Nuclear War: Pondering The Unthinkable

Jul 23rd, 2022 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 by warning of a nuclear strike. “Having exalted Russia’s atomic arsenal and promised Ukraine’s subjugation, he threatened countries tempted to interfere with consequences ‘such as you have never seen in your entire history.’ Russian TV has since tantalized viewers with chit-chat about Armageddon.”  Even if he never uses the bomb in Ukraine, Putin has thus already upset the nuclear order. After his threats, NATO limited the support it was prepared to offer, with two implications that are all the more worrying for having been drowned out by the drumbeat of Russia’s conventional campaign:  [1] The vulnerable states that see the world through Ukraine’s eyes will feel that the best defense against a nuclear-armed aggressor is to have weapons of their own. [2] Other nuclear-armed states will believe that they can gain by copying Putin’s tactics. If so, someone somewhere will surely turn their threat into reality.

As The Economist recently reported, “The nuclear danger was growing before the invasion. North Korea has dozens of warheads. Iran, the UN said [in early June], has enough enriched uranium for its first bomb. Although the New START treaty will limit Russia’s and America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles until 2026, it does not cover weapons such as nuclear torpedoes. Pakistan is rapidly adding to its arsenal. China is modernizing its nuclear forces and, the Pentagon says, expanding them.  All this proliferation reflects the weakening of the moral revulsion that restrains the use of nuclear weapons. As memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki fade, people fail to grasp how the detonation of a small battlefield weapon, of the sort Putin might lob, could escalate into the tit-for-tat annihilation of entire cities. America and the Soviet Union only just coped with a two-sided nuclear stand-off. There is insufficient alarm at the prospect of many nuclear powers struggling to keep the peace.”

In 1994 Ukraine surrendered the ex-Soviet nuclear weapons on its territory in exchange for undertakings from Russia, America and Britain that it would not be attacked. By seizing Crimea and backing separatists in the Donbas regions in 2014, Russia flagrantly broke that promise. America and Britain, which pretty much stood aside, broke their promises, too.  “This gives vulnerable states an extra reason to go nuclear. Iran may judge that, whereas renouncing the bomb will win it no lasting credit, having one would now stir up less trouble than in the past. If Iran tested a bomb, how would Saudi Arabia and Turkey respond? South Korea and Japan, which both have the know-how to arm themselves, will place less faith in Western commitments to protect them in a more dangerous world.”

Putin’s strategy of issuing nuclear threats is even more corrosive. Sparing Ukraine from a nuclear attack is essential, but it is not enough. The world must also make certain that Putin does not prosper from his aggression today, as he prospered in 2014. If, once again, he believes that his tactics worked, he will issue more nuclear threats in the future. If he concludes that NATO can be intimidated, persuading him that he must back down will be harder. Others will learn from his example. Ukraine therefore needs advanced weapons, economic aid and sanctions on Russia in order to force Putin’s army into a retreat.

The Economist published a most helpful article in early June on the growing threat of nuclear war:  “In 1999 Nina Tannenwald, a political scientist at Brown University, wrote a paper analyzing something she had observed among generals, politicians and strategists: the ‘nuclear taboo.’ This was not, she argued, simply a matter of general queasiness or personal moral qualms; it had important consequences. The lack of nuclear wars in the years since America’s destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she argued, was not simply a matter of deterrence. It had also relied on a growing sense of the innate wrongness of nuclear weapons putting their use beyond the pale.  Threats of nuclear attack like those made in the 1940s and 1950s had become vanishingly rare. As the taboo had strengthened, seeking to acquire nuclear weapons had come to be seen as the mark of a barbarian . . . [But] tune in to the state-owned television channel Russia-1: ‘Just one launch, Boris,’ warned Dmitry Kiselev, the station’s main news presenter, on May 1st, ‘and England is gone.’ In case this message proved too subtle for the British prime minister, or the audience at home, Mr. Kiselev laid out the launch options he had in mind. One was a Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) shown streaking towards Britain. Another was a Poseidon thermonuclear torpedo, designed to whip up an isotope-laced tsunami. ‘Having passed over the British Isles, it will turn whatever might be left of them into a radioactive desert,’ enthused Mr. Kiselev, ‘unfit for anything for a long time.’”

“The Russians are really brandishing this,” says Dr. Tannenwald. “Every few days, some Russian official is making explicit nuclear threats.” And such thinking runs deeper than broadcast bombast. Boris Bondarev, a diplomat at Russia’s mission to the UN in Geneva, resigned his post on May 23rd in disgust at his country’s invasion of Ukraine. He told the New York Times that what had disturbed him most was the glib fashion in which his colleagues—arms-control specialists, no less—reveled in talk of nuclear war. “They think that if you hit some village in America with a nuclear strike, then the Americans will immediately get scared and run to beg for mercy on their knees,” said Mr. Bondarev. “That’s how many of our people think, and I fear that this is the line that they are passing along to Moscow.”

Additionally, The Economist article makes the following points:

  • In terms of arms control, pacts between America and Russia had almost all lapsed; Russia was developing new weapons, such as Poseidon, not covered by the agreements that remain; China’s nuclear arsenal was expanding rapidly. As to stopping the weapons’ spread, decades of international pressure had failed to prevent North Korea first from acquiring nuclear weapons and then from increasing both their sophistication and the range of targets against which they could be used.  The single non-proliferation agreement of note made in the past decade, the JCPOA deal in which Iran limited its nuclear program in return for relief from sanctions, was hanging by a thread, with the Islamic republic closer to a bomb than ever. It is now closer still. And the lack of progress towards disarmament by America, Britain, China, France and Russia, the nuclear-armed states party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, was continuing to erode the legitimacy of the regime that treaty established.
  • The invasion of Ukraine has torn further holes in this ragged fabric. With Russia waging a war of conquest and members of NATO providing Ukraine with increasingly capable weapons with which to fight back there is a small but real risk that the two sides might stumble into a war which escalates beyond the nuclear threshold. There is also a separate fear that should things go very badly for Putin (and a mortifying defeat is the preferred outcome for many countries in NATO) he might use a nuclear weapon to shock Ukraine into standing down rather than see his armed forces annihilated, or Crimea lost.
  • Part of the issue may simply be one of time and forgetting. Save for Queen Elizabeth II, there is no one anywhere near the corridors of power who remembers, as an adult, hearing the news from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All but the most precocious of the children who picked up on their parents’ dread at the time of the Cuban missile crisis are in their late 60s. The cold-war shadows in which the nuclear taboo grew up, which only started to disperse after Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev agreed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” have been gone for 30 years.  There is also the fact that breaking the taboo on the use of chemical weapons—a taboo which, unlike the nuclear one, is codified in international law—has turned out to have lower costs than might have been expected. Bashar al-Assad used them in the Syrian civil war but remains in power; poisoners working for Putin and Kim have used them, too. Their use when other options were possible hints that breaking the taboo is a signal all on its own . . . Majorities or near-majorities in Britain, France and Israel were supportive of using nuclear weapons in conflicts with non-nuclear nations if they were more effective than conventional ones. That is not a way people think about something which is truly taboo. “People do not dabble in cannibalism when they are a little hungry; rather they resist until they are on the verge of starvation,” Dr. Sagan and Dr. Valentino have written. “With nuclear weapons, however, the US public’s preference for nuclear options seems to grow steadily as a function of perceived utility.”
  • Yet interest in tactical nuclear weapons has revived in recent years. Russia is thought to have as many as 2,000 of them. The air-dropped bombs which make up the small nuclear arsenal America keeps in Europe can have their yields reduced to very low levels. In 2020 America deployed the W76-2, a low-yield weapon fitted to submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
  • The hope that arms control might help in some way seems forlorn. In principle, delivering some of the disarmament promised under the [Nuclear Proliferation Treat] could reinforce the non-proliferation norm. But that will not happen. America is unwilling to limit future missile defenses, which Russia and China would like it to do. There are no established verification regimes for new weapons such as hypersonic gliders and undersea drones. China seems intent on narrowing the warhead gap with America. And Russia is more committed to nuclear weapons than ever. The damage the war has done to the material state and reputation of Russia’s armed forces “takes us back to the late 1990s,” says Kristin Ven Bruusgaard of the University of Oslo. Then “Russian conventional forces were in a particularly dire state and Russian strategists were deliberating that Russia would potentially need to resort to nuclear weapons at a very early stage in a conflict with NATO.”

The question of who wins in Ukraine thus has a world-changing side-wager running on it. “The value of nuclear weapons as a tool of statecraft hinges on the outcome of this war,” argues Dr. Budjeryn. If Ukraine prevails with Western weaponry and recovers the territory it has lost since February 24th, “perhaps the conclusion will be that these weapons are only good for terrible dictators who are inflicting pain—but in the end they’re useless.” That would be a harder case to make if Ukraine is defeated and dismembered. “The world will emerge from this with some deep questions and very painful understandings about the role nuclear weapons play in human affairs.”

Permit me one further observation:  As a Christian, I would add the truth that human beings are fallen creatures.  History demonstrates that leaders often engage in self-destructive behavior as an act of self-preservation.  What would Vladimir Putin do if he is threatened with a monumental loss in Ukraine?  Would he use nuclear weapons as an act of self-preservation?  Would he use tactical battlefield weapons or missiles armed with nuclear warheads?  Not long ago, this was unthinkable question to ask.  No longer.  The world is hurling toward the real possibility on the unimaginable—nuclear conflict.  May God give our leaders the wisdom and discernment necessary to deter such acts on insanity on the part of Putin—or Iran or North Korea.  May God in his mercy help us!

See The Economist (4 June 2022), pp. 9, 16-18.

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