed focus on strengthening its nuclear arsenal serves as a chilling reminder of just how bad things have become between Russia and the West. Considering the nation’s recent investments into long-range aviation and expanding its submarine and ground-based nuclear forces, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Russia truly believes it might need to use its nuclear deterrent power in the near future. This kind of Cold War thinking is frightening to say the least.