Ukraine and the Dangers of Nuclear War

ago 29, 2022 0 comments

By Stephen R. Shalom

Nuclear war – along with climate change and pandemics — represents one of the existential threats facing humanity. The very future of our species could be ended in the event of a full-scale nuclear war.

Given the stakes, it is absolutely essential to prevent an all-out nuclear conflict. Moreover, because a limited nuclear exchange between superpowers has the potential to escalate into all-out war, the avoidance of even a limited exchange must be a major priority.

When Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, he released a pre-recorded message that warned:

Whoever tries to interfere with us, and even more so to create threats to our country, to our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never experienced in your history. [1]

And then three days later, Putin made his threat more explicit, declaring:

I order the defense minister and the chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces to put the deterrence forces of the Russian army into a special mode of combat service. [2]

"Western countries aren’t only taking unfriendly economic actions against our country, but leaders of major NATO countries are making aggressive statements about our country,” Putin said. “So I order to move Russia’s deterrence forces to a special regime of duty."

U.S. officials reported that they saw no indications that Moscow was actually planning to use nuclear weapons and that there would be no change to the posture of U.S. nuclear forces. But one can certainly understand why 141 nations in the General Assembly, against only five negative votes, not only deplored the Russian invasion of Ukraine but specifically condemned “the decision of the Russian Federation to increase the readiness of its nuclear forces.”

A week before the invasion, at a time when Moscow was still insisting that it had no plans to invade Ukraine, the Kremlin announced that that it would carry out drills of its nuclear forces and that Putin would supervise the practice missile launches himself. Two months later, on April 20, Russia tested a new long-range missile, with appropriate notice, but also with Putin’s warning that this should “make those, who in the heat of frantic aggressive rhetoric try to threaten our country, think twice.”

Russia had issued new guidelines for nuclear weapon use back in June 2020. The Basic Principles of the Russian Federation’s State Policy in the Domain of Nuclear Deterrence declared that Moscow would only use nuclear arms in situations where Russia or its allies were attacked with weapons of mass destruction or where there was a conventional attack against Russia in which “the very existence of the state is put under threat.” This seems quite restrictive, but when Putin charged on the eve of his Ukraine invasion that the policy of the United States and its allies “is not only a very real threat to our interests but to the very existence of our state and to its sovereignty” – one of the situations allowing nuclear weapon use — the implications were unsettling.

Various Russian officials have since stated that Moscow had no intention of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine and that nuclear weapons were not applicable to the situation in Ukraine. On August 5, a Russian delegate at the United Nations denounced as baseless any allegations that Russia was threatening to use nuclear arms in Ukraine. It was impossible that Russia would do so, he said, because neither of the conditions under which Russian doctrinal guidelines permitted nuclear weapon use applied in the case of Ukraine. He further explained that Putin’s February 27 announcement that he was putting Russian nuclear forces on “special duty” didn’t mean he was putting them on high alert, but only that there would be “increased vigilance.” These were all welcome statements, though given Moscow’s continual prevarication on its actions in Ukraine, the threat and the concerns certainly remain.

Nuclear Power Plants

This article is going to focus on the threat of nuclear war, but brief mention should be made here regarding the danger emanating from nuclear power plants. (Recall that the world’s worst nuclear power plant accident took place at Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986.) The current Russian invasion represents the first time in world history that a war has been waged around nuclear power stations, the first time a nuclear power plant has been seized by force, and the first time workers have been made to run a captured plant at gunpoint.

On February 24, the Russians seized control of Chernobyl and the exclusion zone surrounding it. The Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency condemned the seizure and demanded that Russia withdraw immediately. On March 4, the Russians attacked and occupied the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant complex, half a square mile in area, with a missile hitting a building on the site and starting a fire, but without harming the reactors. Russian forces withdrew from Chernobyl on March 31, as part of their general retreat from the Kyiv area, but they have remained in the Zaporizhzhia plant.

In July, Russian troops turned the plant into a military base, and used it as a shield as they fired artillery and rockets across the river at Ukrainian-held Nikopol. Some firing at the plant complex has taken place – a drone attack on Russian troops by Ukraine, for example — and some rockets. Russia blames the latter on Ukraine, but plant workers and various independent experts think the fire came from the Russians, carefully aimed to cut the plant’s power lines to Ukrainian territory, part of a highly perilous Russian strategythe EU, and the UN Secretary General have all called for the establishment of a demilitarized zone around the plant. Russia has rejected the call. But the deputy chair of Russia’s Security Council, former president Dmitr]y Medvedev, didn’t miss the opportunity to issue another threat: “Let’s not forget that the European Union also has nuclear power plants. And accidents can happen there, too.”

A nuclear accident at Zaporizhzhia would be horrible, though not nearly as bad as Chernobyl disaster because of Zaporizhzhia’s more modern design. Neither, however, would compare with the harm from even a small nuclear weapon explosion, to which we now return.

The History of Nuclear Threats

Nuclear threats have a long, sordid history in the Cold War. As a study for the non-governmental National Security Archive summarized it,

During the 1950s and early 1960s, there were a remarkable number of crises during which U.S. leaders made threats, authorized nuclear weapons for use, and put strategic forces in a higher state of readiness. While the Soviets also made threats, e.g., Suez, in 1956, the U.S. threat posture was comparatively overwhelming. [3]

In 1953, a top-secret National Security Council directive declared that “In the event of hostilities, the United States will consider nuclear weapons to be as available for use as other munitions.” In 1955, Pres. Eisenhower, in part to encourage the American public to get over its squeamishness regarding nuclear arms, publicly stated that he saw no reason “why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.”

Eventually, however, and particularly following the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, after the world had peered into the abyss, U.S. presidents came to appreciate that nuclear arms were in an entirely different category from conventional weapons and that their use would, in John Kennedy’s words, “open up a whole new world.” Both U.S. and Soviet leaders became much more restrained in their nuclear threats and pursued arms control agreements to reduce the risks of nuclear war. In recent years, it has been very rare for a national leader to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. Yes, North Korea has warned of preemptive nuclear strikes against the United States (complete with videos showing Washington DC or lower Manhattan going up in flames). And Donald Trump has blustered that: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” But their schoolyard behavior, with Trump tweeting that his nuclear button was “much bigger & more powerful” than Kim Jong-un’s, while infantile and reckless, was not as worrisome as Putin’s threats, which take place in the context of Europe’s largest war in the past seventy years, when inadvertent escalation presents a real risk.

Numerous experts have expressed concern that we are today nearer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis.


- Stephen R. Shalom is on the editorial board of New Politics. He is a member of DSA, Internationalism from Below, and Jewish Voice for Peace.


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