It’s so surreal how we’re closer to nuclear war than we’ve been since the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it’s only continuing to escalate, and yet hardly anyone seems to notice and almost everyone is just going about their lives thinking their usual thoughts and having their usual conversations.
Vladimir Putin has put Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert and has issued threats of nuclear retaliation should western powers try to intervene in Russian military operations in Ukraine. The Biden administration’s first Nuclear Posture Review will be out soon and will likely mirror the changes in Russia’s nuclear posture in some ways. The probability is skyrocketing of a mass extinction event which could easily block out the sun for years and starve everyone to death who isn’t lucky enough to be killed quickly in the initial inferno.
A recent New York Times article titled “The Smaller Bombs That Could Turn Ukraine Into a Nuclear War Zone” discusses the danger of Russia using a so-called “tactical” or “low-yield” nuke if the war isn’t going well for Moscow, making the calculation that using one of its much less destructive nuclear weapons might succeed in intimidating its enemies into backing down without resulting in full-blown nuclear war.
“It feels horrible to talk about these things,” Dr. Kühn said in an interview. “But we have to consider that this is becoming a possibility.”
Washington expects more atomic moves from Mr. Putin in the days ahead. Moscow is likely to “increasingly rely on its nuclear deterrent to signal the West and project strength” as the war and its consequences weaken Russia, Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
A truly sapient life form would read those two paragraphs and immediately say, “Oh well we obviously can’t continue along this trajectory anymore. Let’s negotiate a ceasefire by whatever means necessary and move toward detente as swiftly as possible.” But rather than move to de-escalate, all we’re seeing is continual escalation with increasingly shrill calls to escalate further.
It is worth noting here that experts have been warning for years that these “low-yield” nuclear weapons pose a horrifying threat to our species because of the risk of somebody making the calculation that they could get away with using them, as we see in this 2019 article by James Carroll titled “The Most Dangerous Weapon Ever Rolls Off the Nuclear Assembly Line“. Such warnings just didn’t get much attention before because they were about the United States manufacturing those weapons and did little to amplify Russia hysteria.
It is probably also worth noting that the US has been updating its nuclear arsenal with advancements which make its nuclear-armed rivals more likely to calculate the need for a full-scale nuclear first strike. As R Jeffrey Smith explained last year for The Center for Public Integrity, improvements in the ability to perfectly time a nuke’s detonation make it much more destructive and therefore capable of destroying underground nuclear weapons, which would necessarily make a government like Russia more likely to launch a preemptive strike in a moment of tension to avoid being disarmed by a US strike.
Others worry, however, that those leaders — knowing that many of their protected, land-based weapons and associated command posts could not escape destruction — might be more prone to order their use early in a crisis or conflict, simply to ensure they are not destroyed when incoming warheads arrive, promoting a hair-trigger launch policy that could escalate into a general cataclysm.
Physicist James Acton, who co-directs the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and has written extensively about the need to avert unnecessary conflicts, said that efforts to modernize the nuclear arsenal should be more focused on ensuring the weapons’ safety, security, and reliability, and less on goosing their accuracy.
“If China or Russia believe in a conflict or a crisis that we are going to attack or destroy their nuclear forces and command posts, that gives them an incentive to use nuclear weapons first, or to threaten their use. They have strong incentives to take steps that would further escalate the crisis and create new dangers,” Acton said.
New air- and sea-launched cruise missiles also place Russia on hair-trigger alert, Smith writes:
New air- and sea-launched cruise missiles in particular, [Nuclear Weapons Council chair Andrew Weber] said, are not necessary, and will undermine deterrence because they are stealthy, surprise-attack weapons that will make opponents nervous enough to adopt hair-trigger launch policies. Since they can be deployed with both conventional and nuclear warheads and it’s impossible for opponents to tell the difference, their use could cause unintentional escalation from a conventional to a nuclear war.
And while everyone’s talking about the fear that Putin may make a calculated decision to initiate a nuclear exchange should he feel backed into a corner, at present the primary risk of nuclear war remains what it’s been for about as long as we’ve had these infernal weapons on our planet: that the explicit understanding in Mutually Assured Destruction will be set into motion by a nuke being discharged by either side due to miscommunication, miscalculation, misunderstanding or malfunction, or some combination of these, amid the chaos and confusion of escalating brinkmanship. Which nearly happened many times during the last cold war.
As Nuclear Age Peace Foundation president David Krieger explained back in 2017:
Nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons are currently under the control of nine countries. Each has a complex system of command and control with many possibilities for error, accident or intentional use.
Error could be the result of human or technological factors, or some combination of human and technological interaction. During the more than seven decades of the Nuclear Age, there have been many accidents and close calls that could have resulted in nuclear disaster. The world narrowly escaped a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Human factors include miscommunications, misinterpretations and psychological issues. Some leaders believe that threatening behavior makes nuclear deterrence more effective, but it could also result in a preventive first-strike launch by the side being threatened. Psychological pathologies among those in control of nuclear weapons could also play a role. Hubris, or extreme arrogance, is another factor of concern.
Technological factors include computer errors that wrongfully show a country is under nuclear attack. Such false warnings have occurred on numerous occasions but, fortunately, human interactions (often against policy and/or orders) have so far kept a false warning from resulting in a mistaken “retaliatory” attack. In times of severe tensions, a technological error could compound the risks, and human actors might decide to initiate a first strike.
As Ray McGovern explains in a new article for Antiwar titled “Will Humans Be the Next ‘Freedom Fries’?“, the early launch detection system Russia relies on for nuclear deterrence is so technologically lagging and prone to error that could easily lead to a nuclear war as the result of a simple mistake. He discusses an instance when Russia’s early detection equipment falsely reported a potential nuclear attack as recently as 1995, when relations between Washington and Moscow were as warm and cozy as they’ve ever been. It seems reasonable to say that a similar incident would have a good chance of being interpreted and responded to in a very different way should it repeat itself in 2022.
McGovern says that launch-to-target time has shrunk so much with the advancement of technology that there are now probably multiple subordinate commanders out in the field with the authority to launch a nuclear strike:
Here’s the thing: the Russians have good reason to be on hair-trigger alert. Their early-warning radar system is so inadequate that there are situations (including those involving innocent rocket launches) under which Russian President Putin would have only a few minutes – if that – to decide whether or not to launch nuclear missiles to destroy the rest of the world – on the suspicion that Russia was under nuclear attack.
“If that”? Yes, launch-to-target time is now so short that it is altogether likely that the authority to launch nuclear weapons is now vested in subordinate commanders “in the field,” so to speak. Readers of Daniel Ellsberg’s Doomsday Machine are aware of how the US actually devolved this authority during the days of the first cold war. I, for one, was shocked to learn that. Worse: today the subordinate commanders might be non-commissioned computers.
“U.S. pundits and strategic experts seem blissfully unaware of how close we all are to being fried in a nuclear strike by Russia,” McGovern writes.
For a lot more information on how dangerously close we’re getting to the brink, check out former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter’s epic rant toward the end of his recent chat with The Grayzone’s Max Blumenthal and Aaron Maté, where he talks about all the horrible US government decisions and shredded treaties which have led us from a rare moment of relative nuclear safety to the precarious position we now find ourselves in:
I’m always stunned at how, whenever I talk about the way all this brinkmanship is bringing us ever closer to a precipice from which there is no return, people will often tell me “Yeah well if it happens it will be Putin’s fault for starting it.” Like that’s in any way a sane response to our plight. People are so confused and compartmentalized about this issue they seriously think “If nuclear war happens it will be Putin’s fault” is a complete position on this issue.
I always want to shake them and ask them, “If you looked outside right now and saw a mushroom cloud growing in the distance, would the words ‘It was Putin’s fault’ give you any comfort? Or would you, perhaps, wish measures had been taken early on to prevent it from getting to this point?”
It’s a useful thought experiment that can be applied in many areas, while we sit here on the brink waiting to see what happens.
If you looked outside right now and saw a mushroom cloud growing in the distance, how good would you feel about the decision not to guarantee Moscow that Ukraine would never receive NATO membership?
If you looked outside right now and saw a mushroom cloud growing in the distance, would you be able to say you tried everything you could to prevent this from happening?
If you looked outside right now and saw a mushroom cloud growing in the distance, would you feel okay about how you’ve been treating the people you care about?
If you looked outside right now and saw a mushroom cloud growing in the distance, would you feel okay about how you’ve been spending your time?
If you looked outside right now and saw a mushroom cloud growing in the distance, will you wish you’d spent more time at the office? Wish you’d participated in more social media drama? Wish you’d taken fewer chances? Wish you’d loved with less abandon?
The swelling likelihood of imminent armageddon draws everything into focus. Helps clarify your priorities. Helps you figure out how to live your life from moment to moment.
And from where I’m sitting this clarity brings with it a sense of responsibility as a human being. A responsibility to really be here now. To truly live our lives with presence and appreciation. To drink deeply of the cup of human experience. Because the only thing worse than everything ending would be if it ended without having been seen and valued while it lasted.
We have control over so very little in this insane little pickle we’ve found ourselves in. But one thing we can definitely control is whether we’re really showing up for however much time we’ve got left on this amazing blue planet.
“Treasure each moment” is something you hear so often in life that it becomes a cliche and loses all its meaning. But there has never been a better time to take another look at it with fresh eyes and begin putting it into practice.
Treasure each moment, because there might not be very many of them left. This is the moment. This is our moment. If this does wind up being humanity’s last scene on this stage, let’s at least help make sure we shine as radiantly as possible before the final curtain.
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