Thinking More Clearly About Nuclear Weapons: The Ukrainian Crisis’ Overlooked Nuclear Risk
The destructive potential of nuclear weapons is so great that decisions impacting them should be made in a fully conscious, objective manner. Unfortunately, there is significant evidence that this is not the case. One of my Stanford course handouts1 lists almost two dozen assumptions which underlie our nuclear posture, but warrant critical re-examination. This column applies that same kind of analysis to the current Ukrainian crisis.
It is surprising and worrisome that almost none of the mainstream media’s coverage of the Ukrainian crisis has mentioned its nuclear risk. With the West feeling that Russia is solely to blame, and Russia having the mirror image perspective, neither side is likely to back down if one of their red lines is crossed. Add in America’s overwhelming conventional military superiority and Russia’s 8,000 nuclear weapons, and there is the potential for nuclear threats. And, where there is the potential for nuclear threats, there is also some potential for nuclear use.
I’m not saying a repeat of the Cuban Missile Crisis is likely, but given the potential consequences, even a small risk of the Ukrainian crisis escalating to nuclear threats would seem too high.
The frequency with which we find ourselves in such confrontations is also a factor. A low probability nuclear risk that occurs once per century is ten times less likely to explode in our faces than one that occurs once per decade. And the latter hypothesis (confrontations occurring approximately once per decade, instead of once per century) is supported by the empirical evidence, as the Georgian War occurred just six years ago.
While both Russia and the West are wrong that the current crisis is solely the other side’s fault, this article focuses on our mistakes since those are the ones we have the power to correct.
An example of the West’s belief that the crisis is all Russia’s fault appeared in a July 18 editorial 2 in The New York Times which claimed, “There is one man who can stop [the Ukrainian conflict] — President Vladimir Putin of Russia.”
Another example occurred on September 3, when President Obama stated: “It was not the government in Kyiv that destabilized eastern Ukraine; it’s been the pro-Russian separatists who are encouraged by Russia, financed by Russia, trained by Russia, supplied by Russia and armed by Russia. And the Russian forces that have now moved into Ukraine are not on a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission. They are Russian combat forces with Russian weapons in Russian tanks. Now, these are the facts. They are provable. They’re not subject to dispute.” (emphasis added)
So what’s the evidence that the New York Times and the president might be wrong? In early February, when the crisis was in its early and much less deadly stages, Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, wrote3: “I believe it has been a very big strategic mistake – by Russia, by the EU and most of all by the U.S. – to convert Ukrainian political and economic reform into an East-West struggle. … In both the short and long run only an approach that does not appear to threaten Russia is going to work.” (emphasis added)
A month later, on March 3, Dmitri Simes, a former adviser to President Nixon, seconded Ambassador Matlock’s perspective when he said in an interview4: “I think it [the Obama administration’s approach to the Ukraine] has contributed to the crisis. … there is no question in my mind that the United States has a responsibility to act. But what Obama is doing is exactly the opposite from what should be done in my view.”
Two days later, on March 5, President Nixon’s Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, wrote:5 “Each [Russia, the West, and the various Ukrainian factions] has made the situation worse.”
A number of other articles by foreign policy experts also question the Times and President Obama placing all the blame for the crisis on Russia, but I hope I’ve made the point that Putin is not the only man who could end the fighting. Indeed, he may not be capable of doing that without us also correcting some of our mistakes.
Further evidence that the New York Times and President Obama might be wrong can be found in an intercepted and leaked phone conversation6 in which Estonia’s Foreign Minister, Urmas Paet – clearly no friend of Russia’s – stated that the sniper fire on February 20, which killed dozens of Maidan protesters and led to calls for Yanukovych’s head, appeared to have been a false flag operation perpetrated by the most violent elements within the protesters – for example, the ultra-nationalist Right Sektor, which is seen as neo-Nazi in some quarters.
Here is the exact wording of Paet’s key allegation in that phone call: “There is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind [the] snipers … it was not Yanukovych, but it was somebody from the new coalition.” That “new coalition” is now the Ukrainian government.
While this allegation has received little attention in the American mainstream media, German public television sent an investigative reporting team which reached the same conclusion7: “The Kiev Prosecutor General’s Office [of the interim government] is confident in their assessment [that Yanukovych’s people are to blame for the sniper fire, but] we are not.”
This is not to say that Paet and the German investigators are correct in their conclusions – just that it is dangerously sloppy thinking about nuclear matters not to take those allegations more seriously than we have.
While Putin has exaggerated the risk to ethnic Russians living in Ukraine for his own purposes, the West has overlooked those same risks. For example, on May 2 in Odessa, dozens of pro-Russian demonstrators were burned alive when an anti-Russian mob prevented them from fleeing the burning building into which they had been chased. According to the New York Times8: “The pro-Russians, outnumbered by the Ukrainians, fell back … [and] sought refuge in the trade union building. Yanus Milteynus, a 42-year-old construction worker and pro-Russian activist, said he watched from the roof as the pro-Ukrainian crowd threw firebombs into the building’s lower windows, while those inside feared being beaten to death by the crowd if they tried to flee. … As the building burned, Ukrainian activists sang the Ukrainian national anthem, witnesses on both sides said. They also hurled a new taunt: “Colorado” for the Colorado potato beetle, striped red and black like the pro-Russian ribbons. Those outside chanted “burn Colorado, burn,” witnesses said. Swastikalike symbols were spray painted on the building, along with graffiti reading “Galician SS,” though it was unclear when it had appeared, or who had painted it.”
Adding to the risk, on August 29, Ukraine took steps to move from non-aligned status to seeking NATO membership, and NATO’s Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he would “fully respect if the Ukrainian parliament decides to change that policy [of non-alignment].” Somewhat paradoxically, it is extremely dangerous – especially for Ukraine – for Rasmussen to encourage its hopes of joining NATO since Russia would likely respond aggressively to prevent that from occurring.
Also adding to the danger is an escalatory spiral that appears to be in process, with NATO taking actions that are seen as threatening by Russia and Russia responding in kind, with Putin reminding the world9 that, “Russia is one of the most powerful nuclear nations. This is a reality, not just words.”
We also need to question whether it is in our national security interests to ally ourselves with the Kiev government when, on September 1, its Defense Minister declared that, “A great war has arrived at our doorstep – the likes of which Europe has not seen since World War Two.”10
Also on September 1, a group of former CIA intelligence analysts warned11that: “Accusations of a major Russian invasion of Ukraine appear not to be supported by reliable intelligence. Rather, the intelligence seems to be of the same dubious, politically fixed kind used 12 years ago to justify the U.S.-led attack on Iraq.” (The group also warned about faulty intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq War.)
These former intelligence analysts are not saying that our government’s accusation is wrong. But they are reminding us that there is historical evidence indicating that we should be more cautious in assuming that it is correct.
In a September 4 article in Foreign Policy, “Putin’s Nuclear Option,” 12 Jeffrey Taylor argues that: “Putin would never actually use nuclear weapons, would he? The scientist and longtime Putin critic Andrei Piontkovsky, a former executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow and a political commentator for the BBC World Service, believes he might. In August, Piontkovsky published a troubling account of what he believes Putin might do to win the current standoff with the West – and, in one blow, destroy NATO as an organization and finish off what’s left of America’s credibility as the world’s guardian of peace.”
I strongly encourage readers to read the full article. Again, Piotkovsky’s scenario is not likely, but given the consequences, even a small risk could be intolerable.
Defusing the Ukrainian crisis will require a more mature approach on the part of all parties. Focusing on what we need to do, we need to stop seeing Ukraine as a football game that will be won by the West or by Russia, and start being concerned with the safety of all its residents, of all ethnicities. If we do that, we will also reduce the risk that we find ourselves repeating the mistakes of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when neither side wanted to stare into the nuclear abyss, but both found themselves doing so.
As noted earlier, our mishandling of the Ukrainian crisis is unfortunately just one instance of a larger problem – dangerously sloppy thinking about nuclear weapons. Given that the survival of our homeland is at stake, our government needs to undertake a top-to-bottom review of the assumptions which underlie our current nuclear posture and correct any that are found to be wanting.
Dr. Martin E. Hellman is an Adjunct Senior Fellow for Nuclear Risk Analysis at FAS. Hellman was at IBM’s Watson Research Center from 1968-69 and an Assistant Professor of EE at MIT from 1969-71. Returning to Stanford in 1971, he served on the regular faculty until becoming Professor Emeritus in 1996. He has authored over seventy technical papers, ten U.S. patents and a number of foreign equivalents.
Along with Diffie and Merkle, Hellman invented public key cryptography, the technology which allows secure transactions on the Internet, including literally trillions of dollars of financial transactions daily. He has also been a long-time contributor to the computer privacy debate, starting with the issue of DES key size in 1975 and culminating with service (1994-96) on the National Research Council’s Committee to Study National Cryptographic Policy, whose main recommendations have since been implemented.
His current project, Defusing the Nuclear Threat, is applying quantitative risk analysis to a potential failure of nuclear deterrence. In addition to illuminating the level of risk inherent in threatening to destroy civilization in an effort to maintain the peace, this approach highlights how small changes, early in the accident chain, can reduce the risk far more than might first appear. This methodology has been endorsed by a number of prominent individuals including a former Director of the National Security Agency, Stanford’s President Emeritus, and two Nobel Laureates.
The FAS Nuclear Notebook is one of the most widely sourced reference materials worldwide for reliable information about the status of nuclear weapons, and has been published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1987.. The Nuclear Notebook is researched and written by the staff of the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project: Director Hans […]
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