Vancouver (Special to Informed Comment; Featured) – Russian President Vladimir Putin has broached he use of battlefield nuclear weapons in Ukraine, We all hope it is an empty threat, since such an escalation could possibly trigger an all-out global holocaust. However, nothing is certain in war, and there are many scenarios in which nuclear weapons might be deployed– e.g. if Putin feels trapped with no alternative for saving face; perhaps there is a military coup in Moscow; or maybe a nuclear missile is launched by accident.
One thing is certain – the longer Moscow’s aggression continues, the greater the chance of an atomic nightmare that nobody intended
There’s another risk – that of a battlefield commander deciding on his own to use nuclear weapons. As the late Daniel Ellsberg pointed out, it’s not just presidents or other national leaders who could start a nuclear holocaust; in some situations, lower ranking officers could order a first strike. And there is always the possibility of misunderstandings, errors, and other situations which could accidentally trigger a nuclear war that nobody intended.
Humanity has faced such dangers too many times already, and each time we just barely avoided catastrophe.
For instance, in 1983, at the height of Ronald Reagan’s “new cold war”, one person saved all humanity from a nuclear holocaust.
The threat occured on September 26, when the Soviet nuclear early-warning system reported that five or more missiles had been launched from the United States towards the USSR.
The BBC notes, “The protocol for the Soviet military would have been to retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own. But duty officer Stanislav Petrov – whose job it was to register apparent enemy missile launches” – decided that the alarm was probably false and that he would disobey orders and not report the alarm to his superior officers.
This was not only a breach of orders, it was also a dereliction of duty. The safe thing for Petrov would have been to pass the responsibility on to higher authority.
But instead of doing the safe thing, Petrov did the right thing – and disobeyed his orders.
Had Petrov reported incoming American missiles, his superiors would almost certainly have launched an all-out missile attack against the United States, which would have precipitated a nuclear response from the United States.
Petrov, however, reasoned that the system’s warning was a false alarm. For one thing, why would the United States initiate a nuclear war with an attack of just five missiles?
Petrov knew that the Soviet launch detection system was new and not completely reliable. So even though he was not absolutely sure that the alarm was erroneous, Petrov made the brave decision to ignore his orders.
There have been too many other close calls.
Perhaps the most famous one took place during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. The CIA had tried to overthrow the Castro government in 1961 when it invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. The invasion was defeated, but Cuban leader Fidel Castro wanted to prevent a larger invasion, so he invited the Soviet Union to place medium range nuclear missiles in Cuba as a deterrent.
The Soviets were far behind the United States in long-range nuclear weapons, so they saw the invitation as a way to lessen Washington’s advantage. It would also even out the advantage the US enjoyed from having nukes positioned in Turkey near the USSR.
Ultimately, it was the determination and diplomacy of U.S. President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev which was critical in preventing a nuclear war. They made a mutually face-saving deal that allowed both sides to back down while also claiming victory: Russia got a guarantee that the U.S. would not invade Cuba again, and Washington got the Soviet missiles removed from Cuba.
In the midst of the crisis, however, there were several unexpected events which could have turned into an apocalypse. In one case, a Soviet submarine came under attack from U.S. destroyers and two of the three ranking officers wanted to respond with a nuclear-armed torpedo. But the third officer, Vasili Arkhipov, vetoed that option – saving humanity from disaster.
Now, however, rhetoric is once again ratcheting-up between Russia and the US, along with concerns that global nuclear treaties are unraveling, while Russia, the US, and China are renewing their nuclear arsenals.
The illegal Russian attack on Ukraine is the most likely flash point where a nuclear war could begin.
And as the late former Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg explained, it’s not just presidents or other national leaders who could start a nuclear holocaust.
The danger is even greater now than in 1962, as there are more nuclear powers (France, Britain, Israel, Pakistan, China, India, N. Korea), and today’s nuclear weapons are many times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima.
In January, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved its Doomsday Clock ahead to just 90 seconds to midnight – “a time of unprecedented danger” and the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been.
And a new report just released by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based nonprofit, finds that nuclear dangers have increased since 2012, especially, “amid spiraling geopolitical tension over conflict near nuclear sites in Ukraine and stalling efforts at nonproliferation and international regulation.”
And in addition to the horrors that are currently being inflicted on the Ukrainian people, many others are suffering as well, from the young Russian “cannon-fodder” being sent to fight an illegal war, to the millions of poor people, especially in Africa, who find it even more difficult to afford food due to Russia again blocking shipments of grain through the Black Sea.
For these reasons and more, the first step to reducing the suffering and the threat of escalation should be an agreement that no nation will employ any kind of nuclear weapon, and and a move to open diplomatic channels to avoid doomsday.
Concerted diplomacy could begin finding ways for Putin to save face even in the ashes of defeat. As Timothy Snyder explained in the N.Y. Times: “Since the Kremlin claims that it is fighting NATO, all Mr. Putin has to say is that Russia stopped NATO from crossing into Russia.”
The ultimate solution to the nuclear threat, as former Soviet leader – and Nobel Peace Prize-winner – Mikhail Gorbachev wrote, would be: “A world without nuclear weapons: There can be no other final goal.”
When will we actually have a “world without nuclear weapons”? President Eisenhower had the answer: “I like to believe that people, in the long run, are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.”
We must follow the inspiration of Daniel Ellsberg by “speaking truth to power”, and by creating a global peace movement that will have the vision and strength to demand that governments “get out of the way” and finally rid the world of nuclear weapons – before our luck runs out.
In September 2018, former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said: “It is hard to imagine anything more devastating for humanity than all-out nuclear war between Russia and the United States. Yet this might have occurred by accident on September 26, 1983, were it not for the wise decisions of Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov. For this, he deserves humanity’s profound gratitude. Let us resolve to work together to realize a world free from fear of nuclear weapons, remembering the courageous judgement of Stanislav Petrov.”