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Welcome to the New Cold War and the Return of Nuclear Brinkmanship

Issue 270

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought back unsettling memories of the Cold War and the nuclear brinkmanship that came with it.

John Tarleton Mar 29

One day when I was about 10-years-old, I asked my dad if we would all die if there was a nuclear war. 

I don’t remember if we were driving home from little league baseball practice, or if I had tagged along on a trip to the grocery store. I don’t remember what exactly prompted the question, though the Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was the backdrop against which our lives unfolded. What I do remember is the response of this good-natured man who doted on his family and rarely missed Sunday mass. 

“Son,” he said, his voice dropping to underscore the gravity of the matter, “Better dead than red.”

The idea that we might have to allow life on Earth as we know it to be annihilated amid thousands of exploding mushroom clouds was terrifying. So I buried my 10 year-old’s sense of dread. Surely our leaders would guide us through these dangers without the worst happening. And if we did someday leap into the nuclear abyss to avoid being enslaved by a godless communist tyranny, well, that only showed how precious our freedom was. 

“Son,” my father said, his voice dropping to underscore the gravity of the matter, “Better dead than red.”

I moved to the left in my college years and became critical of capitalism, U.S. imperialism, the arms race and the role of the military-industrial complex in fueling our many wars. Then the Cold War ended in 1989 and it became easy enough to forget about the prospect of nuclear war even if the U.S. and Russia maintained much of their vast stockpiles of nuclear weapons. There were so many other more immediate issues to address. 

A rough beast awakens

Now, as war rages in Ukraine, the nuclear beast awakens from its slumber. For many of us who came of age during the Cold War, the fact that Russia and the U.S. are both deeply involved in a rapidly escalating conflict is deeply unsettling. Not only has the prospect of nuclear war returned but so too has the logic of nuclear brinkmanship, which makes us all hostage to these weapons. 

In case you weren’t around for the Cold War or forgot its nuclear lessons, here’s a quick rundown.

  1. Every sane person knows there would be no winner in a nuclear war, only losers. Yet, the logic of “deterrence” requires the leaders of nuclear-armed countries to insist they would be willing to use them, otherwise they risk being blackmailed by rival heads of state who do appear willing to use their nukes. 
  2. Nuclear-armed missiles fired from the United States and Russia can travel to their targets in 30 minutes or less. Once a missile is launched, it can’t be recalled. Intercontinental ballistic missiles can carry 10 warheads, each one far more powerful than the atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. 
  3. The most likely way a nuclear war starts is during a moment of escalating tensions in an international crisis. Picture Side A becoming convinced it’s about to be annihilated by Side B and so decides to fire its nukes first rather than risk being wiped out. Or, being aware that Side A might mistakenly launch its nukes could also trigger Side B into rushing ahead to fire its weapons first. 
  4. Surviving the Cold War was due to luck as much as anything else. In addition to hair-raising international confrontations like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, there were a number of false alarms on both sides that brought us to the brink of catastrophe. Among the causes of these nuclear near-misses were an exploding satellite, a faulty computer chip, the sun reflecting off the tops of high-altitude clouds and a flock of geese misinterpreted as a Soviet bomber attack. 

If the United States and Russia detonated roughly half of their 10,000 nuclear warheads, more than 700 million people would die from the initial blasts and their immediate aftermath, according to a 2008 study published by Physics Today. Global temperatures would plummet below freezing for more than a year due to the soot caused by the nuclear explosions and forest fires blotting out the sun. Agricultural production would collapse by more than 90% and billions would starve. Bands of survivors would be left to eke out an existence on a barren wasteland of a planet.

Cooler heads have prevailed so far in denying Ukraine’s appeal for a U.S./NATO no-fly zone to be established over its skies. To sustain a no-fly zone would require shooting down Russian warplanes and destroying Russian anti-aircraft systems on the ground in Ukraine and inside Russian territory. The Russians could respond by attacking U.S. assets in Poland or another nearby NATO country. From there, the retaliatory spiral could escalate into an exchange of nuclear weapons within hours or days. 

On March 4, footage from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southeast Ukraine showed smoke and fire-like bits emitting from offscreen. Photo: Zaporizhzhia NPP.

Russia’s invasion

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a horror show. Nothing can justify it. Russian President Vladimir Putin has put Western leaders on notice with his veiled threats about being ready to use nuclear weapons. Still, the United States and Europe are going to find it harder to exercise caution if the pummeling of Ukraine continues. Wars by their nature tend to produce more extreme behavior over time, and to draw in more and more third-party actors. 

Many on the left, myself included, misjudged Putin’s willingness to invade Ukraine. We should be humbled by that. The Ukrainians, with U.S. backing, are now fighting a war of independence against a cruel imperial power. For those of us who’ve long protested our government’s various wars and interventions, CIA-backed coups, despots and death squads, it’s a disorienting space to be in. Some on the left have echoed the Russian narrative that the Ukrainian resistance is largely made up of neo-Nazis. Others have decried weapons shipments to the Ukrainians as harming the prospects for a diplomatic solution when the Ukrainians’ ability to fight back is the only thing that has brought the Russians to the negotiating table. 

The Ukrainians against-all-the-odds defense of their freedom has been inspiring. The most important thing progressives can do is insist that this conflict will have to be resolved through peace talks, the sooner the better.

There are elements in the U.S. national-security establishment who would welcome Ukraine turning into a long-term, Afghanistan-style quagmire for the Russians. This would be a boon for weapons makers but a disaster for the people of Ukraine and Russia as well as for the world’s food supply, given the key role the two countries play as exporters of wheat, barley, corn and fertilizers, especially to countries in Africa and the Middle East.

To sustain a no-fly zone would require shooting down Russian warplanes and destroying Russian anti-aircraft systems on the ground in Ukraine and inside Russian territory.

Should the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reach a peace accord it can live with, the United States and its allies should be ready to roll back sanctions on Russia, if that’s what it takes to close the deal. Conservative and liberal hawks who are high on the good vs. evil fervor of Cold War 2.0 will cry “sell-out.” They should be ignored. 

To end a conflict in which they are badly outgunned, the Ukrainians will have to make compromises they find distasteful. This means renouncing their quest for NATO membership and acknowledging, in one fashion or another, Russia’s control of Crimea in the south — which is home to a key warm-water port — and the parts of two Russian-speaking separatist provinces in the east already under Russian sway. The most important thing the Ukrainians can win is their freedom to rebuild the kind of society they want to live in. That alone would be a powerful blow to Putin’s demented dream of absorbing their country into his “Greater Russia.” 

A post-nuclear future?

“We have found ourselves in the midst of this giant cyclone of demand,” Italian businessman Giulio Cavicchioli told the New York Times as he showed off an underground air filtration system that is part of the nuclear shelter his company manufactures. In the first two weeks of the Russo-Ukrainian War, his company received 500 queries about their shelters, after building 50 of them in the previous 22 years.

This can’t go on. Reaching new arms control agreements with the Russians seems impossible at this time. But, assuming we get through this crisis, the wheel of history will turn again. When a new opportunity arises, we should recall the unease we feel now. Instead of burying it somewhere deep in our psyche with a 10-year-old child’s naive belief in the wisdom of our leaders, we should insist our government renew arms control treaties that were shredded by the Trump administration and do everything possible to push the nuclear genie back into the bottle. Given enough time, it’s quite likely that if we don’t end nuclear weapons, they will end us.

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