Russian forces are in eastern Ukraine and there are calls from the West for ‘tough action’. Could the US and Russia do the unthinkable and go to nuclear war? This possibility has been voiced by mainline US news agencies1,2. Obama’s attempts to play the situation down are being countered by high-flown military talk and excercises which could inflame the already high tensions.
So although Medact’s call for “nuclear weapons states to proceed in genuine good faith and with a sense of urgency towards the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world” …. using …. “approaches, based on trust and mutual understanding” 3 comes during the most challenging times for the nuclear Superpowers since the end of the Cold War, it is the right time to rethink the policy of nuclear deterrence, acknowedge its recklessness and abandon it.
Even though there has been no nuclear war since 1945, deterrence can in no way be guaranteed to prevent it for ever. Chatham House describes many events which should shatter any complacency or assumptions on world safety4. Well-trained soldiers and advanced electronic surveillance are not foolproof; and it would be extremely dangerous to rely on automated ‘robotics’ or artificial intelligence to prevent nuclear war. The ‘human factors’ – i.e. frailty, incompetence (through drugs, laziness, cheating at exams, etc.) or even deliberate and wilful disobedience – are too often unconsidered. On the positive but unpredictable side, outbreaks of actual nuclear war were sometimes prevented by officers following their professional instincts rather than otherwise fateful algorithms or bureaucracy.
In November 1983 something happened as bizarre as any John le Carre plot. When President Reagan called the USSR an ‘Evil Empire’, Soviet-American relations became particularly tense and Soviet forces were put on a state of high alert. However, the US stupidly ran a very realistic military exercise called ‘Able Archer’. They did not realise that the Soviets (whose leader, Andropov, was in hospital on a dialysis machine) were interpreting it for real. Only warnings from Oleg Gordievsky, a double agent working for MI6, led NATO to keep things from getting out of hand so that the Soviets stopped speculating that they were coming under attack.
Two months earler, faulty Soviet early-warning technology led to a false alarm that the US had launched five missiles. All the signals indicated an attack and only the instincts of Lt. Col Stanislav Petrov, who was covering the shift of his Soviet supervisor, kept him from informimg his seniors when it seemed that only 8 to 10 minutes were left for the Soviets to retaliate.
Back in October 1962, when Kennedy ordered the blockade (“quarantine”) of Soviet shipping to Cuba, an intruding submarine carrying a nuclear-tipped torpedo was depth-charged by a US Navy vessel. The Commander of the Soviet sub was only prevented from firing his torpedo by his second-in-command: they all survived.
In Ukraine, historic and horrific events such as the ‘holodomor’ of the 1930’s, when many millions died of starvation because of Stalin’s policies, must be understood, accommodated and reconciled. Russian accusations of ‘fascism’ in Kiev will be better understood by recalling that German influence dominated Ukraine twice in the last hundred years (1918 and 1940-1944) – episodes seen by many in Ukraine as ‘liberation’.
Many Russians are viscerally opposed to any EU-Ukraine partnership because of German dominance within the EU. Russian sensitivities about its own loss of Imperial influence also need to be acknowledged in ways that accommodate pride in past acheivements (including the defeat of Nazism) without promoting ongoing injustice. Restoring and keeping pride in nationhood and culture is fundamental to international relations. Thoughtless triumphalism, such the West showed at the fall of the Berlin Wall, will bring hubris worse than ‘9/11’. The March 2014 occupation of the Crimea was offensive (literally), but when seen in the light of Russian pride, in a population dominated by ethnic Russians, the world would be wise ultimately to accommodate the reality.
On the Ukrainian side, the now scarcely-mentioned poisonous Soviet legacy of Chernobyl complicates Ukraine’s electricity power struggles with Russia. Not only is the question of gas supplies a supremely sensitive ‘casus belli’ (justification of war), so is the supply of nuclear fuels for the remaining nuclear reactors in Ukraine which supply nearly 50% of Ukraine’s electricity. The Russians are particularly angry that Westinghouse has signed a deal to supply Ukraine with nuclear fuel which they say is far inferior to their own fuel for which the Ukrainian reactors were designed. 5, 6Although attitudes on nuclear deterrence are bound to harden, with NATO and Russia retreating into the false comfort of deterrence and ‘MAD’ (mutually-assured destruction) – as shown by Parliamentary questions from Julian Lewis MP (a candidate for the chair of the Commons Defence Select Committee) – we think this is JUST the time to insist on a return to common sense over Ukraine and to step back from the brink: the situation cries out for the world to come its senses.
There is no doubt that the US and Russia could do much to remove nuclear weapons from the world by progressing with their bilateral negotiations on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty [‘START’]: but at present there is insufficient politcal will to do so, and there will be no such will until each side realises that we are safer without rather than with nuclear weapons.
Before Russia invaded the Crimea, Henry Kissinger advised that Ukraine should be free to choose its allies, form governments expressing the will of its people, and should not join NATO.7 In such a divided nation, this seems almost impossible and much will stem from Russian attitudes as it faces ‘Post-Crimea’ economic reality. But attempts by the West to isolate Russia cannot be sustainable (quite apart from Ukraine’s short-term energy crisis): and the EU should not attempt to induce Ukraine into membership. Russia, understandably, continues to object most strongly to NATO’s ‘Missile Defense’ shield, which is meant to make nuclear war ‘winnable’: Russia just does not believe US assurances that current Missile Defense is really directed elsewhere (Iran, etc.).
Juan Manuel Gómez Robledo, Chair of the Mexico Conference in February 2014, attended by 146 States and International Organisations, called for the total elimination of nuclear weapons for which ‘no efforts are small’.8 As global power swings eastward, it would be well to give the superpowers of the late 21st century examples of peaceful negotiation and co-operation in order to face the challenges of climate change, population pressures, and supplies of food, water and energy. Nuclear weapons have no place in such relationships and should be peacefully negotiated away as soon as possible.
Frank Boulton (Medact Board Member and former Chair) 9th May, 2014
I am grateful to my fellow members of Medact’s Nuclear Interest Group for their help and comments.
1. Ira Helfand. Another View: Ukraine crisis puts focus on danger of nuclear war. Des Moines Register, 3rd May 2014 http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/2014/05/04/another-view-ukraine-crisis-danger-nuclear-war/8665185/
2. Loren Thompson. Four Ways The Ukraine Crisis Could Escalate To Use Of Nuclear Weapons. Forbes, 24th April 2014
3. Medact Position Paper on Nuclear Weapons. 9th May 2014 https://www.medact.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/MEDACT-POSITION-PAPER-ON-NUCLEAR-WEAPONSfinal-versoin.pdf
4. Lewis P, H Williams, B Pelopidas and Sasan Aghlani (2014) Too Close for Comfort
Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy. Chatham House Report http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/home/chatham/public_html/sites/default/files/20140428TooCloseforComfortNuclearUseLewisWilliamsPelopidasAghlani.pdf
5. Leonid Savin Nuclear Energy Reactors: U.S. to Turn Ukraine into a “Second Chernobyl”? The Role of Westinghouse. Global Research 27th April 2014 http://www.globalresearch.ca/nuclear-energy-reactors-u-s-to-turn-ukraine-into-a-second-chernobyl-the-role-of-westinghouse/5379390
6. World Nuclear News. More Westinghouse fuel for Ukraine11 April 2014
7. Henry A. Kissinger. How the Ukraine crisis ends. Washington Post Company. Published: March 5th 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/henry-kissinger-to-settle-the-ukraine-crisis-start-at-the-end/2014/03/05/46dad868-a496-11e3-8466-d34c451760b9_story.html
8. Article 36. Nayarit; the point of no return. February 15th 2014 http://www.article36.org/nuclear-weapons/nayarit-the-point-of-no-return/
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author and do not represent the official position of Medact.