For those of us who grew up during the Cold War, it was something of a coming-of-age moment to realize that at any second of any day, one might perish in the kind of hellfire often preached of in churches but resulting from a strike from a thermonuclear missile launched from the Soviet Union, or if you lived there, from the United States or Western Europe. Of course, at any second of any day, one might perish from an infinite number of causes: a brain aneurism, a heart attack. What is so different about the concept of dying in a nuclear holocaust is the totality of the destruction: not only one’s body decays but everyone one loves or ever loved, every place one ever visited ruined, one’s home and hometown destroyed.
Most people find out they are dying before they die. The upside of this is that they have some time to plan, to think about what is important about life, what to say to whom, what to leave to whom, what impact one might leave. In contemplating nuclear war, we are forced to contemplate not only not having that time, but also having nothing to leave and no one to leave it to, no community to leave any imprint upon. Nuclear apathy must, in part, arise from nuclear denial: the refusal to contemplate the possibility of such monstrosities, leading to a kind of cognitive dissonance which inexorably arises when one lies to oneself. This is hardly an attempt to pass judgment. The point is that whether one lived in a state of nuclear denial or whether one mustered up the necessary courage to imagine and accept the possibility that nuclear war would mean the end of not only one’s own life but all life, nothing prepared any of us for this dilemma, not schooling, not science, not politics and for the most part, not even religion.
Nuclear weapons today stand alongside a host of existential problems faced by those much too young to remember President George H.W. Bush’s January 1991 State of the Union speech in which he declared the Cold War over and a New World Order. The only question on my mind on that evening was: what happens to the nukes? The question was little discussed at the time. Three decades later, the answer would seem clear: nothing. The Russian Federation, successor to the Soviet Union, followed the United States remain the two world powers with vastly superior nuclear arsenals. At the same time, another answer would also seem clear: everything. Economically, China is the new superpower whilst Russia’s economy measured in GDP lags behind both Canada’s and South Korea’s. Where Russia remains pre-eminent or as the sole co-equal to the United States is only in the size of its nuclear arsenal. During the Cold War it was argued that what ensured that a nuclear war would never take place was the certainty of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). The present moment is arguably more dangerous to humanity than any point during the Cold War, with the possible (but not for certain) exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The surge in the sale of iodine and steel bunkers attests to the fact that many understand this. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the aggressive response of the United States and NATO amount not to a new Cold War but a hot war which continues to escalate. It is true that negotiations are ongoing. I have been arguing that since the consequences of continued escalation are so catastrophic that this awareness should constitute sufficient pressure for a peaceful settlement, and de-escalation, to be achieved. Outside of the talks between the two parties, however, one hears little support for de-escalation and endless battle cries in support of escalation. Does this and the rising tide of extreme nationalism across the world today reflect the consciousness of a large part of a generation with no personal memory of the Cold War? It is a steep hill to climb for a younger generation so beset with problems to solve—the climate crisis, gun violence, rising ethnic violence, drug wars, human trafficking, to name but a few—to commit time and energy to addressing the problem of nuclear proliferation and, perhaps more importantly, to muster up the courage to conceptualize the totality of the threat which a nuclear holocaust poses, and act accordingly.
It seems an appropriate segue for this blog to transition from my personal recollections of 9/11 to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for the onset of the invasion February 24th, 2022, like the attacks of September 11th, 2011, was a world-transforming historical moment. There is no going back to the way things were before. This is of course profoundly true for Ukrainians. For the rest of us, the impacts have yet to be fully felt and remain entirely uncertain. The immediate concern here is the way in which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the response to it, have greatly heightened the risk of an exchange of nuclear weapons, whether intentionally or by accident, possibly leading to an all-out nuclear conflagration. After 9/11, major figures like George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice insisted that no one could have foreseen the attacks of September 11th, despite forewarnings of an attack from seventeen nations and the fact that by the summer of 2001 ‘the system was blinking red’ in the CIA. The scope of Russia’s invasion is truly shocking, but the timing of it is not entirely a mystery and many leading experts essentially predicted some eventuality approximating what is unfolding at present. I hope to explore this and many more related themes in coming blog posts. Not three weeks into the invasion, Western pundits are already declaring the whole affair a major strategic blunder by Putin. Based on most information available thus far, that would certainly seem to be the case. But the outcome remains uncertain.
No doubt any argument made in favor of proceeding with caution because ‘Putin has nukes’ is likely to be greeted in the present ideological environment as apologetics for the war crimes currently being committed by the Russian forces sent to invade, bombard and lay siege to cities in Ukraine. The validity of these types of judgments depends entirely upon the outcome, which is what makes this a vexing problem. The same is true of calls to urgently ship arms to Ukraine. If such actions contribute to rapid Ukrainian victories and a rapid end to the invasion resulting in countless lives saved, the decision will be hailed as the right choice. If, however, the result is a prolongation of the fighting, more lives lost and greater destruction of Ukraine, the decision will be harder to defend. It has been seventy-seven years since a nuclear weapon has been used in war. It has become axiomatic to assume that nuclear deterrence is what stays the hand of any nuclear power from using such weapons again, yet the nuclear stockpiles remain. There can be no doubt that in the war planning rooms in Washington, DC and Brussels and Moscow, discussions are now underway exploring options for nuclear war. What would a first strike scenario look like? Could we catch them off guard? Could we win? What would we end up sacrificing? These discussions of different nuclear scenarios, of course, have been ongoing for the better part of a century, but now the tone is serious and immediate, and the margin for error in judgement slim. Whatever decisions are made on either side, they will certainly not be made in a democratic fashion with any democratic input.
Russia’s strike on an airbase west of Lviv near the border with Poland on March 13th prompted the response that any attack against Poland or any other NATO member would be met with full force, ‘defending every inch’ of NATO territory. One assumes that this goes for stray missiles, but then with the breakdown in communications with Russia, how would any NATO state know the difference between a missile strike intentionally targeting its territory and one which stayed off course?
So here we are, one stray missile away from all-out war between NATO and the Russian Federation, an eventuality which would further heighten the risk of nuclear war. This is the scenario which generations of politicians and experts have sought to prevent at all costs. Is anyone not amazed at the recklessness of the pace at which we have arrived at this moment? One senses a tone of optimism, even triumphalism, in the statements of Western military experts who predict defeat for Russia. Russia may be economically weak by comparison but have these pundits forgotten that it remains nuclear strong? To be fair, Russia has become the aggressor (to set aside for the moment the war in the Donbass ongoing since 2014, a topic for future discussion here). The rest of Europe and the United States are now faced with the problem of having to anticipate Russia’s next move and prepare for further aggression. Powerful emotions clearly come into play. Not surprisingly, a thousand experts have come forward conjecturing what goes on inside the mind of Vladimir Putin. Putin’s personal ambitions, intentions and his psychological condition are definitely important factors at this stage. Part of the danger in basing decisions upon such speculation is that the answers to such questions are ultimately unknowable. Meanwhile, as with Saddam Hussain and Iraq twenty and more years ago, one man, Vladimir Putin, has become the sole focus of the Western response and animus. The assumption seems to be that it is pointless to try and negotiate with a dictator and this justifies shutting down communications, travel, trade, sanctions. While there are other very important differences between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq of twenty and more year’s ago and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, one stands out above all: Iraq in 2003 and even earlier, during and after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, was a minor power with virtually no capacity to harm the West, all the ballyhoo about its programs of WMD notwithstanding. Russia in 2022 is not Iraq in 1990 or in 2003. It is not inconceivable that the West could do to Russia what it did to Iraq in those years, but that outcome would require Russia restraining from utilizing its nuclear arsenal in a hot war, a World War III, with NATO. Logic dictates that Russia would not do so because to do so would be tantamount to suicide. How certain are we that we are dealing in logic right now … on either side?
Boot, Max. ‘Opinion: Putin can’t win the war in Ukraine. But he can’t afford to lose it.’ The Washington Post, March 15, 2022. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/03/15/putin-cant-win-the-war-in-ukraine-but-cant-afford-to-lose/>
Bush, President George H. W. Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress on the State of the Union, January 29, 1991. <https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-before-joint-session-the-congress-the-state-the-union-1>
Jervis, Robert. ‘The Dustbin of History: Mutual Assured Destruction.‘ Foreign Policy, November 11, 2009. <https://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/09/the-dustbin-of-history-mutual-assured-destruction/>
Lamoureaux, Mack. ‘Steel Bunkers, Iodine Pills, and Canned Food: Fear of the Nuclear Apocalypse Is Back.’ Vice News, March 3, 2002. <https://www.vice.com/en/article/5dgqpd/iodine-pills-nuclear-apocalypse>
National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. ‘The System Was Blinking red.’ Chapter 8 in The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. New York | London: W.W. Norton, 2004: 259, republished on the Federation of American Scientits website: <https://irp.fas.org/offdocs/911comm-sec8.pdf>