The fate of yet another key nuclear agreement between the United States and Russia is still in Limbo. As Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford stated in late September, Washington did not decide yet whether it going to renew the New START treaty. If this agreement, like the INF treaty earlier this year, comes to a halt, the nuclear weapons of Russia and the USA will be unregulated for the first time in many years.


Documentary filmmaker and public diplomacy expert Cynthia Lazaroff spoke to News.ru about raising nuclear tensions and uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear weapons. During one of the worst periods of the Cold War, she pioneered the Russian-American Youth Exchange. Today she encourages people to wake up to nuclear danger.

— What are the differences between the cold war era and what US-Russian relations are going through now?

— I think the most important difference is that during the Cold War, the Soviet and American people — and our leaders — lived with an omnipresent awareness of the existential threat of nuclear war. The nuclear shadow was palpable, always hanging over us. We felt and feared the consequences of an all-out nuclear war, that everyone and everything we know and love and care about would be blasted, obliterated, vaporized, gone.

This shared understanding of the nuclear stakes led our governments to maintain a constant dialogue on arms control and nuclear issues, a safe space insulated from our very deep ideological differences. This dialogue made it possible for our governments to come together, realize our shared interests and negotiate the INF Treaty, a centerpiece for arms control and strategic stability that eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons, reduced the risk of a nuclear exchange in Europe, brought an end to the Cold War and opened the pathway for other groundbreaking arms control agreements like START I, resulting in the largest reductions in US and Soviet/Russian nuclear arsenals in history.

Oliver Gerhard/imageBROKER.com/Global Look Press

When the Berlin Wall came down, I thought the Cold War was forever over and like so many, I thought I could stop worrying about nuclear war. But I was reawakened to the rising nuclear risk while filming interviews with top experts in the US and Russia for the recently released Carnegie-supported documentary, US-Russia Relations: The Quest for Stability These experts sound the alarm that this is our planet’s most dangerous time, that nuclear dangers today are escalating, that the risk of a nuclear exchange due to bluster, accident or miscalculation is greater than at any time in history — even during the peak crisis moments of the Cold War. As former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said in my interview with him for the documentary, «If a confrontation breaks out, we will kill everyone and we will destroy the planet.» And as my dear friend Hawaii artist Makana sings in Mourning Armageddon, a music video I filmed in Moscow Nuclear Bunker 703 last year while he was on a goodwill ambassador concert tour, «We are in bed with annihilation.»

So I think that the most important difference in US-Russian relations today is that unlike during the Cold War, as former US Secretary of Defense William J. Perry says, most of us are «blissfully unaware» of the nuclear danger. And if we are unaware of the danger, how can we be motivated to act, to do something about it?

— Does the apparent unwillingness of Moscow and Washington to renew the INF and the New START treaties signal that the USA and Russia have changed their attitude toward nuclear war? Has it become more likely today?

With the recent collapse of the INF Treaty and the expiration of New START on the horizon, we are entering an unimaginably deadly new arms race with Russia, and fueling a new one with China. This is leading to a nuclear Wild West free-for-all of unprecedented danger.

Today there is talk on both sides of lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review calls for expanding the use of nuclear weapons — specifically «low-yield» nukes — in response to cyberattacks and other non-nuclear attacks. The Russian side for some time, in the view of many in the US, threatened to use «small nukes» in Europe in an «escalate to de-escalate» strategy. A nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon, no matter the size. If we start launching nuclear weapons — even «small ones» — it will likely be impossible to contain, and the risk of escalation into a full-scale nuclear war is unacceptably high.

One of the reasons the INF Treaty collapsed is because the US and Russia have not had a genuine nuclear dialogue for many years now. Without ongoing talks, we will not be able to fix INF, extend New START, or make progress on reducing a host of other nuclear dangers. Sig Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, who worked for 25 years with Russian nuclear experts to secure the former Soviet Union’s vast stockpile of fissile materials, said in my interview with him that «nuclear cooperation is being held hostage to the political differences between Washington and Moscow and that could indeed doom us in some fashion...» Indeed, today, the US and Russia fail to maintain a dialogue on nuclear security at our own — and humanity’s peril.

Former US Defense Secretary Perry told me in an interview, «Because we don't understand the dangers, we do not attempt, no serious attempt, to repair the hostility between the United States and Russia. And so we are allowing ourselves to sleepwalk into another catastrophe. We must wake up.»

Former California Governor Jerry Brown says that the US and Russia must hold open a «channel of nuclear dialogue.» As the two countries that possess 92% of the world’s nuclear weapons, Russia and the USA have a responsibility to lead, to talk with one another and all nuclear powers to reduce the nuclear risk and move towards the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization/flickr.com

— What are, in your view, the causes of the current crisis in US-Russian relations? When did all that begin?

— When the Cold War ended, there was a window of opportunity to irreversibly transform the adversarial relationship that existed between the US and USSR, to rebuild trust, to establish a collective security agreement as proposed by Gorbachev in his speech to the UN in 1988, and to continue to move towards the vision espoused by the former Soviet leader and US President Ronald Reagan, «to eliminate nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth.» Instead, what we saw during the first Bush administration was a return to the deep, old patterns of fear, mistrust, and the resulting policy of putting US-Russia relations on a «pause,» a major setback for relations.

Then we saw during the Clinton administration the expansion of NATO — the single-most-important factor that set off the negative and dangerous action-reaction cycle in the relationship that continues to this day. As former Ambassador Jack Matlock has stated, «...the subsequent expansion of NATO by the Clinton Administration was an error of the first magnitude...it militated against bringing Russia into the European security community, which should have been a strategic goal of our countries in the 1990s.»

We need to develop the capacity to put ourselves in the other country’s shoes, come together once again to realize our shared interests to prevent a nuclear war, remember the words of President John F. Kennedy, «...our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s futures and we are all mortal.»

— Please briefly describe your peace initiatives related to the 1980s. How did they help to ease tensions between our nations?

— In 1978, as an exchange student at Leningrad State University, I fell in love with the Russian people, language, literature and culture, and then even more so with the children while teaching at Moscow School #45 in 1980. Nuclear tensions were extremely high in the early 80s, and I felt compelled to try to do something about the insane disconnect between my experience with the Russian people and the thousands of nuclear weapons our two countries had pointed at each other.

This led me to start the first US-USSR Youth Exchange Program, where we launched an international campaign to break down enemy stereotypes. I brought hundreds of Americans to Russia on people-to-people tours and created the innovative curriculum, Step One: Getting to Know the USSR and Its People. My goal was to build as many bridges as possible, among people of all ages and from all walks of life. I set up exchanges in art, literature, theatre, education, film, sports, wilderness adventures, urban leadership and environmental service. To encourage and inspire others to get involved in citizen diplomacy, I aimed to create powerful demonstrations of our ability to cooperate, like the model of surviving together in the wilderness during the historic first joint ascent of Mount Elbrus, (18,481 feet), by Soviet and American youth whom I co-led to the summit. We made an award-winning documentary film about the climb that premiered on national television on the eve of the first Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in November 1985, touching people across the US, USSR and around the world.

— What are your initiatives of today?

— I had just been reawakened to the nuclear danger while interviewing the experts for the film when life brought me the experience of the nuclear false alarm in Hawaii where I live with my family. On January 13, 2018, I was one of over a million people whose cell phone lit up with this message: BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. I spent 38 cell-splitting minutes, thinking that the world was about to end. It was a terrifying, unforgettable gut-punch that led me to start the nonprofit, NuclearWakeUpCall.Earth.

World History Archive/Global Look Press

Our mission is to wake people up to the enormous nuclear risk today and realize our shared interest in US-Russian relations to reduce the escalating nuclear danger. Through collaborative community engagement, education, film, meditation, indigenous wisdom, music and cultural exchange, we are encouraging the peoples of the USA and Russia — the countries with 92% of the world’s nuclear weapons — to act now to compel our leaders to take concrete steps that will immediately reduce the nuclear risk and at the same time work with all countries towards a world without nuclear weapons.

— In the 1980s the people of the Soviet Union, thanks to the «Iron Curtain,» knew little about Americans, so people-to-people diplomacy did work to reduce the nuclear threat. However, today Russian people have no obstacles to exploring life in other countries. Why do you think we still need such initiatives?

— There is a famous Chilean song, «El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!» that was the inspiration for the popular American composition, «The People United Will Never Be Defeated.» The nuclear threat has not gone away. Just as in the 1980s, the Russian and American people have a common enemy — the threat of nuclear annihilation. If we are to survive our planet’s most dangerous time, it is up to the people of our two countries to come together to end the nuclear threat and focus on what unites us — like the existential threat of climate change and building a safe and secure future for our children and all future generations — instead of on what divides us.

— The USA and Russia continue developing and testing new types of nuclear weapons, breaking treaties, and raising tensions. I think the Russian and American people oppose nuclear war, but what can citizens do if all decisions are made by the governments?

— In 1985, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, co-founded by Soviet cardiologist Dr Evgeny Chazov and the American cardiologist, Dr Bernard Lown. After receiving the Nobel, Dr. Lown said, «Politicians need to be compelled by people whose lives are in jeopardy.» Our lives are in jeopardy today. Inspired by recommendations put forth by former and current officials, arms control and security experts in the US and Russia, and many others, we have put together The Nuclear Playbook ten steps to immediately reduce the risk of a nuclear catastrophe. Just like in the 1980s, it is up to the people in Russia and the US to compel our governments to adopt the ten steps of The Nuclear Playbook and act now to reduce the threat of nuclear war. If we don’t do it, who will