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Sleepwalking into Nuclear Armageddon

Arnd Jurgensen is Chair of the Nuclear Weapons Working Group and International Relations specialist at University of Toronto.

Main Directorate of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine in Kharkiv Oblast, CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

In the past week Russia has not only struck several civilian buildings in Kharkiv with missiles that the Ukrainian air defenses failed to intercept but also made significant territorial gains, taking control of several villages in the surrounding area.    It also conducted drills involving tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus.   Both demonstrated the ruthlessness of the Russian leadership in pursuing their strategic goals in the conflict.   The ability of Russian forces to advance on Kharkiv also demonstrated the weakness of the Ukrainian armed forces, plagued as they are by a well publicized lack of key munitions and the less publicized corruption of officials and the exhaustion of military age recruits.   This weakness, that is not likely to be overcome with the supply of more military hardware from the west, makes inevitable further advances by Russian forces as at least some western supporters of Ukraine are beginning to admit.  


As a result of these developments two policy changes appear imminent on the part of Ukraine and its western supporters.    The first, is the introduction of foreign (most likely NATO) troops to bolster the Ukrainian forces as President Macron of France has repeatedly suggested.   This would in all likelihood be started with the introduction of NATO troops to train recruits within Ukraine, but given the lack of available recruits may well expand from there to involving these troops in direct combat roles.   Russia already sees the war as one with NATO, not just the Ukraine and this change would bring us all one step closer to that reality.  Should Western soldiers be attacked by Russian forces the momentum of escalation would predictably accelerate.  The second change being promoted both by the government of the UK and by the Biden administration (particularly Sec. of State, Anthony Bliken) and most recently Jens Stoltenberg, is to remove all conditions on the supply of western arms with respect to their use beyond the territory of Ukraine.   In other words, allow, if not encourage the Ukrainian armed forces to use NATO supplied weapons to strike targets within Russia.  This was previously understood to be a red line that if crossed would lead to a direct conflict between Russia and NATO.


Both of these policies are reckless in the extreme but predictable outcomes of pursuing a hairbrained policy of NATO expansion into Ukraine to begin with.   Having refused even to discuss Russia’s concerns regarding NATO membership prior to the invasion in 2022, when their troops were amassed on the border of Ukraine, thus plunging it into a war with a far larger, nuclear armed state it could not possibly win, they are now doubling down on that policy.   The risk of escalation should be too obvious to need spelling out.   If Ukrainian forces strike significant targets within Russia with NATO supplied weapons, how long will it be before Russia targets supply routes, and instillations within NATO territory?   If the momentum of the Russian advances is halted or reversed by the introduction of NATO troops, the actual use of a tactical nuclear weapon will become a more and more attractive temptation for Russian forces.


It should not be necessary to spell out where this goes but the stubborn refusal of western leaders and the media to discuss let alone acknowledge the risk requires us to contemplate them.   Both NATO and Russia rely on nuclear deterrence in their security doctrines.   Both are in possession of what has become known as the nuclear triad for this deterrence, nuclear weapons deployed on planes (air), submarines (sea) and most dangerously intercontinental ballistic missiles on land.   This strategy is of course a left over from the Cold War and the system of mutually assured destruction (MAD) that was seen as stabilizing the relationship between the superpowers of the time.   To keep it stable and prevent accidental or unintended escalation to nuclear war, they negotiated the anti-ballistic missile treaty (ABM), the intermediate nuclear forces treaty and the open skies treaty.    All three of these treaties were unilaterally abandoned by the U.S., the first by the Bush administration in 2002 and the latter two by President Trump.  What is important to understand is that aside from the removal of these key guardrails, the strategic situation between NATO and Russia, despite the reduction of the numbers of warheads in their arsenals, remains essentially the same.  The effectiveness of deterrence depends on the “second strike capacity” of the adversaries, the number of weapons remaining after a first strike has been suffered.    Since what will remain could not be known, both sides of the Cold War developed around 30,000 warheads.   


The land-based ICBM’s are the most dangerous because their location is known and they are therefore the prime target of a potential first strike.   This makes them subject to the “use it or lose it” dynamic in a suspected nuclear attack.   As the worlds most famous whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg so effectively demonstrates in his book “The Doomsday Machine”, this dynamic resulted in the US having only one operational plan for the use of nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War: fire everything in the arsenal before it can be destroyed by an incoming attack (real or imagined).    Thus, nuclear weapons were and remain on hair trigger alert, ready to be fired.   The U.S. Sigle Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) for this scenario estimated 600 million deaths in Russia, China and Europe, if implemented.  (These estimates predated the discovery of the phenomenon known as “nuclear winter”, which suggests that even limited exchanges of nuclear weapons would be civilization ending). Russia’s posture is in all essentials the same.    As many have argued, this situation could of course be made considerably safer for all by eliminating land-based ICBM’s since they don’t provide anything that the other two parts of the triad don’t also provide without the risk described above.    For complex bureaucratic and political reasons (like employment in states like Montana…), neither side has eliminated them and currently China is also busy building silos for ICBM’s.


What the above makes evident is the impossibility of a “limited nuclear war”.    The most likely scenario for crossing the nuclear threshold at this point appears to be the use of a tactical nuclear weapon by Russia in Ukraine.   While the word “tactical” implies a small battlefield nuclear weapon, it must be understood that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would today be considered such “small” weapons.   Russia might do so partly out of desperation, frustration or as a “wake up call” to the west, in the expectation that since Ukraine is not a NATO member there would be no NATO response.   Could such an attack be left unanswered by NATO?   I find that hard to imagine.   What would a response by NATO be?  

I am absolutely certain that Russian officials are well aware of the strategic thinking in the US so well exposed by Daniel Ellsberg’s book.    What Ellsberg exposed is that the US strategic air command (SAC) never had a plan for a second strike, only a first all out attack (that included hundreds of targets in China whether China was involved or not).   Russia has the same inclination in regard to the US and Europe.   An escalation to all out nuclear war could be extremely fast and at this point such a scenario seems all too realistic.


While the concerns I am raising where briefly discussed at the outset of the conflict in Ukraine, limiting NATO involvement to shipments of armaments without the capacity to threaten Russian territory because of fear of escalation, such concerns have largely disappeared since, both from the discussions of policy and their coverage in mainstream media outlets.   As a result, the public remains largely unaware of the extreme danger they are being subjected to.   While the current atrocities being committed in the Middle East certainly deserve our attention, they have served to further sideline critical discussion of this existential danger.


Russia’s resort to military force in 2022 was reckless, illegal and immoral even if it was practically baited into that invasion by the irresponsible policies of NATO (The expansion eastward, backing a coup against the democratically elected government in Ukraine in 2014…).   It should and could have been avoided but for the stubborn refusal of western leaders to engage in a dialogue with Russia over its security concerns.   I will conclude by quoting Daniel Ellsberg:

The hidden reality … is that for over fifty years, all-out thermonuclear war- an irreversible, unprecedented, almost unimaginable calamity for civilization and most life on earth- has been like Chernobyl, Katrina…World War I, a catastrophe waiting to happen on a scale infinitely greater than any of these.  And that is still true today.  No policies in human history have more deserved to be recognized as immoral. Or insane… Whether Americans, Russians, and other humans can rise to the challenge of reversing these policies and eliminating the danger of near-term extinction caused by their own inventions and proclivities remains to be seen.  I choose to join with others in acting as if that is still possible.”



P.S. I would like to thank Judy Deutsch for her careful reading and helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.








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