Sadakat Kadri | Outside the silo LRB October 8, 2021
The nuclear weapons launch site in San Cristobal that triggered the Cuban Missile Crisis was modeled on that of Plokštinė in Lithuania, which opened on New Year’s Eve 1961. The disused facility is no longer top secret – it’s now a museum – but it’s still out of the way. Overlooked by dense pine forests, the silos yawn with ominous promise, like wishing wells. Each of the SS-4 rockets that could have roared from them had more than half the firepower used throughout WWII, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A single warhead could have flattened London within ten minutes of takeoff.
The Soviet mission in Cuba began surreptitiously. The soldiers were ordered to take fur coats and snow boots, and the clues of their true destination did not arrive until Sevastopol – where, boarding disguised cargo ships, the men were given tropical costumes, plaid shirts and sun hats. But the overall strategy was less careful. In response to Washington’s deployment of fifteen nuclear missiles in Turkey, Khrushchev suggested it was time to “stick a hedgehog in Uncle Sam’s pants.”
The Cold War has ended, but hopes of panicking an adversary for political advantage are far from obsolete. The Kremlin recently organized military maneuvers with Belarus – the largest in Europe for forty years, though RRussian Defense Ministry figures are to be believed – which were clearly intended to alarm both Lithuania and Poland. Some 200,000 soldiers, assisted by robot tanks and swarms of drones, spent a week in mid-September repelling an imaginary invasion of three adjacent states. The supposedly fictitious neighbors have been designated “Western” for the purposes of the exercise. Neither the European Union nor the United States sent official observers, and their studied indifference annoyed the ruler of Belarus: Alexander Lukashenko sentenced the failure of the West to witness war games as spectacular as “small-minded” and “mad”.
It is not only in Moscow and Minsk that the spirit of the abyss persists. Boris Johnson’s recent decision to counteract Beijing’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region has only sparked greater Chinese animosity. Anything else that might one day produce is a high stakes bet. As for the United States, if its failed adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have clearly demonstrated the limits of shock and fear in times of war, its expenses alone are formidable: the US defense budget in 2020 was double that of Russia, China and the UK combined.
As I left Plokštinė, silvery clouds drifted across a cobalt sky and windsurfers drifted onto a nearby lake. The base was once a candidate for a pre-emptive NATO nuclear strike (in 1974 there were 25,000 such targets), and if the red buttons had been pressed, the lake would have vaporized. The sandy forest floor for miles around would have melted into glass.
The worst-case scenario could still happen today. Chances can be bigger than ever. The world’s nuclear arsenals have shrunk since their peak in 1986, but the number of nuclear states has risen to nine and they collectively own more than 13,000 atomic weapons. Almost sixty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, it took nothing more to trigger the first explosion: just a little hedgehog, out of control.