edge closer to Armageddon | opinion

If you’re younger than 65, you probably don’t remember the worried look on your mother’s face during the Cuban Missile Crisis or trying to hunker down under your school desk during a civil defense drill. That’s probably a good thing, but it has left many Americans with insufficient fear of what nuclear war and its aftermath would be like.

On Christmas Day 1991, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin took control of the Soviet Nuclear Suitcase, the suitcase containing the launch codes for the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons. Yeltsin, whose contribution to world peace has largely been forgotten, promptly announced that the Soviet Union’s vast nuclear arsenal would no longer be aimed at the West. The world breathed out a deep sigh of collective relief. The danger of a strategic nuclear conflict between East and West seemed averted.

Until now.

Last month President Joe Biden warned that humanity is closer to nuclear Armageddon than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. We should take him seriously.

Mourning in Ukraine
Family members mourn during the funeral of 44-year-old Maksym Kropyva, who was killed on November 8 during fighting in Ukraine’s Mykolayiv district.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Despite decades of disarmament negotiations, Russia and the United States still possess vast nuclear arsenals, accounting for about 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. While the number of nuclear warheads has indeed decreased, their destructive power and delivery capability has not. Russia has an enormous stockpile (about 2,000) of tactical nuclear weapons, ranging in size from artillery shells to cruise missile-mounted warheads. Moscow has also invested in a variety of advanced delivery systems, including the Kinzhal hypersonic air-to-surface missile, the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, the massive Sarmat ballistic missile, named after a particularly barbaric Russian tribe, and the Poseidon Nuclear torpedo in fact a 70 foot nuclear powered unmanned submarine. All of these weapons have been developed since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Comparing these modern weapons to the bombs dropped on Japan is like comparing your daughter’s Tesla to your grandfather’s Model T Ford. They’re both cars, but that’s about as far as the comparison goes. In 1945, the B-29 Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT on Hiroshima. It destroyed almost everything within a three mile radius and killed 145,000 people. Today, the destructive power of atomic bombs often exceeds 1,000,000 tons of TNT. Modern delivery systems carry multiple, independently targeted warheads capable of hitting multiple cities simultaneously. If your concept of nuclear war is the devastation of Hiroshima, you are woefully outdated.

The initial destruction caused by even a moderately powerful modern nuclear weapon is elusive. Hundreds of thousands would perish in the initial burst of radiation and intense heat. The resulting fires would unleash multiple simultaneous firestorms, like those that engulfed Tokyo and Dresden. The overpressure of the air blast and gale force winds would destroy buildings and people 20 miles from the blast. The iconic mushroom cloud would scatter radioactive fallout hundreds of kilometers. None of this is speculation or disputed.

What surprises many is the extraordinary environmental damage of a nuclear war. The dust, ash, and soot created by nuclear explosions would reflect the sun’s heat back into space, causing a rapid drop in global temperatures. The respected Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimates that a limited nuclear war like that between India and Pakistan would produce enough ash to cool the earth by 1 degree Celsius. A strategic nuclear conflict between the United States and Russia could drop temperatures by as much as 8 degrees Celsius below those of the last ice age.

As the planet cooled, the effects of nuclear war would spread in myriad ways. The most important consequence would be a worldwide famine. Colder temperatures would lead to shorter growing seasons and lower crop yields. Less heat would mean colder oceans, less evaporation and less rain. There would be fewer ice-free ports and more frozen rivers. Electricity generation from solar and hydropower would decline. A nuclear war would also wreak havoc on global supply chains, leading to far greater shortages than during COVID-19.

Advocates of a war in Ukraine “as long as it lasts” make three dubious assumptions, each more dangerous than the other. The first is the belief that Russia will never use tactical nuclear weapons because it would provoke an overwhelming conventional response. The second is the notion that any nuclear exchange would be contained, and the third is the assumption that even a major nuclear exchange would be survivable.

In Moscow, war is seen as an existential struggle and a cornered snake will strike even when holding a large stick. No Russian government, now or likely in the future, will accept total defeat. Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed in his speech at Moscow’s Valdai Discussion Club last week that as long as nuclear weapons exist, there is always a risk that they could be used. Dozens of nuclear war simulations, some of which we have participated in, have shown time and time again that “limited” nuclear conflicts usually escalate into a strategic exchange. Furthermore, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists predicts an immediate death toll of 27,000,000 even in a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan with a full-scale exchange between Russia and the United States ending the world as we know it.

The Russian retreat from Kherson was a tactical retreat in preparation for a major offensive once the ground froze. Still, we have time to end this proxy war between NATO and Russia before we get into a bigger conflict. How easily that can happen is illustrated by the recent incident in Poland, where two people died in an explosion (which is still unfolding). The suggestion that Russia must withdraw from all occupied territories before negotiations can begin is a false start. Russian withdrawal and Ukrainian neutrality are precisely the issues that need to be negotiated. The United States is the quartermaster of Ukraine. The idea that we have no control over how this conflict ends is disingenuous. It’s time to call in our diplomats.

David H. Rundell is a former US Embassy Chief of Mission to Saudi Arabia and the author of Vision or Mirage, Saudi Arabia at the Crossroads. Ambassador Michael Gfoeller is a former policy adviser to US Central Command. Fluent in Russian, he served in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union for fifteen years.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own.

https://www.newsweek.com/edging-closer-armageddon-opinion-1760130 edge closer to Armageddon | opinion

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