Yesterday a Pew Research poll was released that indicated a stunning 35% of those polled, roughly equal percentages in each political party, said that the US should intervene in Ukraine even if it risked a nuclear war (link to poll). Indeed, many politicians are advocating policies that could easily lead to a nuclear confrontation with Russia such as a “no fly” zone or even direct military intervention by NATO or NATO countries individually.
I had a short discussion with Nate Hagens about this subject on his excellent podcast, “Frankly …” (link to podcast). This post is some additional background and thoughts to support that discussion. I hope you’ll give it a listen if you have time, and read on and consider that we may well be entering, and living through, the most dangerous period in human history, on par with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
For someone who came of age in the 1980’s and studied nuclear war professionally this poll is nearly unbelievable. I am afraid that both the general public and our leadership have forgotten what the consequences of a nuclear war might be, and how one might start. Sadly this is not a uniquely American phenomena. Even the German Green Party, founded in large part as peace party opposing nuclear weapons, has essentially abandoned their opposition to nuclear weapons. Green Party co-leader (and now German Foreign Minister) Annalena Baerbock said last December “We stand by our responsibility within the framework of NATO and the EU and also for nuclear participation;” the removal of nuclear weapons from Germany is no longer a key demand.
In America I suspect three main forces are at work that have mitigated concerns over conflicts escalating into a nuclear exchange, and obscured the potential impacts of a nuclear war:
- Americans have been insulated from war, and are seeing the war in Ukraine as they haven’t seen recent wars, especially the impact on civilians of urban warfare. Such imagery was deliberately downplayed during US interventions in Iraq and recent wars such as Libya, Syria, Yugoslavia, or the nearly daily slaughter in Yemen taking place even today, much less the ongoing carnage of the eight year long civil war in Donbas that, according to Russia, this “Special Military Operation” is trying to bring to an end. These heartbreaking images are provoking an emotional reaction and pressure to “do something” without fully considering if that “something” is making things worse, or potentially leading to catastrophe.
- I suspect the leadership of this country is wrongly thinking that nuclear weapons are more manageable, and that the nuclear threshold is not a bright line, but that a nuclear exchange can be kept tactical or even limited without becoming strategic (tactical, limited, and strategic are terms of art described below). This is primarily due to the availability of lower, selectable yield weapons (even sub-kiloton devices) in concert with precision delivery systems. That, in concert with doctrines (plans) for their use, has lowered the threshold and, in the minds of US planners, created multiple thresholds that can be managed.
- Americans have forgotten what a nuclear war might be like. The days of movies like “The Day After” or “War Games” are 40 years ago, much less the “duck and cover” exercises of the 50’s and 60’s, and after 1991 and the “end of history” and the fall of the Soviet Union, a general nuclear war became an abstract concept. When we think of nuclear weapons at all, it is as as one-off terrorist devices or a couple from a rogue state, not a peer-on-peer conflict.
I don’t want to start another argument on how we got here, and if or how responsible the West is or isn’t for the betrayal and tragedy of Ukraine. You can read my other blog posts on that if you haven’t already, starting at this link. The first point above, that this conflict is being played up in ways comparable or worse conflicts have not, is also way too complex to delve in to here. Let’s just look at points two and three because they are the most immediate issues. I have discussed the problem of the lowering of the nuclear threshold before, and the deployment of the W-76-2 warhead on our nuclear missile submarines (link). That post also discusses the schools of thought around nuclear weapons employment (MAD and NUTS) and a critical aspect that seems to be missing from the discussion: how Russia will react. One flaw I have seen repeatedly over the last two decades of dealing with Russia (as well as other countries) is the implicit assumption that their priorities and worldview are the same as ours. Often they aren’t.
Three terms of art need to be defined here. In simple terms, a “tactical” nuclear weapon (or use of a nuclear weapon in a tactical context) means battlefield use, targeting only direct combatants. It has the potential to change the battle space fairly radically; an adversary can no longer mass forces as those become a convenient target. It also can change the geography of the battlefield with cratering and residual radiation that makes movement difficult. A “limited” nuclear exchange is generally assumed to mean somewhat wider use – strikes deeper into an adversaries territory at key logistic sites, airfields, or ports, but avoiding (as much as possible) targets where large numbers of civilians might be directly harmed, but of course “indirect” harm becomes increasingly a factor. A general or strategic exchange is what most people think of as a nuclear war – with large, 200 kiloton or greater devices employed against entire cities, with the goal of destroying the target society.
The problem is, of course, that the lines between these three general levels are pretty gray in places, especially when it comes to a theoretical US(NATO) vs Russia conflict. Very few Russian aircraft, for example, have actually entered Ukrainian airspace; they are using standoff weapons and even artillery and surface to surface missiles are firing from inside Russia itself. Consider that in order to be effective any intervention in Ukraine by the US would require striking inside Russia itself. Some of these sites would be difficult to neutralize using conventional weapons, and the temptation to use one of the new generation kiloton or smaller weapons would become enormous as US casualties mounted. Even a conventional weapons strike inside Russia would, according to Russian doctrine, trigger strikes on US bases in the US in reply (it is unreasonable to think the US could hit Russian territory without them responding in kind, yet that is what some US planners assume!). And they have a number of weapons systems capable of doing that, either conventionally or nuclear.
Shortly after becoming President, the Reagan Administration conducted a highly classified exercise that has only recently become somewhat public. Known as “Proud Prophet 1983,” it had a profound impact on President Reagan and his team. What this war game discovered was that every scenario attempting to limit a nuclear conflict ended up in a general, strategic exchange at some point. In other words, tactical use led to limited use and from there a general nuclear war ensued. It so disturbed the administration that they changed their public rhetoric around the confrontation with the Soviet Union, and ultimately help lead to the INF treaty and a stable end to the Cold War. You can read more about “Proud Prophet” and its impact here on Wikipedia. It’s a fascinating story, one that is even today not well known or told in its entirety. The point here is that it is hubris to expect we can prevent a tactical nuclear exchange from escalating into a general exchange.
As for how bad a nuclear conflict might be, and why nuclear weapons are different, this summary by MIT is worth reading. Even a limited nuclear exchange would prove catastrophic for our societies, and potentially the entire planet. I fear the hard lessons of the Cold War with respect to both the impacts of nuclear wars, and how to manage conflicts in a bi-polar or multi-polar world, have been forgotten. No matter how terrible you think the situation in Ukraine has become (and make no mistake, the suffering of civilians in urban war zones is utterly horrific – I know, I’ve been in them), they pale in comparison to the impacts of even a tactical nuclear exchange. We must also consider that such an exchange would probably unravel what little stability is left in global supply chains, the financial system, international relations, and so forth. The consequences are to an extent unforeseeable – but almost certainly horrific.
In conclusion, even assuming that everything that is being said about Ukraine in the western narrative is true, our leaders should be acting in such a way as to avoid a nuclear confrontation. The consequences of even a limited nuclear exchange with Russia are just too extreme. I suspect that is why Biden has so far said a no-fly zone is off the table, but unfortunately he is playing a dangerous game by giving in to pressure (and prolonging the agony of Ukrainian civilians) by continuing to provide lower levels of weapons, support, and the hope of future intervention. If you fully accept the US version of events, or believe it is a bit more complex and nuanced doesn’t matter at this point: we have to deescalate and avoid a nuclear conflict.
Deescalation does not mean “allowing further Russian aggression”. Assuming you accept the US position and “narrative”, it makes a lot more sense to do something we never actually did in Ukraine: draw a very bright line and say “no farther,” and putting substantial US forces on the line. Of course that line already exists: the existing NATO countries, and those deployments are underway. An “Iron Curtain 2.0” will descend, with a “Cold War 2.0” along with it, and it won’t be good for either side, but strategic stability would return with it.
So as upsetting as the imagery and narrative from Ukraine is, realize a nuclear conflict is nearly infinitely worse. Make sure our leaders know that must be the priority.