Nuclear war could be on the horizon, analysts warn
The Doomsday Clock is at 100 seconds to midnight.
Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade neighboring Ukraine has put the entire world on alert not seen since the Cold War.
Putin has put his nuclear forces on heightened alert and his foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has said that a third world war would be a nuclear conflict.
President Joe Biden has called Putin a “thug” and a “war criminal” for Russia’s brutal attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine, which include the use of hypersonic missiles. Biden even recently suggested his support for regime change in Russia but the White House quickly walked back that claim saying only the Russian people should make that choice.
But for all the heated rhetoric, Biden has repeatedly said that American troops will not fight for Ukraine, ruling out a no-fly zone and instead providing military and economic assistance to Kyiv.
Washington has pledged to defend “every inch” of NATO territory.
Can NATO stop the war with the economic sanctions that have crippled the Russian economy?
Interviews with about a dozen analysts paint a dire situation not just for Ukraine but the entire planet that sanctions may not be enough to deter Russian aggression.
“The sad reality is that the chances for a nuclear war are now the highest they have ever been since the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Harry Kazianis, Senior Director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for the National Interest, told Baltimore Post-Examiner.
Sixty years ago during the Cuban Missile Crisis the world stood still as Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev took the provocative step of placing mediate and inter-mediate range ballistic missiles tipped with nuclear warheads just 90 miles off the Florida coast.
President John F. Kennedy responded with a naval “quarantine” of the island and the crisis ended with a agreement kept secret for 30 years in which the U.S. would remove its Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets removing their missiles from Cuba.
In that case diplomacy averted a possible nuclear war.
But what about this time?
“If Russia, for example, were to strike back against NATO, the EU or the United States in anyway due to their sanctions—a cyber-attack or a traditional military attack—Joe Biden would be hard pressed to respond. And that means Russia will respond back, with each response getting us closer to nuclear Third-World War. The pathway to a nuclear war is clear, and with all sides so dug in on their positions, finding a diplomatic off-ramp—at least for the moment—looks very far from possible,” Kazianis said.
How do we prevent a nuclear war?
“Biden’s measured, careful approach to the conflict thus far is the right strategy,” Sarah Croco, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park, said.
“It is hard to know what actions Putin will consider as “interference” by an outside country. As of now, humanitarian assistance and sanctions seem not to be triggering any major escalatory reactions from him, at least in terms of a nuclear response. But it is hard to say at this point if he will change his mind on this point or if the US and other NATO states will feel more pressure to intervene militarily as the humanitarian costs continue to rise,” Croco added.
Benjamin Zajicek, a professor of Russian and Soviet history at Towson University, said economic sanctions alone are unlikely to get Russia to withdraw from Ukraine.
“I do not expect Putin to back down from his goals in Ukraine, and the fact that his war so far seems unaffected by the sanctions should not at all come as a surprise. The whole premise of Putin’s declaration of Feb 24 was that the West-and United States in particular-are hypocrites who expect Russia to submit to whatever rules they impose on it.”
But Zajicek said he believes steps are being taken to help avert a third world war.
“I have to assume that the Ukrainian diplomats (and others behind the scenes) are trying to give Putin an off ramp that will enable him to end the war and save face…This undoubtedly will mean Ukraine and maybe the U.S. recognizing Crimea as part of Russia, probably recognizing the annexation of the occupied Donets & Luhansk regions as well, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it also included Ukraine pledging neutrality.
“The last is a bit harder to imagine now than it was two weeks ago because of the way that Ukraine’s heroic defense has galvanized Europe and led to pledges of fast-track admission to the EU, but if it gives Putin a way to say that he has achieved his objectives while also leaving most of Ukraine intact and sovereign – I wouldn’t be surprised if the leaders of Ukraine accepted it. This type of diplomatic resolution is I think the best hope for a resolution that does not involve Ukraine’s cities being bombed into rubble one by one , the conflict lasting for years, and Russia ending up a pariah state dependent on China for its life line to world trade.”
Former Rep. Rick Lazio, a New York Republican who served in Congress from 1993-2001, said that while the sanctions are necessary, they could have unintended consequences.
“Cutting Russia off from SWIFT closes an avenue of intelligence. Second, it may accelerate the move by China, Russia and other non-Western players to develop new and alternative platforms to facilitate the transfer of funds and the creation of alternative currencies. I am quite certain that China is closely monitoring the challenges Russia is facing in accessing its dollar reserves.”
Lazio, who chaired a House Financial Services subcommittee, said one way to gain additional leverage over Russia is to ramp up economic pressure on its closest and most important ally, China.
“One thing the west can do is to try and engage with and mobilize some of the commodity rich emerging market countries that China has been befriending through infrastructure development. China likes that the West is distracted and would not mind it if Russia caused that to continue indefinitely. But it also is concerned about its role in the world and if some of these new client nations were to unify and put some pressure on China that would in turn out pressure on Russia. The only way this war will end is through a combination of military and economic power and ultimately, diplomacy.”
The possibility of a Russian nuclear attack is rather remote, as Putin is considerably more likely to lash out at the West with an invasive cyber attack, Lazio said.
“Putin has been surprised by the breadth and adoption of the sanctions. He cannot retaliate economically in any meaningful way. His troops are bogged down. The Ukrainian resistance is much broader and more fierce than he expected. His economy is damaged. And yet he has to find a way to win. This desperation is likely to lead him to unleash an intensive and broad based cyber attack that could target infrastructure, schools, government operations, large and small businesses, and even hospitals and labs. The time to prepare for this was yesterday. That day having passed, we must find the vision and commitment to fund and otherwise support the defense of these critical assets on a national level.”
But if nuclear war does happen, what do we do? What cities would be targeted? How long does it take for us to get hit? Can an ICBM be shot down?
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the non-partisan Washington, D.C.-based Arms Control Association, said a nuclear war could begin with the detonation of a Hiroshima-sized atomic device on a military target somewhere in Europe.
That action could in turn lead to a retaliatory response by the other side the end result of which would likely be an all-out global nuclear conflict in which “civilization would not exist as we know it.”
Under current war plans, the initial nuclear exchange might involve both the U.S. and Russia each using a portion of their respective 1,400 long-range strategic weapons against prime military targets such as command centers, air bases, and launch sites, Kimball said.
“We would have massive destruction at those sites. Massive fires. Radiation fallout would start to spread across parts of the United States and Russia.”
Nuclear weapons can be delivered three ways: via bomber aircraft, from land-based sites, and from submarines.
The goal of the strikes in the initial phase of the attack would be to limit the retaliatory potential of the opposing side, Kimball said. Some of the missiles could reach their target in as little as twenty minutes.
“The fog of war makes communication and the assessment of the battlefield situation very difficult. In the fog of nuclear war it is even more difficult.”
The decision to launch would lie solely with President of the United States and the President of the Russian Federation. Kimball said the lack of checks and balances on the leaders would not matter much in the event of a nuclear attack because there would little time to deliberate and respective military and political advisers might be unavailable or even dead at that point.
The second and most deadly phase of the nuclear exchange would involve strikes on major cities in both countries, Kimball said.
“Baltimore, Washington, New York , Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc. All of these cities would likely be subject to an attack involving very large yields of nuclear weapons, maybe a 100 times greater than bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Each one of these detonations has a blast effect that produces a blinding flash and a blast wave that has enormous destructive effects, knocking down within several miles any non-reinforced structures…Everything within a mile or two radius of the initial blast location would be incinerated.”
Kimball said missile defense systems would be virtually useless in the event of a massive ICBM attack. Power grids, communication systems and electronic devices would no longer operate. That means hospitals would be able to do little to help surviving victims even if a sufficient number first responders survived the attack. And for those that did survive much of earth would be uninhabitable due to extreme radiation levels and the ensuing nuclear winter.
“We call this situation Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). If one side were to attack, for one reason or another, either by accident or because of escalation of a regional war that becomes nuclear that becomes global-there is no defense. And once one side launches long-range nuclear weapons at the other side, it means mutual suicide.”
Kimball said nuclear war is unlikely but not impossible. To emphasize his point, he noted that the Cuban Missile Crisis only lasted 13 days, whereas the Ukraine crisis has been going on for a month and there is still no end in sight.
What if Donald Trump was still president?
Kazianis said the claim many Republicans have made that Putin would not have invaded Ukraine if Trump was still in the White House has some degree of merit.
“I do believe that Putin did have a lot more fear of Donald Trump than Joe Biden. While we can hardly call Trump a great geo-strategic mind, I do think his tough posture during the North Korea crisis of 2017 shows he would play nuclear poker if needed. That isn’t to say he would start a nuclear war, but I think he would have been far more aggressive trying to get Putin to back down—like hitting Russia with sanctions before the actual invasion began.”
Jeffrey Brooks, a professor of Russian political and cultural history at Johns Hopkins University, disagreed.
“Even in a crisis some people will say whatever advances their short-term interests. And I think that is where that is coming from. It is a shame that the current Republican Party continues to put short-term political interests ahead of national interests. They have made that decision again and again.”
Brooks said that while it is difficult to predict what Putin might do, the chances of a nuclear war are rather remote. He said he believes there are “informal mechanisms” in place in the Russian government that might prevent that course of action.
“Presumably some generals are going to say: ‘No.’ But we do not know that for sure…There is always the risk that something is going to go screwy…My guess is the chances are not huge that we are going to get into a nuclear war with Russia.”
Stephen Long, a professor of political science and global studies at the University of Richmond, said Russia would likely have invaded Ukraine no matter who occupied the White House at the time.
“It is understandable for people to want to assign blame or credit to President Biden or former President Trump for what is happening now in Ukraine, but I think it is important to realize that much of what is happening there is not about the U.S. or its policies.”
“Yes, there were missteps along the way, arguably beginning with quick NATO expansion in the 1990s, but Putin has had his sights set on the Russian near-abroad since at least the early 2000s and I do not believe that the identity or stance of the U.S. president could have changed that very significantly. Critics have suggested that President Biden could have kept the use of force as an option in response to Putin’s buildup before the invasion, but what those critics are suggesting could easily lead to direct war between the U.S. and Russia. Deploying troops to Ukraine or promising their deployment would have been highly irresponsible and dangerous. So, Biden’s options were limited by the circumstances, not by some element of his personality,” Long added.
Putin’s rhetoric vs Trump’s rhetoric
Not only has Putin threatened the use of nuclear weapons, but he has embarked on a concerted campaign of disinformation aimed at convincing both Russians and the world at-large that Moscow is not the aggressor in the conflict.
This includes a pledge to “denazify” Ukraine and cleanse the country of “fascists.”
Never mind that Ukraine is a democracy led by a Jewish president who has ancestors who were murdered in the Holocaust.
Never mind that a Russian missile struck the memorial site at Babyn Yar, which commemorates one of the worst massacres of Jews in the Second World War.
And never mind that Ukraine has never threatened the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.
What role has Trump played in all this?
The former president’s term in office was marked by allegations of Russian collusion in the 2016 election. And it concluded with a second impeachment trial that came about due to allegations of an attempt to get politically damaging information from Zelenskyy about Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine in exchange for U.S. weapons to fight Russian-backed separatists.
Trump has praised Putin’s incursion into Ukraine as “genius.” However, Trump also called the ongoing humanitarian crisis in that country a “holocaust” and urged Russia to withdrawal its troops.
When Trump was in office, many people believed that because of his erratic behavior and rather provocative statements regarding America’s foes that the prospect of nuclear war could not be ruled out.
So, whose rhetoric is worse? Trump’s or Putin’s?
Mark Tauger, a professor of Russian and Soviet history at West Virginia University, said Putin’s rhetoric is “much more dangerous” than Trump’s because Trump is no longer in office whereas Putin still is. “Trump lost the election and is also losing support among Republicans.”
Moreover, Tauger said Putin also is more dangerous because he may not be in touch with reality.
“First, he has demonstrated extremely callous disregard for loss of life among both Ukrainians and Russian forces, as well as his harsh treatments of protestors in Russia. Second, he is not simply ‘isolated’ but also ‘insulated’ by having substantial armed protection around him, just like Yeltsin had. Third, there are reports that Putin is deluded by extreme Russian nationalist ideas that included the view that Ukraine is not a real country but just a part of Russia.”
David Shearer, a professor of Soviet and twentieth century European history at the University of Delaware, agreed.
“Trump’s erratic behavior, among other characteristics, certainly posed dangers and created instability, but Trump did not seem to have imperialistic ambitions. Putin’s threats are more serious precisely because he does have expansionist fantasies, to recreate the (myth of the) Great Russian empire. (Russia cannot be a world power without Ukraine).”
Shearer said Putin is in essence a “fascist leader” and that the West should not back down in the face of his more provocative threats.
“That gives him the initiative to define terms of the international order to suit his own imperial goals. I believe that western powers should do more to put a stop to the Ukraine invasion: airplanes, in particular, and demands that the Russians leave foreign convoys alone or face direct conflict. If Putin is not defeated decisively, if he does not face direct force, he will not give up. Ukraine will never be safe.”
Why should U.S. care about Ukraine?
Ukraine is not a member of NATO nor is it a member of the European Union.
But Ukraine does have aspirations to join both organizations and align itself with the Western world.
Ukraine is not a clean democracy in the western sense of the word. The country has experienced considerable political corruption in recent years. And though Zelenskyy rose to power on a pledge to fight corruption, the president himself has faced accusations of financial improprieties in relation to his association with the country’s oligarchs.
Ukraine was led by Putin-puppet Viktor Yanukovych from 2010-14. Yanukovych fled to Russia amid the political unrest that ensued following the Maidan Revolution.
Ukraine has struggled to come to terms with aspects of its past, which include collaboration with the Nazis in the murder of Jews during World War II, and the ongoing veneration of those who played a role in facilitating those acts.
But right now the Western world has rallied around Ukraine offering both prayers and humanitarian assistance.
“The most important thing that all Americans should care about is the thousands dead and dying, the millions of refugees, and the millions more displaced within Ukraine,” Karl Qualls, a professor of Russian and German history at Dickinson College, said.
“Ukraine’s only “crime” is that it wants fully to be a part of Europe. We need to recognize that entire cities are without food, water, heat, electricity, and now even basic medicines. We need to put to rest the lies about Nazi leadership—inconceivable since Ukraine’s president is Jewish—and that there is no difference between Ukrainians and Russians,” Qualls added.
The Russia-Ukraine war represents a litmus test for how Americans really feel about the principle of defending freedom around the world, Qualls said.
“This is a war that is about the values of humanity and democracy, two things that people in the United States say they value. This is a time to prove it by pushing our representatives to increase humanitarian aid at the very least and preferably military aid. It is also a time for each of us, as we are able, to donate to refugee support and Ukraine and Ukrainian organizations directly so that they can have a fighting chance against a much better equipped foe. Ukraine and Ukrainians share values that most in the US would share. That should be motivation enough.”
What if Biden had not killed the Keystone Pipeline?
Gas prices are soaring and the U.S. and the U.K. are no longer importing Russian oil. Major companies such as Apple are severing business ties with Moscow as part of a pervasive boycott campaign similar to the one much of the world waged against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.
The Russian stock market is in desire straights and was closed for a month. The ruble is now worth less than a penny. Russia’s state-owned airline, Aeroflot, is barred from flying to most destinations in the Western world.
An all-encompassing sanctions regime against Moscow led by the U.S. and Europe could sink Russia’s economy into a deep depression as the world rallies around the valiant people of Ukraine and its seemingly fearless president.
Oil and natural gas are Moscow’s most profitable commodities and the lifeblood of its economy.
The U.S. only gets about 3% of its overall supply of oil from Russia.
But putting a grinding halt to the importation of even that small amount of oil is enough to increase the pain at the pump many Americans are already experiencing due to rapid inflation.
And while the Biden administration has tried to ease that pain buy opening up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, Republicans are laying the blame for high gas prices and limited supply squarely on the president’s energy policy positions-such as his decision to terminate the Keystone XL Pipeline project.
“The difference is primarily about sentiment versus barrels. When you talk about markets sentiment is a big deal,” Jean Card, who served as a cabinet-level speechwriter in the administration of President George W. Bush, said. “The price of energy is a complicated algorithm.”
Card said both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of being dishonest about energy issues.
“There is opportunistic messaging going on on both sides, which is shame because this a moment of real global importance. People in government need to be more candid even if it hurts their side politically. Think of the people in Ukraine. And give up whether you need to win the midterms.”
Card said it is unclear how much of a difference the Keystone Pipeline project would have made in terms of reducing American dependence on foreign oil. However, Card also said that right now is not the time for the Biden administration to focus on its lofty environmental goals.
“Right now we need sentiment on our side. And that would come from an emphasis on domestic production.”
Bryan has a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and a life-long passion for politics at all levels. He has interned in the Maryland General Assembly and has volunteered for several congressional campaigns. Given this particular background, he has a unique insight into the dynamics of political analysis. When he is not writing, Bryan spends his time reading about history and frequenting Chinese restaurants.