The expiration of nuclear treaties between the U.S. and Russia mean that conventional wars bring a risk of nuclear weapons use.
“No government could be that stupid.”
“Boy, you really don’t know the United States.”
Excerpt from an exchange between Soviet diplomat Georgy Korniyenko and US diplomat Ralph Earle II, both of whom respectively held their government’s nuclear arms control portfolios for purposes of détente, sometime between the end of December 1979 and January 1980.
Beginning around February 23rd or 24th of this year polemics began to proliferate concerning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The date is significant because the 2022 Russian military action actually began on February 21st but most of the world outside of the Caucuses and “intelligence communities” were asleep at the wheel for the first 48 hours or so. Nevertheless once things started to heat up predictably media personalities, educators, propagandists, military brass, spooks, “influencers,” in short the commentariat of all political tendencies began to pump out a raft of analyses and opinion pieces on this dramatic geo-political eventuality.
These generally fell into four camps. The first camp which is still the dominant narrative in the United States and Western Europe revolves around characterizing the “special military operation” as an unprovoked aggression by a beastly Russia with Putin at the helm. The key features of this narrative are unalloyed support of the Ukrainian nationalist project, uncritical condemnation of the Russian government position, an ethnocentric hyper-sympathy for the victims/refugees of the conflict in contradistinction to survivors and refugees from browner parts of the world, and a dedicated ahistoristoricity.
The second camp, Putin’s, claims that the “special military operation” is an honorable cause in order to protect Russia’s vital interests. These declared interests have shifted regularly since the end of February but appear to include preventing genocide in the Donbas, “denazifying” Ukraine, disallowing NATO to further encircle Russia through the oft debated ascension of Ukraine into the alliance, and the consolidation of “Novorossiya.”
The third camp, largely populated by the global left, drills down on the prime responsibility of the US/EU/NATO axis of domination and their role in the creation of this catastrophe. While very much grounded in the geo-political pre-history of the conflict, this tendency tends to stumble on finding an adequate response to Russian atrocities committed during the course of its campaign. The fourth camp takes a morbid and somewhat alienated look at particular front-lines searching for war crimes that presumably would be heard by the ICC or some other international tribunal. This camp is the most easily dismissed as it is just intellectually dishonest. It elides the fact that war crimes are committed all the time against people in conflicts all over the world, that often the greatest purveyor of these (to paraphrase Dr. King) is the United States of America or their allies, and that they never get forwarded to these self-same global bodies for adjudication which is of course coincidental with the fact that the US, Russia, and Ukraine are not parties to the Rome Statute.
Beyond this the fact remains that the primary war crime will always be war itself or in other words expecting a modern war without war crimes is as absurd as asking for an ocean without water. Because the interplay between these various positions has taken center stage in most analyses of the current war in Ukraine, I will dispense with them by simply suggesting that people check out these resources for a good primer on the key issues.
For myself I believe that, especially for the left, these ideological skirmishes miss the most important aspect of the conflict and this is the possibility of nuclear conflagration.
MY “BOMB” IS BIGGER THAN YOURS
When looking at the nuclear question we need to first separate assumed threat from actual threat. For example, an American Psychological Association study conducted between February and March of this year concluded that 69% of adults in the US were worried about nuclear attack resulting from the war in Ukraine. But how did people envision this occurring? It appears that much of the anxiety is derived from a speech made by President Putin on Feb. 24th, where he stated:
“No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.”
This has been widely interpreted as a nuclear threat and used as fodder for the “Mad Dog Putin” theory of the war (see camp 1 above.) What most people missed was the fact that two days earlier US Deputy National Security Advisor Daleep Singh stated in response to a question regarding what it's going to take to target Putin directly, "I’m not going to telegraph exactly what it would take and under what circumstances that would occur. But no option is off the table, as the President said." This echoed a statement that was previously made by Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried in November of 2021 when she stated to the press, "As you can appreciate, all options are on the table and there's a toolkit that includes a whole range of options.” The phrase "all options are on the table" in modern US government parlance is a White House code that dates back twenty years to former president George W. Bush and indicates a willingness to use nuclear weapons. We saw the term of art reappear this week when the U.K.’s Armed Forces Minister James Heappey said “All possible options are on the table” if there’s evidence Russia is using chemical weapons in its war on Ukraine. Thus it is the US and its NATO compatriots that not only were first out the gate threatening nuclear war but who have also employed the threat more frequently.
Without understanding this history it is impossible to appropriately contextualize statements like those of former Russian President Medvedev this week when he stated that nuclear weapons would be stationed in the Baltics if Sweden and Finland joined NATO. For other ominous indicators, on Feb. 15th four B-52 strategic (read nuclear) bombers were deployed to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam from their home base in Louisiana allegedly for training purposes. Likely this was a not so subtle nuclear threat to China to temper its support for the Russian Federation. This said, as much nuclear sabre-rattling as has been going on, it is still highly unlikely that any nuclear war will occur because of orders from the summits of either the US or Russian governments. The true threat is much more banal.
Most people are blissfully unaware of just how many times the US or Russia have almost accidentally nuked the world. Since 1942 there have been nearly seventy-five military nuclear accidents (that we know of,) the majority of which resulted from US activity with Russia following close behind. This includes eighteen nuclear jet crashes and excludes any non-military nuclear power plant meltdowns. On this last point we can soberly recognize that Chernobyl is in Ukraine as one of fifteen such facilities including the recently besieged Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, the largest in Europe. A meltdown at any of these facilities would be a catastrophe of global proportions. But wait there’s more! We haven’t gotten to the “close calls.” Nuclear war has almost been instigated multiple times over the course of the last six decades. A partial list of causes includes power outages, computer error, communications failure, the moonrise, the aurora borealis, and solar flares being mistaken for nuclear launches, a wedge of swans, a lost bear, a drunk President Nixon, a psychotic Israeli Prime Minister engaging in nuclear extortion, and good old fashioned US Navy boys thinking that dropping “practice” depth charges on a Soviet submarine was a bright idea! It is actually truly miraculous that the last few generations have had an Earth to be born to. This leads to the key point which is that automation and delegation are the two largest nuclear menaces.
As much propaganda as has been flying around recently about Putin and Biden’s respective nuclear intentions the fact remains that less than five of the previously mentioned crises occurred during active war, only two involved orders from a head of state (drunk Nixon and extortionist Golda Meier,) and none occurred during a hot war between the West and the Soviet Union/Russia. What we have to fear much more than belligerent Presidents is that if, in the “fog of war,” communication broke down nuclear launches could occur without their explicit orders. Of particular concern is the fact that for decades it has been accepted doctrine that “decapitation,” i.e. the non-consensual removal of a head of state, would automatically trigger nuclear war! From this vantage point Biden’s calls for regime change in Russia are nothing short of crazy!
NO MORE GUARDRAILS
Despite decades of arms control successes, the nominal end of the Cold War, and a “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons'' which entered into force in international law last January, there have been massive setbacks in nuclear arms control during the last twenty years largely as a result of Republican presidencies. George W. Bush unilaterally pulled the US out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty (a cornerstone of nuclear arms control since the 1970s) in 2001 and then Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty in 2018 and the Open Skies Treaty in 2020. These moves encouraged a new arms race between the US and Russia that has recently heated up especially in the areas of “tactical nukes” and hypersonic weapons. Tactical or “low-yield” nukes is one of the stupidest concepts humanity ever invented. The argument essentially goes that since modern “strategic” nuclear weapons can deliver a yield more than one hundred times greater than was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those little ones aren’t so bad! What makes this so dangerous is that such “logic” enables the nuclear powers to hypothesize using munitions as powerful as the bombs dropped on Japan for standard warfare and to categorize them as something other than the nearly universally abhored world killers that they refer to as “strategic weapons.” This ease of use presents a hazard for humanity that is difficult to overstate.
SO WHITHER THE LEFT?
I agree with the premise that NATO abolition is an appropriate call but more for pragmatic reasons than ideological. As abhorrent as NATO’s historical actions have been (consider Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, or the Balkans for starters,) the more salient point is that politically we may be able to bend or break US/EU/NATO posture with our work whereas the notion that we would move Putin’s needle one inch seems fantastical. That being said, even if there is some traction on the anti-NATO front, the fact remains that ironically this NATO inspired war has made the alliance more popular than ever calling into question the tactical timing of an anti-NATO campaign. Extrapolating from the current status-quo there presumably would be at least another decade of belligerence prior to the final dismantling of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and this is being optimistic.
There is also another reason to be circumspect. Unless we accept the premise that all reporting of atrocities committed by Russian forces is “fake news,” then we must contend with the fact that people will look to the left for a position in defense of the victims of aggression. This neither requires softening the anti-NATO position nor false equivalency between US/EU/NATO and Russian crimes, but it does require dismissing the assertion that an extremely violent trans-national invasion is somehow self-defense. Forward defense or pre-emptive strikes has always been the language of fascists (see Baby Bush’s Iraq war for the classic example,) and it always claims innocent lives. When we are seen as not acknowledging this hard reality we surrender critical ground. If a clarion call for peace is transmuted from its position as a radical act of love into easily dismissible liberal jargon, the world becomes a much more dangerous place.
Finally we must acknowledge that the two greatest threats to humanity’s continued existence are nuclear war and climate catastrophe. If approximately two percent of the combined nuclear warheads possessed by Russia and the United States were detonated it would be game over for humanity by ecological devastation. This threat is more present now than at any time since the invention of the atom bomb and thus should command our attention. If we are successful in mitigating against incentives or opportunities to blow up the world then maybe we can arrange for lofty goals such as NATO abolition. On the other hand, in the throes of nuclear winter, will it really matter who was ideologically correct before the mushroom clouds?
Jeremy Miller is a freelance journalist, part of the POOR Magazine family, and an organizer with the Black Alliance for Peace. He can be reached at [email protected].