By Jonathan Power*
Last week on Tuesday (April 20), US Strategic Command, the part of the military responsible for nuclear weaponry and its use, posted an official Tweet that read, “We must account for the possibility of conflict leading to conditions which could very rapidly drive an adversary to consider nuclear use as their least bad option”.
This came just as Russia was pulling back its large deployment of troops on Ukraine’s border which, in turn, was triggered in part by President Joseph Biden’s decision to ship for the first time sophisticated weapons to Ukraine.
The crisis has now passed but the lesson lingers. Arguably we are closer to war with Russia than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 (which I wrote about last week, April 20).
It seems that the joint pledge made by Presidents Ronald Regan and Mikhail Gorbachev at their historic summit in Geneva in 1985, that there can be no nuclear war between them and that “no one can win a nuclear war”, is being undermined by both sides.
This rocky state of affairs was triggered by President George W. Bush who abrogated the important Anti-Missile Treaty made with the Soviet Union. Moscow felt the treaty gave both capitals protection against a nuclear attack.
This was followed by President Donald Trump abrogating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that forbad the deployment of missiles based in Europe. (The US side said that it was nullifying its signature because Russia was about to introduce a weapon that did not observe the requirements of the treaty— an assertion that Moscow refuted. Both sides should have gone to the UN to ask for arbitration.)
In November, last year, the US successfully launched a test of its new Aegis System, capable of intercepting a long-range nuclear ballistic missile. Washington has long told Moscow that it had no plans to introduce into Europe rockets that could strike Moscow’s own intercontinental-range rockets while in flight.
Previously, the Aegis had been advertised by the USA as being limited to aborting threats from short and intermediate-range missiles. But the Aegis, in a first strike, can make nonsense of Russia’s structure of deterrence. Once Aegis is deployed it is likely to have the consequence of ending further mutual cuts in nuclear weapons stocks.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has its famous Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight. It describes this as “the new abnormal”.
Apart from the uncertainties described above is the likelihood of nuclear war by accident. I described one incident during the Cuban Missile Crisis in last week’s column. There are a number of others, many of which I’ve investigated to see if they are true. You will find a long list on Google if you enter “accidental nuclear war”. In one case National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezinski was awakened in the middle of the night to be told that there was an incoming Russian nuclear attack. He told the military to check it out to be sure. The minutes passed by while Brzezinski wondered should he wake the president (Jimmy Carter).
At that moment the word came in that it was a false alert. Brzezinski mused afterwards that in those few minutes he wondered if should he wake his wife, but then he reasoned it was better if she slept if they were going to be blown to smithereens.
Former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has observed, “We survived the Cold War by the skin of our teeth, entirely by sheer, dumb, luck.” A former head of Strategic Command, General George Butler, who resigned after concluding the nuclear launch systems he presided over could not be morally justified, has made the same point.
Former senator Sam Nunn, who is widely considered one of the top experts on nuclear weapons, who led the effort at the end of the Cold War to dismantle Russian rockets, has said we are “sleepwalking into nuclear catastrophe”. Human beings do do this, witness the two world wars and the present crisis of climate change whose dangers we were warned about over 40 years ago.
Caitlin Johnstone has made the point in an article on the website of Russia Today that “people like to think that every nuclear-armed country has only one “button”, with which a president could consciously choose to start a nuclear war, after careful deliberation. But in fact there are thousands of people in the world controlling different parts of different arsenals who could independently initiate a nuclear war.
The arrogance of believing anyone can control such a conflict over years on end is astounding”. I think her “thousands” is perhaps an exaggeration. But certainly a few hundreds if you count in launch officers, rogue commanders (who thankfully, until now, have been identified almost at the last moment) and senior office holders in the chain of command.
The detonation of just 100 nuclear warheads would be sufficient to throw five teragrams of black soot into the earth’s stratosphere for decades, blocking out the sun, the consequences of which everyone knows.
On April 26, the respected Stockholm Institute for Peace Research reported that the US last year had increased it spending on modernizing its nuclear armoury. We know from President Vladimir Putin’s statements that Russia is doing the same. He has even threatened the West with a new hypersonic nuclear missile that Russian scientists are developing.
It seems to be only yesterday that the Americans were helping Russia remove its weapons-grade plutonium and dismantling its rockets based in Ukraine. That era has gone.
Where is the most likely flashpoint? Ukraine. Fortunately at the moment there is no other. Ukraine is the Poland of today. (I suggest those who would like to know about the parallels of the events in Ukraine with the start in Poland of the unnecessary World War 2 should read the work of Oxford University’s historian, A.J.P Taylor’s “The Origins of the Second World War”.)
In an article in the Washington Times last week, Edward Lozansky, president of the American University in Moscow and a seasoned Russia-watcher, says this is where World War Three could start. “The Kiev government is trying with its tail to “wag the dog” and draw America and Nato into their dangerous game. “Washington keeps accusing Russia of violating the Minsk accords when it is President Volodymyr Zelenskiy who openly declares that these accords are not acceptable in their current formulations”.
Have both Washington and Kiev forgotten that the Minsk accords had the imprimaturs of Germany, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and France? If the accords had been implemented, it would have diffused the Ukraine crisis.
We have gone from MAD to MADDER. (Mad is the acronym for Mutually Assured Destruction, a phrase beloved by the military.)
Relative to the stakes—the corrupt, badly run, repressive state of Ukraine—how could a sensible person consider nuclear war for the first time in 30 years? But some of the generals and would-be generals on both sides appear to believe it is a serious option.
* About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com