The US and Russia are playing chicken with nuclear weapon

While the current administration seems to run on uncontrollable testosterone, the problem of nuclear weapons didn’t start with them, even its immediate predecessor helped to bring about this impasses.

Image Credit: Carlos Barria/Reuters

On Sunday, November 20th, 1983, almost 40,000,000 American households tuned in to watch “The Day After” on ABC,  including, according to his diary, then U.S. president Ronald Reagan. The film, set in Kansas City just prior to and in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, had a huge effect on those who watched it, creating an outcry on the part of ordinary citizens about the possibility of such a conflict while portraying a realistic seeming assessment of what it would entail for any who survived.

While it’s long ago, it’s important to remember the hawkish tone taken by both countries at that time and how this led to a greater risk of a provocation or accident leading to a nuclear conflagration that could have ended human civilization and potentially all life on the planet. On top of this, pro-nuke strategists in the Pentagon had been pushing for the use of ‘strategic’ nukes throughout the decades long Cold War, most notably during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Just four years after “The Day After” premiered, its effect, working in tandem with a strident anti-nuke movement that seems to have been completely forgotten in the years since in favor of the standard ‘great man’ view of history, Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), forcing the two countries to eliminate their stocks of nuclear capable land based and cruise missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 KM (approximately 310 to 3417 miles). This effectively led to the denuclearization of most of western and eastern Europe.

Unexpectedly, at the end of 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and one of the great risks of this unforeseen development, that smaller warheads could get into the wrong hands, was thankfully avoided. At the same time, the two countries stocks of longer range ICBMs and those of other countries including China, France and the United Kingdom have remained, with the latter countries, who are not signatories to the INF, keeping the ability to develop intermediate missiles, an ongoing threat almost never mentioned by politicians or the mainstream press.

Also, in the years since, the threat of nuclear war, accidental or otherwise, seems to have left the public consciousness in most of the world even as three countries: North Korea, India and Pakistan have joined the nuclear club, the latter two countries with a dangerous history of conflict both between themselves and one of them, India, with yet another nuclear power, China.

A fourth country, Israel, is presumed to have its own undeclared arsenal.

Only in the case of North Korea has the reaction of the world been absolute horror and crippling, if ineffective, sanctions. One can make the argument that it is precisely the kind of multi-lateral diplomacy involving the US., China, Russia and other regional powers that has greatly lowered tensions on the Korean peninsula but this success has done nothing to change the strident tone coming from Washington, D.C.

Even a smaller nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan would forever alter the existences of most living things on the planet. While this writer makes no claims to expertise in the science behind the model used, a 2014 study claimed that a war in which these two countries used just 50 Hiroshima sized warheads on their large cities would have catastrophic effects on the whole world, opening large holes in the ozone layer, shortening the growing season for food as a result of nuclear winter and possibly resulting in the deaths of hundreds of millions from follow on effects.

None of this seems to be of any concern to the current U.S. president and his National Security Advisor, John Bolton, who want to pull the United States out of the INF, something likely to promote a new arms race that could grow to include countries that aren’t even signatories to the treaty. Both men have said that Russia is in violation of the INF and also implied that they wanted out of the treaty because China hasn’t signed on to it and continues to develop these kinds of missiles.

Another way this could have been tackled would have been to try negotiate a way to bring China into the INF, but it appears this wasn’t even considered. This should probably not surprise us because Bolton has a long history of trying to undermine arms control agreements and a long standing reputation as a Russia hawk.

There is some truth to the case each country might make in regards to the non-compliance of the other with the INF. The U.S., through Christopher Ford, an American official, who spoke at the neo-conservative Wilson Center,, made the claim that Russia’s development of the Novator 9M729 missile system, is one such violation on the part of the Kremlin.

As Pavel Podvig of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project recently wrote, “Given that the United States seems to be very confident in its conclusion about the range capability of the 9M729 missile, we should assume that it has good information about it. Who knows, maybe U.S. intelligence has detailed blueprints of the missile and all its technical characteristics. Maybe the documentation shows that extending the range of the 9M728 Iskander-M is just a matter of filling the fuel tank full.”

Like the United States, the Russian Federation accuses its American rival of breaching the treaty. One example of this was explained by a Russian Defense Analyst, Lajos Szaszdi to the Russian state run Sputnik news service, saying of a new land based Aegis Missile Defense System to be deployed in eastern Europe and Japan, “…Romania and Poland each could have potentially 24 Tomahawk missiles ready to launch, with a total of 48 cruise missiles threatening European Russia, plus Japan having the potential to deploy up to 48 Tomahawk missiles ready to launch in its planned two sites, threatening the Russian Far East.”

While the current administration seems to run on uncontrollable testosterone, the problem of nuclear weapons didn’t start with them, even its immediate predecessor helped to bring about this impasses. In a fair critique, it’s important to remember that the much more sober seeming Obama administration pushed through a 10 year, $1 trillion‘modernization’ of the country’s nukes, a gigantic payoff to some of the United States’ largest arms manufacturers, already made obscenely wealthy by ongoing wars, declared and undeclared.

Raising the stakes on the Russian side, Vladimir Putin was quoted as saying, “If the United States deploys new intermediate-range missiles in Europe after withdrawing from a nuclear treaty prohibiting these weapons, European nations will be at risk of a possible counter strike.”

That the leader of the nation with the most nuclear weapons in the world makes a statement like this and it passes almost completely unnoticed should be worrying but, then again, just a few short weeks ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced that there is just a little more than a decade before climate change will severely alter our reality and this also mostly passed under the mainstream radar.

This isn’t to say that the right wing Russian government shouldn’t be criticized, just that in terms of arms control and foreign policy in general it appears to be a rational actor, experienced and traditional in its approach to diplomacy in ways that both Donald Trump and his ridiculously bellicose NSA are not. In what is perhaps a foreboding sign of what’s to come, President Trump has proclaimed he thinks Defense Secretary James Mattis, not exactly known as a dove, may be a ‘Democrat’.

While it’s doubtful that any of us would agree with either of them on almost anything, like former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson before him, when we see whoever Mattis’ replacement eventually is, we may be sorry to see him go.

While mainstream commentators ignore the danger, a new, more dangerous reality is already on display as NATO stages its largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War in Norway, Finland and Iceland and the Russian military tests missiles nearby in the Norwegian Sea. As global warming takes hold, look for the Arctic region to heat up in more ways than one.

One of the biggest problems on the American side is that rather than accepting that we are moving into a multi-polar world where rising powers like China and Russia will counter balance the United States’ ability to act unilaterally throughout the world, squandered by successive administrations beginning with George W. Bush, hawks like John Bolton want to continue along under the delusion that their country is an indispensable hegemon.

It’s also short-sighted in the sense that Russia, with a declining population in its far east and China, with a burgeoning one, are natural rivals who are being forced into each others’ arms to deal with U.S. belligerence.

On nukes, as on so many issues, the US. President shows a staggering lack of curiosity. Early on in his administration he reportedly asked his subordinates why he had fewer nuclear weapons than predecessors in the distant past. For Trump, all that matters is having ‘the most’, whether this is hotels or nukes. In the case of the latter, it’s even rumored that he once asked an unnamed expert why he couldn’t use them.

This kind of ignorance is a danger to us all.


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