In Michael Romm’s film Nine Days of One Year, a physicist who was exposed to radiation says to his father, “If we hadn’t created it, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. And half of mankind wouldn’t be here, either.” The word “it” is referring to the bomb.

This statement contains a simple, down-to-earth explanation of nuclear deterrence, which an ordinary Soviet citizen would have easily understood, especially in 1962—the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which strangely coincided with the year the film was released. They have a bomb, and so do we. We are balancing each other out. They are modernizing their weapons, and so are we. There is nuclear parity, and everyone understands that the first strike will lead to mutually assured destruction, which deters the superpowers and mankind from nuclear war.

Andrei Kolesnikov
Kolesnikov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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In the years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, nuclear weapons were being reduced, and, at least in theory, the nonproliferation regime was upheld (although according to Alexei Arbatov’s estimates, the stockpiles of weapons are large enough to replicate 30,000 to 40,000 Hiroshima explosions). What is most important, nuclear war stopped being the main fear and was almost forgotten. But here comes Vladimir Putin in the new documentary Crimea. The Way Home with his statement that the Russian leadership was ready to use nuclear forces in the days of the Crimean annexation.

So first, it was Nikita Khrushchev in 1962 with the threat of nuclear war over Cuba, and now Vladimir Putin is ready to do the same over Crimea. Incidentally, the Russian president repeatedly called Crimea the source of unique Russian “spirituality” (no one knows where he got it from, but this is not at issue now). But for Khrushchev, Cuba was also a source of genuine and pristine revolutionary “spirituality,” which had been lost by the Soviet Union.

Then, we heard from the people... In a poll conducted by the Moscow Speaks FM radio station, 62 percent of the listeners said they would be ready to use nuclear weapons for the sake of Crimea; the other 38 percent were not. Of course, we have to bear in mind that the station’s listening audience supports the regime, and those ready to participate in such polls belong to a specific and rather aggressive segment of the general population. Nevertheless, these numbers are representative of a certain mental shift among the country’s citizens, their lack of fear and responsibility.

And what else can they get into their heads when the commander-in-chief himself is demonstratively flexing his nuclear muscle?

The Russian leadership actually continues doing it. Three days after the movie was shown on national television, the North Sea naval strategic forces confirmed their combat readiness, and ten strategic Tu-22 bombers were redeployed to Crimea—an ironic twist of fate if one considers that Ukraine allegedly got to keep Crimea in exchange for the country’s nuclear-free status.

Of course, one can say that Putin is mostly speaking to the domestic audience, thus giving the people an extra shot of the “superpower steroid” that sustains his charisma. Such pronouncements are aimed at those who experience geopolitical orgasm after an earful of salacious military rhetoric.

But whether wittingly or not quite, the old threat of the nuclear war is back with this statement. Turning America into the heap of “radioactive ashes” is no longer a metaphor of a narcissistic TV show host. Apparently, nuclear deterrence doesn’t work that well after all under Putin.

This article originally appeared in Russian in The New Times.