by Natylie Baldwin
Originally appeared at Oped News on 5/13/20
The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded many of us of our vulnerability and mortality. It has also led some to realize that perhaps our nations should cooperate on behalf of the greater good. The world’s two nuclear superpowers, the U.S. and Russia, have both delivered aid to each other over the past six weeks. Moreover, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin released a joint statement honoring the 75th anniversary of the U.S. and Soviet armies meeting up at the bridge over the Elbe River in Germany during WWII, in which both countries allied to defeat Hitler’s Nazi regime.
Many of us who grew up during the subsequent Cold War, with the specter of nuclear annihilation always looming in the background, heaved a sigh of relief when the two superpowers seemed to call a halt in 1989, with several nuclear arms control treaties having been negotiated. As our media and culture moved on to other problems, one might have thought nuclear weapons were no longer a danger.
But, in fact, the U.S. and Russia together still have 1700 nuclear weapons pointed at each other on hair trigger alert. Several scientific studies have indicated that, in addition to killing millions in the immediate aftermath of the explosions, even a limited exchange of these weapons would lead to nuclear winter within a year, wiping out much of our global agriculture and killing billions of people through starvation.
The U.S. unilaterally pulled out of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019. It now appears that the remaining arms control agreement known as New START is in danger of expiring in February, despite Moscow’s repeated announcements that it is ready to renew it without preconditions. Since the U.S. Congress has passed legislation that hamstrings the president in terms of withdrawing some or all of the sanctions as a tool in any negotiations with Russia, it is imperative that the administration agree to the extension of New START, which would require no congressional action.
In response to these setbacks on arms control, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved their doomsday clock to 100 seconds to midnight in January. Later that month, the U.S. deployed its first “usable” low-yield nuke onto a submarine on patrol in the Atlantic. Last month, in response to a U.S. State Department paper suggesting that the fielding of such weapons could help counter Russia and China, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson stated unequivocally that any use of such low-yield nukes against Russia would be met with full retaliation. The Russians have also stated their fear that the deployment of a “missile defense system” in Eastern Europe by Washington has the capability of being used for a potential first strike against it.
Although it’s unlikely that either Washington or Moscow would decide to intentionally start a nuclear war, there is a documented history of accidents and close calls throughout the nuclear era that were averted by a combination of luck and cooler heads prevailing. In current conditions where controversial military exercises by both NATO and Russia occur within short distances of each other, adding “usable” nukes and dubious “defense shields” into the mix presents even greater risks.
With increased tensions and hostility between the nuclear superpowers in recent years – often enabled by sensationalist media reporting and domestic partisan fights – what might happen if a political leader or military officer in Russia had to make a quick decision on how to interpret an early warning system telling them there are incoming nuclear missiles from the U.S.? This actually happened in September of 1983 when Soviet Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov received such a message. The message was erroneous, but he couldn’t know that for certain at the time. He technically violated military protocol – and was reprimanded for it – by not reporting the warning up the chain of command, which would have set in motion a retaliatory nuclear strike on the U.S.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, John Kennedy had to deal with hardliners on his national security team who were encouraging escalation in response to the installation of Soviet nuclear missile sites in Cuba. Kennedy opted for a naval blockade rather than an attack on the island. The fact that the Kennedy administration was operating on a mistaken CIA analysis, which had concluded that nuclear warheads had not yet been delivered to Cuba, makes Kennedy’s restraint all the more critical in retrospect. Nikita Khrushchev, who had to keep his own hardliners at bay, also showed restraint when he ordered Soviet ships that were approaching the U.S. blockade to stop. The confrontation ended when Khrushchev accepted a deal conveyed by Robert Kennedy to the Soviet ambassador that, in exchange for Khrushchev withdrawing nuclear weapons systems from Cuba, the U.S. promised not to attack Cuba and to surreptitiously remove nuclear weapons in Turkey on the Soviet border.
During the crisis, both American navy forces and Soviet nuclear submarines were in the Caribbean. At one point, the Americans detonated non-lethal depth charges in the vicinity of the B-59 Soviet submarine. Cut off from communication and believing they were under attack, two officers on the B-59 wanted to fire their nuclear torpedo. But Vasili Arkhipov, the third officer who had to grant permission for the order to be carried out, refused, thereby averting WWIII.
Historians James Blight and Janet Lang, two of the foremost experts on the Cuban Missile Crisis, have calculated that if the crisis were run 100 times with the same conditions, 95 times it would end in nuclear war. How many times will we luck out?
We should all welcome the opening that the pandemic has provided, giving both the U.S. and Russia the opportunity to make cooperative gestures in order to gradually build trust, which could lead to the repair of the tattered safety net we’re currently relying on when it comes to the still profound danger of nuclear weapons.