Letter to the editor: Nuclear war is not imminent, we can do more

Steffan Puwal, Contributor

It has been one year since Vladimir Putin escalated his criminal war in Ukraine.  Maternity hospitals and schools have been deliberately targeted, missiles have come remarkably close to hitting nuclear power facilities, and civilians have been murdered.  A team of Yale researchers found more than 6,000 Ukrainian children have been abducted and sent to re-education camps within Russia, some of them provided with military training and all of them given some level of political indoctrination.  Our military assistance to Ukraine to defend itself against this aggression is both a moral imperative and in our own strategic interest.  It has also been painstakingly slow.  It is frustrating to watch political leaders play the role of Hamlet, constantly debating whether they should send desperately needed military hardware until even the most casual observer concludes there is no good reason for the delay.  Too often, arguments against escalating military assistance to Ukraine have been based on exaggerations of the risk of nuclear conflict.

The Doomsday Clock is wrong

Recently, for example, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock to ninety seconds to midnight, closer than it has ever been and in large part because of Russia’s war against the Ukrainian people.  This is worth noting because its new position is wrong.  The Bulletin provides a forum for those who argue against nuclear proliferation and, by itself, the Clock is a minor talking point; but it carries the weight of expert opinion and so has an obligation to be measured in its analysis and, most importantly, to be right.

Since its creation in 1947, the Doomsday Clock has been a talking point for political analysis.  It encourages policy makers and strategic planners to consider, and to reconsider, their approach to the problems of nuclear deterrence and nonproliferation.  The position of the Clock is not set in real time.  Some events, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, occur and are resolved before the Clock can be reset.  As such, the Clock works on a longer time scale—a measure of the nuclear climate, instead of the weather.

As a device for political analysis, it is fair to make a political critique of the Clock and to point out the political consequences of such a dramatic change in its position.  Ninety seconds is the closest it has ever been to midnight—closer than in the months leading up to and after the Cuban Missile Crisis, closer than during construction of the Berlin Wall, closer than in the months surrounding the attempted coup against then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.  The implication that nuclear war is imminent, though, is a misreading of the current geopolitical situation.  The Bulletin is absolutely correct in its assessment that a nuclear disaster is likely if Russian forces continue to assault nuclear power facilities.  However, Vladimir Putin’s bellicose nuclear saber rattling aside, tactical nuclear missiles have not been deployed to a position where they can be used, and American intelligence indicates no significant change in the posture of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces.

A nuclear façade

The irresponsible nuclear rhetoric of the Putin regime is an attempt to extort concessions from Ukraine and its NATO partners, and there are reasons to believe it is a deception.  One would assume that if Putin wanted his nuclear threats to be taken more seriously, he would have moved at least some of his tactical nuclear weapons into position.  The fact that he has not is an indication that he either will not or cannot do so.

Such is the long history of deception as military practice that the Russians have a word for it—maskirovka.  One early, and most likely apocryphal, story is that of Grigory Potemkin (best known in the West through the phrase “Potemkin Village”, meaning a façade or deception), said to have constructed mobile villages with his own men playing the part of villagers to impress the Empress Catherine II on her trip to explore her new conquest.

Many years later, American flights over a Leningrad air base photographed thirty nuclear capable Bison bombers; and later at an air show the Soviets flew the same ten bombers past a reviewing stand again and again, confusing observers as to their actual number.  Political and military leaders in the West became convinced the Soviets had hundreds of bombers, that there was a “bomber gap”.  There was no bomber gap.  American observers hadn’t just seen some of the Soviet bombers, they had seen all of them.

Unlikely to deploy

Before last year’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, military strategists were certain of the capabilities of the Russian military and that their victory would be swift.  Commentary quickly turned to how the United States and NATO could support an underground Ukrainian insurgency.  It was only when the invasion began that the staggering level of incompetence of the Russian armed forces became clear.

The war in Ukraine has shown the Russian military is rotten to the core with graft and corruption.  Indeed, it seems the closer one gets to serious military and political power in Russia, the greater the graft and corruption.  It would be remarkable if Russia’s nuclear forces have been spared this corroding influence.

Russia is an unnecessarily poor country because of its corrupt leaders, and nuclear weapons are not cheap.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates spending on US nuclear forces will average around $50 billion per year over the next decade.  And yet Russia’s entire military budget for 2022, a year of war, is estimated at around $80 billion dollars, to include all of the inherent cost overruns in a system rife with corruption.  So, it is worth questioning whether and how the Russian budget actually supports its nuclear arsenal.

Meanwhile, Russia’s military has proven itself logistically incapable.  Nuclear conflict is a vast logistical undertaking—missiles need to be moved into position, fueled, electronic command and control systems need to function, and missiles need to launch on demand in a rolling deployment that minimizes the consequences of the inevitable nuclear counterassault.  Everything needs to work and it needs to work on schedule.  What we see, instead, is that Russia’s army today is lacking in military grade tires for its vehicles and is using microchips originally intended for household appliances.

Whether Russia has a Potemkin nuclear force is unlikely, but after this past year the Putin regime must certainly be questioning their abilities.  The war began with an inaccurate assessment by most observers of Russia’s capabilities; the war can end only through an accurate reassessment of those capabilities.

What being just moments to midnight actually looks like

In his foreword to Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. writes “Just how dangerous it was I didn’t fully understand… The most arresting moment came when General Anatoly Gribkov, who had been in Cuba during the thirteen days, described the Soviet military deployment.  There were, he said, 43,000 Soviet troops on the island…  The Soviet forces were equipped with nuclear warheads…  Most alarming: in the event that the communications link with Moscow might be severed, Soviet field commanders were authorized to use tactical nukes against an American invasion.

This last observation startled, and appalled, the Americans present.  I was sitting next to Robert McNamara, our Secretary of Defense during the crisis, and he almost fell out of his chair.  The American Joint Chiefs of Staff (not McNamara, however) had been all-out for invasion.  Had their advice prevailed, as McNamara later said, nuclear war would have begun on the beaches of Cuba and might have ended in a global holocaust.”

Those thirteen days that October were a crisis because strategic nuclear forces had been moved into position and tactical nuclear weapons had been deployed.  This is what being just moments to midnight—that is, being moments away from nuclear war—actually looks like.  We are nowhere near anything like this today.

Communicating risk

Speculation for how the Clock recently ended up this close to midnight must almost certainly focus on 2007, when, for the first time, the Bulletin began taking into account the very real and damaging consequences of climate change in its positioning of the Doomsday Clock.

Climate change and nuclear conflict are both causes for significant concern, of course, but they are mutually exclusive events.  The probabilities of two mutually exclusive events occurring multiply, they do not add: the probability of flipping a coin and having it come up heads twice in a row is fifty percent of fifty percent, or one in four, not fifty percent plus fifty percent.  Unfortunately, the Clock is inherently set up to add probabilities: its position having already been set close to midnight to convey the risks of climate change, the Bulletin is then forced to move the Clock forward to convey a sense of increased geopolitical tension.  This is precisely why its position cannot be taken as a measure of the exact probability of a nuclear conflict.

And it is worth noting that, while the Clock naturally invites historical comparison, the position of the Clock was set in a very different context during the most difficult years of the Cold War.  For one thing, the Russia of today is not the Soviet Union.  We should not imagine that the massive Soviet war machine is still there to enable Vladimir Putin’s terrible ambitions.  For another, the Bulletin did not originally consider climate change in setting the position of the Clock.  “Ninety seconds to midnight” means something very different today than it did during the Kennedy Administration.

A deterrence strategy that works

Deception has historically served the Russian military well, but self-deception does not—as it is learning all too well in Ukraine.  We should not deceive ourselves either.  Pretending that nuclear war is imminent, that we are “ninety seconds to midnight”, deters us and our NATO partners from providing Ukraine with the conventional arms it needs to end Vladimir Putin’s criminal war.  And it deters the United States from pivoting its attention to very legitimate concerns of preventing war in East Asia.

In Act II, Hamlet famously says “what a piece of work is a man”.  What a piece of work, indeed.  This is the second year of Russia’s criminal war, and it is time for the allies of democracy to act more decisively.  Nuclear weapons will not be used in this war because the United States has a nuclear deterrence strategy that works, and Russia appears increasingly incapable of making credible nuclear threats.  There is no good reason for withholding defensive assistance.  We are not moments away from midnight, and we can provide significantly greater military assistance to Ukraine without risk of nuclear conflict.