Key point: Russia is acting out of fear that a U.S. first-strike that would decapitate the Russian leadership before it could give the order to retaliate.
Russia has a knack for developing weapons that—at least on paper—are terrifying: nuclear-powered cruise missiles, robot subs with 100-megaton warheads.
Perhaps the most terrifying was a Cold War doomsday system that would automatically launch missiles—without the need for a human to push the button—during a nuclear attack.
But the system, known as "Perimeter" or “Dead Hand,” may be back and deadlier than ever.
This comes after the Trump administration announced that the United States is withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated the once-massive American and Russian stockpiles of short- and medium-range missiles. Donald Trump alleges that Russia has violated the treaty by developing and deploying new, prohibited cruise missiles.
This has left Moscow furious and fearful that America will once again, as it did during the Cold War, deploy nuclear missiles in Europe. Because of geographic fate, Russia needs ICBMs launched from Russian soil, or launched from submarines, to strike the continental United States. But shorter-range U.S. missiles based in, say, Germany or Poland could reach the Russian heartland.
Viktor Yesin, who commanded Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces in the 1990s, spoke of Perimeter/Dead Hand during an interview last month in the Russian newspaper Zvezda [Google English translation here]. Yesin said that if the United States starts deploying intermediate-range missiles in Europe, Russia will consider adopting a doctrine of a preemptive nuclear strike. But he also added this:
Zvezda: "Will we have time to answer if the flight time is reduced to two to three minutes when deploying medium-range missiles near our borders? In this version, all hope is only on Perimeter. And for a retaliatory strike. Or was Perimeter also disassembled for parts?