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Russia brandishes new superweapons as U.S. threatens to scrap nuclear treaty

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: the U.S.-Russia INF nuclear treaty's days seem numbered; poor sleep could be affecting your memory; resident-on-resident violence in Ontario long-term care homes has become a 'critical situation.'

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

This image from video footage made available by the Russian Defense Ministry shows an Avangard strategic missile system equipped with a gliding hypersonic maneuvering warhead being prepared for launch. (EPA-EFE)

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  • The Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty's days seem numbered, but the real danger from the end of the treaty probably has more to do with existing conventional weapons.
  • Resident-on-resident violence in Ontario long-term care homes has become what one expert calls a "critical situation."
  • Researchers are discovering some fascinating things about how important sleep is to the way our brains store memories and learn things.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

Russia's new 'super weapons'

The United States is demanding that Russia destroy its "illegal" new cruise missile system, saying that the next-gen weapons pose a "potent and direct threat" to Europe and Asia.

"Unfortunately, the United States increasingly finds that Russia cannot be trusted to comply with its arms control obligations, and that its coercive and malign actions around the globe have increased tensions," Robert Wood, the U.S. disarmament ambassador, told a UN-sponsored arms conference in Geneva this morning. "Russia must verifiably destroy all SSC-8 missiles, launchers and associated equipment in order to come back into compliance with the INF Treaty."

The tough talk is being paired with a continuing American threat to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a landmark 1987 deal struck by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that removed thousands of warheads from European soil.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan, right, and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty at the White House on Dec. 8, 1987. (Reuters)

Following a directive issued by President Donald Trump last fall, the United States will formally give notice of its intent to tear-up the agreement on Feb. 2, starting a six-month countdown to its expiration.

The Americans have been complaining about the SSC-8 for years, saying that the missiles can travel up to three times as far as the 500 kilometre range limit imposed by the treaty, something the Russians deny.

The latest attempts to salvage the deal broke down on Friday, when the U.S. rejected the Kremlin's offer of arms inspections.

And the Russians are now, in turn, also taking a hardline approach.

"We shall not yield to any ultimatums, like to liquidate or to eliminate [a] missile that doesn't fall within the range of the treaty prohibitions," Alexander Deyneko, a Russian disarmament representative, told Reuters this morning.

This undated file photo shows an Iskander-K missile launched during a military exercise near St. Petersburg, Russia. President Vladimir Putin has rejected the U.S. claim that Russia violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty by developing a new cruise missile, saying his country has other weapons that can do the job. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

The spat underlines an accelerating arms race between the Cold War rivals.

Last week, Russian media reported that the Kremlin is ready to deploy a new superweapon, the Poseidon drone-torpedo.

The nuclear-powered warhead delivery system ranks as the largest torpedo ever devised, at 2 metres in diameter and almost 20 metres in length.

First revealed as a "rumour" in 2015, and then confirmed by Vladimir Putin in a splashy presentation last winter, the Poseidon has been relentlessly hyped by the Russian media, with one outlet reporting last week that its detonation can create a "400- to 500-metre-high" tsunami, "capable of washing away all living things" up to 1,500 kilometres inland.

In reality, it seems to be neither as powerful, nor as fast, as claimed. But its two-megaton nuclear warhead would be more than sufficient to destroy an aircraft carrier or wipe out most of a coastal city.

And the Russians have already built a specially modified nuclear sub to carry and launch the behemoth, with two others now under construction, as they progress towards a short-term goal of having 32 super-torpedos deployed across the Atlantic and Pacific.

On Boxing Day, Putin oversaw a test of another superweapon system, a hypersonic missile that can supposedly travel at 20-times the speed of sound, evading all countermeasures. The Avangard, as it has been dubbed, was said to have successfully hit a target some 6,000 km away from its Far East launch site. Putin says that it will be deployed early next year.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, President Vladimir Putin, and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, centre, oversee the test launch of the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle from the Defense Ministry's control room in Moscow on Dec. 26, 2018. The Kremlin says it successfully hit a designated practice target in Kamchatka, 6,000 km away. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik via Associated Press)

There has also been a suggestion — via this November interview with a former commander of Russia's missile forces — that a Soviet-era "Dead Hand" launch system has been improved and put back in place. The program, which links computers and seismic sensors, is designed to ensure that nuclear missiles would be fired in retaliation even if a preemptive U.S. strike knocked out Russian commanders and communications.

But the real danger from the end of the INF treaty probably has more to do with existing conventional weapons.

The ban on all short- and medium-range missiles in Europe ended up handing the U.S. and NATO, which possess many air- and sea-launched cruise missiles — the kind of "smart" bombs that have rained down on Iraq, Syria and other locales — a significant strategic advantage. A gap that the Russians are keen to fill with their land-launched systems once the 500 km range limit is removed.

However, that doesn't mean that the two sides aren't doing their level best to bring dystopian sci-fi visions of the future into reality.

Today, the state-owned wire service TASS reports that certification tests for the Russian military's "first-ever passive exoskeleton" will be completed by the end of next year.

The bionic armour has already been tried out during mine-clearing operations in Syria.

And while it remains well-short of the Terminator-like end goal — weight and battery-power remain issues — the day likely isn't that far away when soldiers will be able to run faster and leap higher with mechanical help.

The prototype for an "Iron Man" suit for U.S. Special Forces is scheduled to be unveiled later this spring.

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'Critical situation'

Resident-on-resident violence in Ontario long-term care homes has become what one expert calls a "critical situation," reporter David Common writes.

It might seem that a homicide rate seven times higher than that of Ontario's largest cities would prompt immediate alarm and action. Especially since the deaths are happening in a place that is supposed to be safe for some of the most vulnerable.

At least 29 people have been killed by another resident inside long-term care homes over the past six years, according to the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.

Keith Wood is another whose case doesn't even appear in that statistic.

A naval veteran known for his fun adventures, staff found him on the floor of a hallway with a huge gash on his head on Nov. 2, 2016. A blood clot in his brain ensured he never regained consciousness before his death.

No one saw what happened. But a police investigation determined another elderly resident had attacked Keith.

The alleged aggressor was known for unpredictable behaviour and bouts of violence. He also had dementia, according to Keith Wood's wife Madeline, and needed to be monitored constantly by staff.

Keith and Madeline Wood. (Submitted)

Resident-on-resident violence in Ontario long-term care homes surged 105 per cent between 2011 and 2016. The province's coroner has repeatedly warned it is an urgent and persistent issue.

And yet, a new report from the Ontario Health Coalition says this increase is entirely predictable.

"There is a critical situation in long-term care," the group's executive director, Natalie Mehra, told us. "The acuity of residents is extremely high, the care levels are too low, and the violence levels have really just skyrocketed."

Mehra points out that the needs of residents have changed drastically. Seniors who arrive in care homes are older, more vulnerable — and more often have dementia, which itself can lead to confusion and aggression.

But staffing levels to monitor the unpredictable haven't kept pace.

In some homes, there is just a single staffer watching over 20 residents at night.

"It's a pretty simple equation," Mehra says. "If you don't have enough staff and you have residents who have dementia and have behaviours [where] they kick or they punch, they need support."

Madeline Wood does not blame the man accused in the death of her husband. She says the provincial government should do more to ensure the homes are safe for all residents.

- David Common

Not sleeping? It could be affecting your memory

Researchers are discovering some fascinating things about how important sleep is to the way our brains store memories and learn things, reporter Duncan McCue writes.

With wires sprouting from my scalp, chest and legs, I felt more like Frankenstein than Sleeping Beauty.

But that's how my journey into the world of sleep began, as a lab rat for a new study that's uncovering connections between sleep and memory.

The research is being conducted by Stuart Fogel, director of Sleep Neuroscience at the Royal Ottawa Institute for Mental Health Research.

"It's hard to communicate the benefit that you can get from sleep, and the importance of sleep, when so many other things seem to be of greater importance in our daily lives," Fogel says.

He is particularly interested in how sleep deprivation may contribute to a condition that's on the rise in Western societies: dementia.

Duncan McCue has his brain waves documented as part of a study on sleep and memory. He slept overnight at the Royal Ottawa Institute for Mental Health Research. (Diane Grant/CBC)

I recently got a front-row seat into his work. It involved a massive MRI scanner, a befuddling finger-tapping exercise and my favourite red pajamas.

And I left with a better appreciation of how critical a good night's sleep is to how we learn — particularly when we tackle new motor skills, such as playing a musical instrument or taking a slapshot.

"Our lives are being filled with more and more information, more and more activities," Fogel says.

"We really need less and less of that, in order to not compete with our time to get the sleep that we need."

- Duncan McCue

  • WATCH: Duncan McCue's story about sleep and memory tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

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Today in history

Jan. 21, 1964: Shirley Giles, first woman bank manager in Canada

Shirley Giles had worked for the Bank of Nova Scotia for 18 years when they made her Canada's first female branch manager. Two years on, she tells Take 30 that most people still don't seem ready to believe it. "It doesn't really sink in," she says. "They're quite surprised. They don't think I look like one." Interviewer Anna Cameron tries her best to soften the blow to the male psyche by noting that Giles' husband works at the bank's head office. "So he is your boss … you are responsible to him," she says. "Oh, that's a relief to any husband who is listening."

Shirley Giles, two years into her job as branch manager of a Canadian bank

Digital Archives

2 years ago
When Take 30 caught up with one of Canada's first bank managers in 1964, she was still fielding questions about how a woman would handle such a job. 2:03

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Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.