Article originally appeared in Columbia Tribune

At the conclusion of their April 2008 summit, Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin agreed the Cold War was over and that another Cuban missile crisis would be “unthinkable.” Standing nearby were U.S. and Russian military officers, each holding a briefcase from which their respective president could quickly transmit a launch order that, in about three minutes, would cause hundreds of ballistic missiles armed with thousands of nuclear warheads to begin their 30-minute flights toward Russia or the United States.

Regardless of public expressions of friendship, the United States and Russia continue to operate under policies that assume each could authorize a nuclear attack against the other. The failure to end their Cold War nuclear confrontation causes both nations together to maintain a total of at least 2,600 strategic nuclear warheads on high-alert, launch-ready status, whose primary missions remain the destruction of the opposing side’s nuclear forces, industrial infrastructure and civilian/military leaders.

Most Americans don’t know these weapons exist. They have no idea a single strategic nuclear warhead, when detonated over a city or industrial area, could ignite an enormous firestorm over a total area of 40 to 65 square miles. The vast nuclear arsenals have effectively been hidden from public view and removed from public knowledge, thus making it easy for smiling U.S. and Russian presidents to proclaim “peace in our time.”

Another Cuban missile crisis might be “unthinkable,” but the continued U.S.-Russian nuclear confrontation means it certainly isn’t impossible. Presidential assurances to the contrary, the relations between Washington and Moscow are worse than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union. And nuclear weapons remain at the heart of U.S.-Russian political disagreements.

Eleven months before the April 2008 summit, Putin revealed Russian tests of a new ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads were a response to the planned deployment of a new U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe. Bush said the U.S. system is designed to intercept Iranian missiles aimed at America. Russia argues Iran has no long-range missiles and is not soon likely to have them – and even if it did have them, the sites for the proposed U.S. radar and interceptors are hundreds of miles north of where they should ideally be located.

The U.S. system, however, would be in an ideal spot to track European-based Russian nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. X-band radar in the Czech Republic and missile interceptors in Poland are to be located between 800 and 1,000 miles from Moscow. If the situation were reversed, it would be the geographical equivalent of putting Russian missiles on the northern edge of Lake Superior. Russia views the proposed U.S. system as a direct threat to its strategic nuclear weapons and warns it will target its missiles at the Czech and Polish sites where the system is to be based.

Russian arguments are supported by two respected U.S. physicists, George Lewis and Theodore Postol. They say the U.S. missile defense system would be able to track and engage almost every Russian missile launched toward the United States from Russian sites west of the Urals. The physicists said the only obvious reason for choosing Eastern Europe for a missile defense site is to place U.S. interceptor missiles close to Russia, making it possible for the European-based radar and interceptors to be added as a layer against Russia to the already developing U.S. continental missile defense.

Russia is also deeply threatened by constant efforts to expand NATO and encircle Russia with U.S. military bases. Despite vehement Russian objections, Bush continues to insist the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia be allowed to join NATO. Should this happen, NATO military forces will be positioned on the borders of Russia. If Ukraine joins NATO and accepts the deployment of U.S. anti-missile defenses on its territory, Russia has threatened to target it with nuclear warheads.

NATO, which began as an anti-Soviet alliance, is locked in a Cold War mentality that regards Russia as the enemy and keeps nuclear weapons as a primary military option. Four hundred eighty U.S. nuclear bombs (a force larger than the entire deployed nuclear arsenals of France, the United Kingdom, China or Israel) are stored at eight European NATO bases. These forward-based U.S. weapons are intended for use, in accordance with NATO nuclear strike plans, against targets in the Middle East or Russia.

The Cold War will not really end until the United States and Russia stand down their high-alert, launch-ready nuclear arsenals and finally cease their nuclear confrontation. This surely will not happen as long as the United States continues to push for NATO expansion while ignoring Russian concerns about its proposed European missile defense system.

Steven Starr is an independent writer who has been published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies. He recently retired from the medical profession to work as an educator and consultant on nuclear weapons issues.