Thinking the Unthinkable
Terry H. Schwadron
March 1, 2022
As if things couldn’t get worse, we now face a bald threat over the use of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine mess, the result of Sunday’s dramatic escalation of tensions as Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his nuclear forces put on high alert.
I thought that after years of treaties and thought as a world community, we had walled off unthinkable threats of nuclear wars to lunatic, rogue characters like North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. Now Putin has put himself in that camp.
Under the “normal” practices of our mutually assured destruction world, the rest of the nuclear-armed nations must be quietly ratcheting up nuclear fleets in turn, even while publicly condemning such a threat.
The fear, of course, is that a desperate Putin, increasingly cornered by near-worldwide financial and travel sanctions and unexpectedly slowed in taking over his military objectives in Ukraine, could threaten even nuclear explosion to show toughness in the face of punishments and condemnation for his decision to invade his neighbor. Russian troops were reported to be shelling civilian neighborhoods, and the exodus of refugees from the country continued unabated as did protests from inside Russia.
Rather than symbolism and slogans, we have a real scare on own collective hands that pique or anger could end it all. We accept that the unthinkable could happen.
Weirdly, we also have simultaneous reports of Ukraine-Russia talks without pre-conditions of ceasefire. While chances of positive outcome seem slim, it’s a reminder that maybe we should be using our words rather than nuclear stones.
The Russians were upping their military pressure with inaccurate rocket launches in addition to more precise missiles on Ukrainian cities and millions of civilians were joining Ukraine soldiers with improvised Molotov cocktail, newly issued rifles and prepping for possible chemical attacks.
The question laid bare: Even in military conflict could we really be looking at nuclear exchanges? Could the ever-heightening tension result in accident or miscalculation by a leader so focused on his vision of national restoration rationally propose the use of nukes? Aren’t nukes supposed to be off the table other than as deterrents?
Raising the Stakes
In giving the nuclear alert directive, Putin cited “aggressive statements” by NATO members and sanctions by the West against Russia, the Kremlin inner circle and Putin himself. The order was to put nuclear forces in a “special regime of combat duty.”
The ominousness of the escalation was noted across countries and across political divides, noted equally by Breitbart, Russia’s RT Today as well as by more mainstream news outlets. According to Russia’s military definition, the nuclear forces are designed “to deter aggression against Russia and its allies, as well as to defeat the aggressor, including in a war with the use of nuclear weapons.”
As the Associated Press noted, the practical meaning of Putin’s order was not immediately clear. Russia and the United States usually have land- and submarine-based nuclear forces on alert and prepared, but nuclear-capable bombers and other aircraft are not. Obviously, what one side does, the other will follow in a horrible spiral. So far, Putin has not just rattled Russia’s verbal sabers, but sent 190,000 armored troops into a sovereign Ukraine to take it over.
But wouldn’t exploding even one nuclear device result on fallout over Russia itself? Wouldn’t even a single such bomb guarantee an onslaught from NATO, the United States and European nations that would destroy Russia?
The global nations punished Syria for use of chemical weapons as being over the edge of civilized behavior, even in combat. How is it rational to threaten use of nuclear weapons?
What’s the Endgame?
War gamers and analysts have played out these nuclear tactics for years, resulting in treaties and agreements to keep control of weapons among nations who recognize the ultimate dangers involved.
From a strategic standpoint, the experts told Vox News in recent interviews, there’s no reason for Russia to use nuclear weapons. But they said Putin himself and his increasingly passionate desire for a reunited Russia were the biggest sources of uncertainty. Putin often has alluded to Russia’s nuclear arsenal as a show of strength. In 2015, Putin said in a Russian state TV documentary that he had considered putting Russian nuclear forces on alert during the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Even from the first day of the Ukrainian incursion the possibility of radioactive fallout from the former Chernobyl nuclear plant’s concrete waste facilities was considered an international lightning rod. The only thing that could keep fallout from affecting other countries, including the very NATO countries that would respond militarily to provocation, is the direction of the winds following any possible breach.
Ukraine has other operating nuclear power plants subject to artillery and missile fire.
Still, there is no way that playing with raising high alerts for nuclear weapons forces can be seen as abiding within any known international norms.