Ukraine War Pushes World Toward Nuclear Precipice
by Rick Jurgens. Posted July 5, 2022.
That Russia’s invasion and bombardment of Ukraine, its smaller and poorer neighbor, is immoral and unconscionable goes without saying.
Even from our vantage thousands of miles away in North America, we have seen photographs and videos of the bodies of dead civilians lying in the streets, of buildings and cities reduced to rubble and of refugees fleeing into internal and foreign exile.
But there is another element of the crisis that demands our attention. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the support by the United States for Ukraine’s resistance have elevated tension between the world’s two dominant nuclear powers. That, in turn, has increased the danger of an all-out nuclear conflict that could end human life and civilization.
“The prospect of a massive nuclear exchange has once again become thinkable as a spin-off from the conflict in Ukraine,” Sharon Squassoni, a professor at George Washington University and co-chair of science and security board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists wrote recently.[i]
Currently, about 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads are contained in the arsenals of Russia and the United States. While experts and analysts continue to view the use of nuclear weapons by either side facing off over Ukraine as unlikely, it’s a danger that can’t be ignored. Nor can we presume that an initial limited use of nuclear weapons would not escalate into an apocalyptic nuclear conflict.
Already, Russia’s ill-conceived, poorly executed and unjust attack on its smaller neighbor has spotlighted Russia’s own flaws and vulnerabilities, including a weak economy that is overdependent on fossil fuels production, political power concentrated in the hands of Putin, its autocratic leader, and – perhaps most surprisingly – the limitations and weaknesses of Russia’s military (which some previously saw as powerful and modern).
While those weaknesses impose welcome limits on Russian aggression, they also raise the prospect of, as Squassoni put it, “a conventional rout (that) backs Putin into a corner of desperation in which he plays the only card that still makes Russia a superpower, its nuclear weapons.”[ii]
And Russia is not the only possessor of nuclear weapons involved in the war in Ukraine. The United States has allocated tens of billions of dollars to support Ukraine’s war effort and reaffirmed its commitment to fight if Ukraine’s neighbors in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are attacked. And the United States has its own massive nuclear arsenal – along with the sordid distinction of being the only country ever to use nukes to attack an enemy.
Activists and progressives face a complex situation. While supporting the Ukrainian people’s just struggle to defend their sovereignty, we must acknowledge and address the potential nuclear consequences of the conflict. We must demand that Russia, the United States and NATO refrain from any use of nuclear weapons and pursue strategies and use tactics that take into account the destructive powers at their disposal. Any course of action or policy must be judged in part by its contribution to easing of tensions and peaceful resolutions of disagreements.
Nuclear weapons have existed throughout my entire lifetime and the lifetimes of most people reading this.
The clearest demonstration of the terrible destructive force of the world’s nuclear arsenal occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese cities where United States airplanes dropped atomic bombs in August 1945.
But much has changed since then. The roster of nuclear armed states has expanded from one to nine. The global stockpile of nuclear warheads has soared from a handful to nearly 13,000. And the destructive force of most of these warheads has risen exponentially.
Consider. The atomic, or fission, bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a destructive force equal to about 15,000 tons of TNT. Today’s arsenal of strategic (as opposed to tactical or battlefield) weapons contains far more destructive power. For example, each of the 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles siloed in the western United States carries a warhead with a destructive power ranging from 300,000 to 335,000 tons of TNT – 20 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb.[iii]
Today, the world faces multiple nuclear dangers.
A nuclear weapon could be discharged accidentally or unintentionally. Such incidents have been narrowly averted in the past.
Other nuclear scenarios include a use triggered by a false alarm signal of an impending attack or the launch or discharge of a nuclear weapon by a rogue element inside or outside the armed forces of the nuclear powers.
In recent years, the proliferation of nuclear weapons – their acquisition by previously non-nuclear states – has been a focus of concern. The successful testing of nuclear warheads and delivery systems by North Korea and the efforts by Iran to develop what outside experts say would be nuclear weapons capabilities have become political hot buttons.
Peace activist and former nuclear planner Daniel Ellsberg offered the following warning: “The existential danger to humanity of nuclear weapons does not rest solely or even mainly on the possibility of further proliferation of such weapons to ‘rogue’ or ‘unstable’ nations, who would handle and threaten them less responsibly than the permanent members of the (U.N.) Security Council, nor does it rest merely on the vagaries of the smaller and more recent nuclear weapons states of Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea (though these do enhance the dangers).”
Citing the experiences in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis (see sidebar), Ellsberg argued that peril primarily resides in the mainstream: “The existence of masses of nuclear weapons in the hands of leaders of the superpowers, the United States and Russia – even when those leaders are about as responsible, humane, and cautious as any we have seen – posed then, and still do, intolerable dangers to the survival of civilization.”[iv]
After four years of the Trump presidency in the United States and in the third decade of Putin’s rule in Russia, it is natural to focus on and worry about dangers posed by the attitudes and actions of individual leaders who crave power and lack consciences. But rising dangers of a cataclysmic nuclear exchange reflect other forces beyond the personal or political foibles of the leaders of the two nuclear superpowers.
A century ago, Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the October 1917 revolution that overthrew tsardom and installed a socialist regime in Russia, described how the world had been divided up by a handful of imperialist countries. With their insatiable appetite for profits and resulting need to control a greater share of the world’s markets, natural resources and opportunities for investment, he said, these powers would stubbornly and sometimes violently seek to redivide the world to reflect their relative strength.[v]
Lenin, who was developing the analysis of capitalism created by Karl Marx, the late German revolutionary, wrote about imperialism as what later became known as World War I was underway. The sustained relevance of Lenin’s analysis was shown two decades later. Challenges by German, Italian and Japanese fascist regimes to the more established capitalist regimes in the United States, United Kingdom and France, as well as the socialist Soviet Union, enveloped the planet in what came to be known as World War II.
That war ended in August 1945 after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, with total death estimates ranging from 110,000 to 210,000.[vi]
Victory in World War II left the United States with political, military and economic supremacy. The United States accounted for one-half of the world’s manufacturing and shipping capacity and one-third of all exports and controlled the globe’s key financial institutions: the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.[vii] The United States framed, as much as it could, a new world order that included a United Nations organization and, within a few years, a multi-continental alliance called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Most dramatically, the U.S. began the post-war period as the world’s sole possessor of nuclear weapons.
The Soviet Union challenged U.S. hegemony. On the one hand, it joined the U.N. On the other, it set up its own military alliance called the Warsaw Pact. Soviet leverage increased in 1949, when it successfully tested its own atomic bomb and broke the U.S. nuclear monopoly.
Over the ensuing decades, these two powers – the U.S. and Soviet Union – raced to develop their arsenals of the most terrible weapons ever known to humanity. That race eventually devolved into an arrangement (system would be too generous a word) of deterrence.
Each of the two nuclear powers developed, maintained and proclaimed its possession of a nuclear arsenal that was designed to survive a first strike by its rival and then deliver an apocalyptic counterstrike. This arrangement of deterrence (aka “mutually assured destruction”) was not the best. It was not good. It was, in fact, evil embodied. But it worked – at least for a time and for the limited purpose of avoiding a nuclear conflagration.
But despite its success up until now, mutually assured destruction remains fundamentally unstable. The awesome economic and technological forces of the modern world, in general, and nuclear weapons, in particular, have outpaced the development of domestic or international arrangements to prevent or limit their use. As a result, competition and aggression by heavily armed countries can threaten humanity.
Drawing upon and developing Lenin’s analysis of imperialism, we realize that so long as a world order based on capitalism (or, more precisely, monopoly capitalism and its global correlate, imperialism) persists, so will the danger of world war and nuclear Armageddon.
That’s why Marxist-Leninists argue for the urgent need for socialism. Besides promising a more humane form of production, distribution and consumption, socialism, if it embodies rational social control of humanity’s most advanced productive and destructive forces, represents civilization’s hope to avoid nuclear catastrophe and survive.
Marxists are not alone in recognizing this imbalance between the awesome destructive powers of nuclear weapons and humanity’s flimsy modes of domestic governance and peaceful international relations. Speaking to the World Social Forum recently, peace activist and retired Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Noam Chomsky pointed out the threat posed by the development of nuclear weapons. In addition to showing “that human intelligence in its glory had devised (a) means for self-annihilation,” he said, it showed “that human intelligence had not developed the moral capacity to comprehend what it is doing and to control its death wish.”[viii]
In 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved and abandoned its self-identification as a socialist state. Three decades later, Russia, never an economic superpower, has slipped behind competitors. Its total gross domestic product in 2020 of $3.9 trillion ranked sixth in the world. And Russia’s military strength – as measured by total spending and the size of its military – has also lagged behind other powers.
The United States has endured its own setbacks. It sent 550,000 soldiers in a failed attempt to defeat the Vietnamese people’s national liberation struggle. The U.S. saw its economy shed manufacturing capacity. With a total gross domestic product of $19.8 trillion, it has been surpassed by China, at $23 trillion.
But the U.S. has continued to extract huge profits from its dominance of financial transactions and speculation. It still controls strategic international financial institutions, and the dollar remains supreme.
Moreover, the United States possesses paramount military muscle. U.S. total annual military spending of $750 billion exceeds the combined total annual military spending of the next 12 largest spenders: China, Saudi Arabia, India, United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Russia, South Korea, France, Italy, Brazil and Australia.[ix]
These and other imbalances – economic, political and military – among capitalist powers generate competition and conflict. For example, the Ukraine invasion by Russia was the latest in a series of large-scale, violent interventions by the armed forces of the world’s two nuclear superpowers. In recent years, Russia has sent troops into Georgia, Crimea and Syria. Over the past three decades, the United States has launched its own military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq (twice).
Many observers expected Ukraine to be overwhelmed by a massive “shock-and-awe” attack by the fearsome Russian army. On paper, Ukraine, with a pre-war population of 43 million, standing army of 209,000 and annual military budget of $5.4 billion, seemed dwarfed by Russia’s 145 million people, standing army of 900,000 and $48-billion military budget.
Instead, a series of setbacks to Russian aggression have prompted ruminations about the prospect of a Ukrainian “victory.” In some apparently unscripted moments, U.S. President Joe Biden labeled Putin a war criminal and, at the conclusion of a March 26 speech on the steps of a castle in Warsaw, exclaimed: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
A widely shared sentiment, no doubt. But diplomacy and speech-making in a nuclear-armed world requires more than honest sentiment to communicate and advance toward strategic objectives.
So far, the war in Ukraine has been fought exclusively with “conventional,” or non-nuclear, weapons. Russia has not acted on its veiled threats to use nukes against Ukraine. Intelligence agencies and analysts say that they have seen no evidence of preparations for use of nukes of any kind.
But the nuclear specter lingers. Putin has repeated barely veiled threats to use nuclear weapons. Biden and top officials of his administration have reaffirmed their open-ended commitments to defend every inch of NATO territory.
Strong words when passing the lips of the leaders of the world’s two nuclear superpowers.
Some analysts and commentators argue that the most immediate and likely threat of nuclearization of the Ukraine war involves the use of so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons.[x] Herbert Lin, a senior research scholar at Stanford, recently wrote that Russia, with several thousand nuclear weapons stockpiled, might choose “to ‘waste’ a low-yield nuclear weapon in an explosion over the Black Sea or North Atlantic that kills only fish and releases minimal radioactivity into the environment.”[xi]
While such a move might, in the perverse logic of nuclear gamesmanship, seem relatively harmless, it could set in motion dangerous forces and demands for retaliation, Lin warned: “The political pressures to ‘do something’ would be quite intense, to say the least.”[xii]
And any breach of the current nuclear taboo could be dangerous. Robert Socolow, a retired physics professor and climate change researcher at Princeton University, recently wrote that “the one clear firebreak against escalation to Armageddon is the gap between non-nuclear and nuclear weapons.”[xiii]
But Siegfried Hecker, a strategic analyst and former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, recently told the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that Russian nuclear strategists had begun contemplating disregard of that “firebreak.” The 1990s had been “enormously difficult economic times in Russia, where essentially everything collapsed, including their conventional military,” Hecker said. During that period Russian nuclear doctrine “evolved to provide a smooth transition from conventional weapons to tactical (non-strategic), to strategic nuclear weapons,” he added.[xiv]
United States leaders have also publicly spoken of the linkages between American nuclear and non-nuclear military strategies. Admiral Charles Richard, the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, wrote in 2021 that planners “must acknowledge the foundational nature of our nation’s strategic nuclear forces, as they create the ‘maneuver space’ for us to project conventional military power strategically.”[xv]
Some military analysts want to go further. On April 27, the far-right editorial page of the Wall Street Journal featured a column by Seth Cropsey, a retired Navy officer who runs a conservative think tank called the Yorktown Institute, under a headline proclaiming, “The U.S. Should Show It Can Win a Nuclear War.” Cropsey outlined various strategic scenarios, culminating in a bone-chilling rumination that “if Russia used a nuclear weapon, the U.S. could use its naval power to hunt down and destroy a Russian nuclear-powered submarine.”
Such a target, according to Cropsey, would allow the U.S. to hit “the backbone of Russian second-strike capability.”[xvi]
Second-strike capability refers to the capacity to preserve enough weapons after a first strike to inflict massive destruction on the attacker. It’s the retaliation that closes the circle of madness – mutually assured destruction – that our civilian leaders count on to prevent either side from initiating a preemptive attack that sets in motion nuclear events that erase civilization and humanity. Talk about “winning” a nuclear war or destroying “second-strike capability” should serve as a warning that humanity is about to enter a high-stakes game of chicken that nobody – literally nobody – can win.
This is a state of affairs that defies rational explanation. Perhaps only a capitalist can express the insane logic that rationalizes pursuit of profit under the looming shadow of extinction.
The capitalist I have in mind, one David Amaryan, owns an investment firm based in Armenia called Balchug Capital. In early April, Amaryan, a former Citibank money manager, unashamedly took advantage of the war in Ukraine to buy up Russian stocks. That “earned” him an enthusiastic profile by the Wall Street Journal.
Now Amaryan was no innocent amateur. In 2010, he and his firm had a run-in with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which alleged “trading on information gleaned from stolen, unpublished press releases,” according to the Journal. Amaryan put out that fire by ponying up a $10-million settlement and walked away without admitting wrongdoing.
Fast-forward to 2022. As Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, Amaryan went on what the Journal described as a “buying spree” that raised Balchug’s Russian stock holdings to 55% of its portfolio (it had been less than 35% before the war).
Amaryan frankly acknowledged the existential dangers of the war but offered this rationale for his heightened investment appetite: “We have had many examples in our recent history when people thought it was the end of the world. It never is,” he told the Journal. “And if, God forbid, things get much worse, none of us is going to care about the stock market anyway.”[xvii]
For the vast majority of humanity not intoxicated by the prospect of investment riches, the urgent need remains to mobilize and act to avert global war, or escalation of smaller conflicts, that might lead to an all-out, existence-threatening nuclear exchange between the planet’s two atomic superpowers.
Damping down the dangers of nuclear escalation will require programs and alliances that unite all the forces that can be united in this struggle for survival. This united front will need to include a range of philosophies, nationalities, cultures and class forces. Joining and fighting within the united front is likely to generate discomfort, doubt and friction among participants.
But we have no choice. The world is threatened by forces of destruction that defy management and control by existing political and organizational forms.
Call it socialism. Call it something new. We need revolutionary change to bring the machinery of monopoly capitalism under control and plan and build for the future.
The survival of humanity and our planet is at stake.
Author’s bio: Rick Jurgens lives in Vermont and is a retired newspaper reporter and former contributor to Unity newspaper. He also worked as a letter carrier, steelworker and cab driver. Off work, he was a member of Tenants Action Group, the International Hotel Support Committee, the Committee Against Nihonmachi Evictions, the Bennie Lenard Support Committee, the Harvard-Radcliffe Committee on Central America and the Central America Solidarity Association.
[i] “Rethinking the unthinkable: Ukraine reveals the need for nuclear disarmament” by Sharon Squassoni, March 17, 2022, posted online by Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at https://thebulletin.org/2022/03/rethinking-the-unthinkable-ukraine-reveals-the-need-for-nuclear-disarmament/.
[ii] “Rethinking the unthinkable: Ukraine reveals the need for nuclear disarmament” by Sharon Squassoni, March 17, 2022, posted online by Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at https://thebulletin.org/2022/03/rethinking-the-unthinkable-ukraine-reveals-the-need-for-nuclear-disarmament/.
[iii] “United States nuclear weapons, 2022” by Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 2022, Vol. 78, No. 3, p. 168.
[iv] Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, 2017, Bloomsbury Publishing, New York, pp. 220-221.
[v] V.I. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1970.
[vi] “Counting the dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki” by Alex Wellerstein in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Aug. 4, 2020, posted online at https://thebulletin.org/2020/08/counting-the-dead-at-hiroshima-and-nagasaki/ .
[vii] See “Building the American Empire: The U.S. Financial Oligarchy After World War II,” unpublished manuscript by Rick Jurgens.
[viii] Speech by Noam Chomsky to the World Social Forum on April 29, 2022 transcribed and posted online at by the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament & Common Security at https://cpdcs.org/speech-by-noam-chomsky-to-the-2022-world-social-forum-april-29-2022/ .
[ix] Compiled by worldpopulationreview.com from database of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
[x] This designation – which distinguishes the use of smaller nukes against specific targets of military importance from the use of nukes delivered by bombers or from silo or submarine-launched missiles to destroy industries, cities or other nuclear facilities – is deceptively bland and reassuring. Consider that compared to modern thermonuclear weapons the bomb used on Hiroshima was “small.”
[xi] “Responding to a Russian demonstration of nuclear muscle-flexing” by Herbert Lin in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, posted March 15, 2022.
[xii] “Responding to a Russian demonstration of nuclear muscle-flexing” by Herbert Lin in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, posted March 15, 2022.
[xiii] “Global Collapse is in view” by Robert Socolow in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, posted March 7, 2022.
[xiv] “Putin has destroyed the world nuclear order. How should the democracies respond?” interview with Siegfried Hecker in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 21, 2022.
[xv] Richard essay in Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, February 2021, was quoted in “How to avoid nuclear catastrophe – and a costly new arms race” by Daryl Kimball in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 12, 2022.
[xvi] “The U.S. Should Show It Can Win a Nuclear War” by Seth Cropsey in the Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2022, p. A17.
[xvii] “The Investor Who’s Sticking with Russia” by Julie Steinberg in the Wall Street Journal, April 3, 2022.
Data for Nuclear Chart – scroll to right to see full chart.
|deployed strategic warheads||total nuclear inventory||% of total world arsenal||total military spending (billions)||rank||military spending as % of GDP||rank||armed forces (thousands personnel)||rank||gross domestic product (billions)||rank||per capita gdp (thousands)||rank||population (millions)||rank||total billionaires||rank||billionaires’ net worth (biilions)|
|Russia||1,588||5,977||47%||$ 48.0||8||4.0%||18||900||5||$ 3,876||6||$ 26.5||72||142||9||117||5||$ 584|
|United States||1,644||5,428||43%||$ 750.0||1||3.5%||22||1,359||3||$ 19,847||2||$ 60.2||17||337||3||724||1||$ 4,400|
|China||–||350||3%||$ 237.0||2||1.7%||74||2,035||1||$ 23,010||1||$ 16.4||102||1,411||1||626||2||$ 2,500|
|Ukraine||–||–||0%||$ 5.4||40||4.0%||19||209||21||$ 517||40||$ 12.4||121||44||35|
|India||–||160||1%||$ 61.0||4||2.2%||49||1,445||2||$ 8,443||3||$ 6.1||163||1,390||2||140||3||$ 596|
|Pakistan||–||165||1%||$ 11.4||24||4||16||654||6||$ 1,021||24||$ 4.6||177||243||5|
|France||280||290||2%||$ 41.5||10||2.0%||57||204||22||$ 2,832||9||$ 42.0||38||68||21|
|UK||120||225||2%||$ 55.1||5||2.5%||41||148||$ 2,797||10||$ 41.6||40||68||22||56||9||$ 214|
|Israel||–||90||1%||$ 20.0||16||5.0%||10||170||29||$ 353||50||$ 38.3||47||9||98|
|DPRK||–||20||0%||$ 1.6||73||4.0%*||not ranked||1,280||4||$ 40||120||$ 1.7||216||26||55|
|Total shown||3,632||12,705||1,231||8,404||$ 62,736||$ 3,738||1,663||$ 8,294|
|source||Federation of American Scientists||Federation of American Scientists||worldpopulationreview.com||CIA World Factbook||worldatlas.com||CIA World Factbook||CIA World Factbook||CIA World Factbook||Forbes||Forbes|