We can’t rely on luck anymore.
It has become commonplace for presidents, and presidential candidates on the stump, especially since 9-11 two decades ago, to declare solemnly that their “number one responsibility” as president is “to keep Americans safe.”
Now I grant that according to the nation’s founding document, the president’s number one responsibility in office is actually to “uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic,” but certainly “keeping Americans safe,” while not in the Constitution as a job description, is nonetheless high on the list of priorities for any resident of the White House.
So what are we to make of current U.S. policy in the Ukraine crisis, where the world’s largest or second largest nuclear power, Russia, with enough nuclear bombs and warheads in place and ready to launch on short notice, has made it clear that if pushed too far by the U.S. and its NATO allies, will turn to using its nuclear weapons to prevent defeat in its invasion of Ukraine?
I understand and agree with the claim that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is illegal, as Russia was not threatened with imminent attack by either Ukraine or NATO, and it did not have a United Nations Security Council resolution approving an invasion. But at this point, that is not the issue. (The U.S. has not had a U.N. sanction for any of its wars, invasions, incursions or “military actions” against other nations since the Korean War.) The issue is: Could U.S. policy at this point lead to nuclear war? And the answer, I’m afraid, is yes.
President Biden not long ago during a speech on a visit to Poland, a “front-line” NATO nation that shares a border with western Ukraine and Russia, declared Russian President Vladimir Putin to be a “war criminal” and said he should be brought to the International Court of Justice in the Hague to face prosecution. His War Secretary Lloyd Austin, following an April 25 visit to Ukraine, took things further stating that a key goal of American arms shipments to and intelligence sharing with Ukraine was to weaken Russia’s military and its economy, “So that Russia cannot do this kind of thing again for a long time.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) weighed in on a quick visit to the war-battered Ukrainian capital of Kyiv with a promise that “Russia will be defeated” in its war with Ukraine, which is a direct explanation of what both Biden and Austin were saying the U.S. is aiming for.
That is certainly how Moscow and Putin are viewing the statements of U.S. leaders, the nearly $5 billion in arms already supplied to Ukraine’s military, and the additional $22 promised by Biden last week, which includes heavy long-range artillery, aircraft and helicopters, more advanced anti-tank weaponry, anti-aircraft equipment, anti-ship missiles, etc., as well as training for Ukrainian soldiers in neighboring Poland to use the new weaponry. That is a lot of war materiel when one considers that Russia’s entire military budget last year was only three times as large at $66 million, and Ukraine’s military budget was only $3 billion.
Russia’s response to American threats and to actual U.S. military assistance to Ukraine — which has reportedly included providing targeting data on the location of Russian military leaders that has allowed Ukrainian forces to kill over a dozen Russian generals and to sink the flagship cruiser of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, the Moskva — has been to warn that it will consider arms shipments headed for Ukraine to be legitimate targets, and to turn to the use of nuclear weapons if deemed necessary.
It’s a significant risk, analysis in Europe and the U.S. are warning, that Russia could use nuclear weapons if it appeared that its army in Ukraine were to be losing or in danger of being defeated. And the use of nukes in any situation, years of war gaming at the Pentagon has shown, will quickly “move up the escalation ladder,” as the saying goes, from tactical battlefield nuclear bombs to strategic nukes fired on long range IRBMs and ICBMs.
A recent opinion article in the Wall Street Journal by Seth Cropsey, founder and president of the Yorktown Institute, a neoliberal “think tank” dedicated to promoting American global military dominance, argued that the Ukraine War was an opportunity, as the headline put it, for the U.S. to “Show It Can Win a Nuclear War.”
Basically Cropsey argues that should U.S. arms and intelligence support allow Ukrainian forces to stymie and start to defeat the Russian Army, leading Russia to introduce tactical nuclear weapons, the U.S. might not need to respond with its own nukes — a prospect he concedes could lead to a strategic nuclear conflict between Russia and the U.S. Instead, he suggests, the U.S. could, for example, hunt down and sink one of Russia’s nuclear missile-firing submarines as a warning of what it could do if Russia continued its war in Ukraine.
But his logic is flawed on multiple counts. One, which is explained by Dan Ellsberg in his book “The Doomsday Machine,” is that by their nature, nuclear weapons in a crisis need to be used or be destroyed, meaning that local commanders, right down to sub commanders or even individual fighter-bomber pilots, need to be able to make a launch decision on their own, and indeed can, both in the U.S. and Russian military. If a Russian missile sub figures out it is being pursued or even followed in a crisis, the vessel’s commander could decide his duty is to launch as many of his missiles as he can before his ship is destroyed. The same would be true of a nuclear-armed bomber that found enemy fighters to be headed its way. Meanwhile, the sinking of a Russian missile-sub by a U.S. vessel could lead other Russian missile subs to assume they are also under threat and to fire their missiles to avoid their destruction.
Cropsey’s argument, in other words, is sheer madness and self-delusion.
But it is, sadly, the kind of thinking that goes on in the Pentagon and in the bowels of the Russian military establishment as well.
What this means is that the prospect of nuclear war being caused by the Ukraine War is real, and growing.
Far too many U.S. leaders beginning with Biden, Lloyd, Pelosi, and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, are thinking of using Ukraine as the Carter administration used the Soviet war against the Mujahideen in Afghanistan: a way to bleed and weaken the Russian, or Soviet, state and its military.
This plan has to be beaten back. We Americans are being misled by our media, which are tearing at their heartstrings with maudlin and infuriating images of white and often blond Ukrainian citizens being brutalized or killed by Russian soldiers and Russian weapons, leading to blind support for increased American military aid for Ukraine’s resistance, without a thought being given to the potential for global — and of course U.S. — nuclear destruction.
Here’s the real truth: In the best of circumstances, if sophisticated U.S. weapons in vast quantities could block the advance or even push back some of the advances of the Russian Army in the Donbass and along Ukraine’s Black Sea Coast, without leading Russia to turn to tactical nuclear weapons, what would be produced is either a negotiated settlement — one probably not much different from what could have been achieved before Russia launched its invasion — or a lengthy fight including many more Russian bombs and missiles raining down across the whole of Ukraine, turning the whole country into a rubble-filled wasteland. At that point, somewhere down the line in months or years, and hundreds of thousands of civilian and military deaths later, a settlement would also inevitably be reached to finally end the bloodletting and war, and Ukraine would similarly emerge as it would have emerged in an earlier settlement, but much the worse for the long war. The U.S. might hail that as a big win if Russia were seriously damaged economically, and its military were badly weakened and shown to be far less of a threat than imagined.
But even if that last scenario were possible (which I doubt), the risk that Russia would not let it happen and would instead turn to a nuclear Hail Mary, is far too great, and the global consequences far to horrific for humanity, to try for it.
What the U.S. must do, and this will only happen as a result of massive protests here, is to stop shipping arms to the conflict zone in Ukraine, and to stop providing intelligence to Ukrainian fighters, which clearly makes the U.S. a part of this war against Russia.
People — even many self-described U.S. peace activists and leftists — argue that the U.S. has an obligation to defend Ukraine against an illegal war of aggression by Russia. But this is nonsense. There is nothing, no treaty or moral obligation, that requires the U.S. to allow itself to be dragged into a war between Russia and Ukraine, two former states of the former Soviet Union until 1991, and countries whose citizens all have relatives and friends in the other, and who mostly speak the same or a related language.
More importantly, this is now a situation analogous to Hitler’s attack on Poland, which sparked World War II. For one thing, as can be clearly seen, Russia’s military is in no shape to attack any NATO countries in Europe even if Putin wanted to (and there is no evidence that he does, as Russia wants those countries as customers for its oil and gas) and has no need for Lebensraum. More importantly, Germany had no world-destroying nuclear weapons when it invaded Poland. No one did.
The existence of nuclear weapons in Russian and U.S. hands changes the calculus of “moral obligations” and of mutual defense treaties. No country is obligated to commit national or global suicide for “moral” reasons or even because of a signed treaty. Nuclear armed adversaries are like two men in a shootout duel where the distance between them is 10 feet and each is wearing a dynamite vest stuffed with fragmentation flechettes. If either man fires first and hits his opponent, the vest explodes and the shooter is shredded to bits too. If the first man fires and misses, does the other have an obligation to shoot? Of course not!
So what is to be done?
Clearly the U.S., as the key power behind Kyiv, along with all the NATO nations, and the good offices of the United Nations, need to press Moscow and Kyiv to call a ceasefire —with Security Council-backed U.N. Peacekeepers in place to insure it is honored — and to negotiate a workable settlement that will satisfy both countries. The outline of such a settlement is readily imaginable. Russia would pull back to Ukraine’s far eastern area where ethnic Russians are either a plurality or a majority. It would probably end up satisfied with the already conquered port city of Mariupol and a “land bridge” from the Russian border to the already long-since annexed Crimea. Ukraine would retain the rest of its territory and would agree to maintain a neutral status much like Austria has done for 77 years since the end of WWII, and would not join NATO ever. (It should be noted that Austria, with no military needed, has long been one of Europe’s most democratic and economically well-off nations thanks to its neutrality. So has Finland.)
Under such a deal, Ukraine would emerge largely undestroyed, most of its people would be alive, its millions of refugees free to safely return. Russia would he saddled with a destroyed Donbass, the restoration of which it would have to shoulder itself.
Once such a settlement was reached and signed off on by the combatants, the U.S. and Russia could start working towards reducing instead of as now modernizing and expanding their nuclear arsenals.
The lesson of this war can be stated here, even as the war is still raging. It has proven that, as costly as it has been, Mutual Assured Destruction, the condition where rival nations all have the necessary nuclear stockpile to destroy their enemies, has given humanity 77 years (so far) of no nuclear bomb being used in war, and equally important, of no head-to-head conflict between the militaries of two nuclear nations. The existence of MAD is why even as Russia was massing troops and heavy weapons of war on the border of Ukraine, the U.S. made a point of publicly stating it would not send troops or attempt to establish a no-fly zone in any part of Ukraine because of the risk of nuclear war.
The problem is that the Ukraine crisis is also showing us the Achilles heel of MAD: If one nuclear nation, as the U.S. appears to be doing, attempts to defeat the other nuclear nation’s military only using non-nuclear weapons, the pressure to avoid losing could cause the other nation to use its nukes in desperation, leading to a full-blown nuclear war.
That tells us we’ve survived on good luck long enough and now have to get rid of the damned things.
The reality is that all of humanity is facing a much bigger enemy, also of our own making: climate disaster. That we are ignoring the disaster and talking about blowing each other up instead of talking about how to join together to save life on this planet bespeaks another kind of insanity.
It’s time for us all to wake up, come together, and fight our common enemy.
Dave Lindorff, winner of the 2019 Izzy Award, is an independent journalist and filmmaker. He was a war and draft resister during the Vietnam War.
Image of ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile from the Plesetsk facility in northwestern Russia from Russian Defense Ministry Press Service / AP