Now 88 years old, former Premier of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Mikhail Gorbachev recently spoke to Europe’s Agence France-Presse (AFP) warning that in his view the world remains in colossal danger from nuclear weapons. On the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the man who I remember maneuvering boldly with U.S. President Ronald Reagan to alter the course of the Cold War said that today, “The atmosphere is all wrong.”

Pres Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev

Gorbachev, now a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, worries that the resurgence of nuclear weapons delivery systems development by both the United States and Russia to replace and upgrade their aging inventories perpetuates an existential threat to planet earth that he had hope would be gone. Instead he sees the Putin’s Russia replacing its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) inventories with new, more capable missiles such as the RS-28 Sarmat. Equally worrisome, Russia is fielding new intermediate range weapons systems designed to threaten nearer regions, most notably the countries of the European Union. Symmetrically, the United States moves forward with its B-21 bomber and the development of hypersonic weapons in order to keep the Mutual Assured Destruction mathematics at proper parity.

Mr. Gorbachev calls for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. While I too wish this was possible, the reality is that it’s not and won’t be for a long time.

That means ensuring that the nuclear genie doesn’t explode must rely on making sure that any beginning stages of conventional and political conflict remain benign and negotiable to lower tension outcomes rather than stepping stones to escalation.

As a US global stability analyst, I understand Mr. Gorbachev’s concern; not so much that President Putin would start a war, but more that a time might come that he won’t be able to stop one from snowballing. 

Mr. Gorbachev does have a basis too because the Russian Federation is based on a very weak economic base with only a $1.3 Trillion GDP and most of the districts within the country are financially bankrupt. It’s a socio-political system held together by a network of oligarchs. It’s a situation that could, given unfortunate developments, devolve into a landscape of warlords. Gorbachev knows this all too well; after all, many in his country blame him for letting the Soviet Union collapse into the Confederation of Independent States at the end of the Cold War.

I would posit that the most dangerous place where a nuclear mistake could be made would be in the battle of wills between The European Union and the Russian Federation. The feelings run very strong on both sides.

There is little spirit of detente in the atmosphere. Instead the very old and very dangerous European habits of saber rattling and pursuing minuet wars to change borders is re-emerging. Some of it is happening by actual border conflict as in the Ukraine. Other forms of minuet border realignment manifest as phenomenon like Brexit or Catalan. The saber rattling is Putin relying on theater nuclear weapons to message Brussels to stay away from Ukraine and the west responding by sending aid to thwart the Russian’s ambitions, something we Americans are now getting a closer look at how complicit we’ve been in taking a side in that argument.

The existential danger in the European Theater is that it will turn into a cascading failure mode scenario and the European continent may have to suffer the equivalent destruction of a Hundred Years War in order to once again remember that it’s a very bad idea to push each other around. Old habits die hard.

Quite honestly, we Americans missed our chance to make things better thirty years ago when the Berlin Wall came down. We should have put together a latter-day Marshall Plan and helped Boris Yeltsin build and stock supermarkets throughout the CIS as the peace dividend of the end of the Cold War. It’d be a very different Eurasian landscape today. An atmosphere probably much more to Mr. Gorbachev’s liking. The British would probably still be trying to Brexit the Continent though. Old habits die hard.

Getting better atmosphere in Eurasia proper has a critical path. That path is that it will take both the Europeans and the Russians getting off their high horses and trying something other than saber rattling and head butting.

While I don’t believe that is going to happened anytime soon, I also don’t believe either side wants things to turn into World War III, or at least European Theater of War Three. So, these nukes are just for show like they’ve always been. If that’s the present best alternative to a negotiated agreement to create a pathway to a lower tension outcome, so be it. That European excitability though. Old habits die hard.

We Americans could yet get another chance at helping improve the atmosphere. Our present efforts in the Middle East to transform the basis of stability from one that is mandate imposition based to one using a layers of influence power diffusion model may offer some ideas about how to better reduce tensions and enmities that go back centuries. The innovations being tried by President Donald Trump’s administration, while disconcerting to old guard traditionalists to the point that some like John Brennan feel compelled to risk it all to “resist” change, are creating an atmosphere where untried paths to global stability are finally getting their day in the sun. Maybe some habits can change after all.

Maybe an 88-year old veteran of the Cold War might yet find the peace he hoped for. As someone who was just a young cog in the machine doing my part that day in Reykjavik when that snowball changed course, I hope he does.

Mr. Gorbachev, thank you for tearing down that wall.