Home > Uncategorized > Miscalculation and the increased risk of nuclear war – posted 3/6/2022

Miscalculation and the increased risk of nuclear war – posted 3/6/2022

One of the most unsettling aspects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the increased risk of nuclear war. At the start of the invasion, President Putin led off with this:

“To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside: If you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history. All relevant decisions have been taken. I hope you hear me.”

That was certainly a nuclear threat. Putin told his top defense and military officials to put nuclear forces in a “special regime of combat duty”. It is not entirely clear what that means but it would appear to raise the nuclear threat level up a notch. Putin blames “illegal sanctions” and “aggressive statements” from countries in NATO. He has called the sanctions “a declaration of war”.

The United States and Russia continue to maintain the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world. Russia has 6,000 nukes. The U.S. has 5,600. Both sides can deliver them by plane, submarine and land-based ballistic missiles. The lethal potential is a doomsday scenario where a nuclear attack would result in both sides being annihilated many times over. As has been said about this outcome, the living would envy the dead.

As horrible and as criminal as Putin’s invasion is, the world must avert far worse possible catastrophes like a nuclear war. As Noam Chomsky has said, there has been a reaction “to reach for the six-gun rather than the olive branch”.

Efforts to de-escalate the Ukraine crisis should take center-stage, including ceasefires. We must support any diplomatic options that still exist whether through Israel, France or China. We should be looking for a face-saving off-ramp for Putin.

Nothing about the Ukraine invasion justifies a nuclear exchange. That should be obvious. Ideas like a no-fly zone or the introduction of American or NATO troops must be a non-starter because of the potential risk.

So much media discussion has centered around Putin’s “miscalculation”. And there is plenty of evidence Putin has miscalculated. It is hard not to worry that if Putin fears he is losing the war, he might miscalculate in worse ways.

America also has a long history of miscalculating. Looking back, the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq were horrible miscalculations. Our leaders repeatedly told us lies to justify those wars. Our military-industrial complex has a financial stake in such miscalculations so they can sell their weapons of mass destruction and profit off of war.

History is replete with examples of nations stumbling into war or almost accidentally stumbling into a war.

The outstanding example is the Cuban missile crisis from sixty years ago. The world was incredibly lucky then when Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev miscalculated, placing nuclear missiles in Cuba. We were much closer to a nuclear holocaust than is generally known. For thirteen days, humanity teetered on a knife’s edge. As a young boy, I remember the time.

There is a story from the Cuban missile crisis that deserves our attention.

On October 27, 1962, a little-known senior officer on a Soviet submarine, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, saved the world from nuclear war and mutually assured destruction. Arkhipov was aboard the Soviet sub B-29 which was in the waters off Cuba. He was the Brigade Chief of Staff on the submarine.

Arkhipov’s sub was one of four that had been sent from Moscow. Each carried a special weapon, a single ten-kiloton nuclear torpedo, comparable in strength to the bomb the Americans dropped on Hiroshima.

The commander of each submarine had permission to act without direct orders from higher-ups in Moscow if they believed they were under threat.

President John F. Kennedy had placed Cuba under a strict blockade. When our navy became aware of the presence of Arkhipov’s sub, they sent several vessels to identify it. The U.S. Navy did not know the Russian sub was equipped with a nuclear torpedo.

U.S. forces began dropping low-explosive practice depth charges the size of hand grenades in an effort to get the Soviet sub to surface. Then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara believed the procedure would allow American forces to “actually hit the submarine without damaging the submarine”. He thought those on board would interpret the depth charges as a “warning notice and the instruction to surface’.

The crew on the B-29 sub had been incommunicado. They had been unable to make contact with Moscow for days. They were unaware of the American intention behind the use of the depth charges. Air-conditioning on the sub had failed and it was sweltering. The atmosphere on the sub was extremely tense. Lack of oxygen was leading some to think they would die.

The depth charges were interpreted as an indication war had already started.An intelligence officer on B-29, Vadim Orlov, later described the scene:

“They exploded right next to the hull. It felt like you were sitting in a metal barrel, which somebody is constantly blasting with a sledgehammer…We thought – that’s it – the end.”

The sub’s captain, Vitali Savitsky, panicked. He ordered the sub’s nuclear torpedo to be assembled for launch as he believed the war had started. He said, “We’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not disgrace our navy!”

In order to launch the nuclear torpedo, protocol required the captain to get unanimous agreement from the two other political officers on the sub. Deputy political officer, Ivan Maslennikov, gave the green light but his second-in-command, Vasili Arkhipov, said “no”. Arkhipov was able to calm the captain down The nuclear torpedo was not launched.

If Arkhipov had said “yes”, we all might not be here now. A different political officer might have concurred with the captain. The explosion of a nuke off Cuba destroying American warships could have lit the fuse.

I think Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the scariest nuclear moment since the Cuban missile crisis. The nuclear threat is too casually written off or dismissed as unlikely. In the context of the invasion, just the proximity of so many hostile troops and military hardware increases the chance of an accident or a miscalculation.

It would not take much for a military escalation. It could be a fighter plane crash or collision or an unexplained shoot-out between some macho trigger-happy soldiers. All it takes is one side misinterpreting the other side. Tough guy posturing and miscalculations could get us all killed and end life on the planet. We need the wisdom of an Arkhipov. Sanity requires we step back from the brink.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Tom Chase
    March 19, 2022 at 10:41 pm

    Sorry about the loss of your friend.

    I read your piece about the risk of nuclear war. I’m 77 and I know about that risk, having lived through the “duck & cover” period, the Cuban Missile Crisis and all the wars since. I am currently a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and have been a member of other anti-war organizations over the years.

    But I am not willing to let Putin bomb and shell Ukraine back to the Stone Age before we do more to stop the carnage.

    I want to begin with the assertion, recently made by Alexander Vinman, that Putin is not suicidal.

    The Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) strategy uses the metaphor of two adversaries in a room up to their ankles in gasoline. Each has a book of matches. Will Putin light a match? I doubt it – unless we attack Russia directly.

    So let’s adopt a strategy that begins with a declaration that we will not attack Russia.

    The next step would be to declare our object: to help the Ukrainians drive the Russians out of their country.

    We would give the Russians a time certain for leaving Ukraine, and after that date, we and our NATO allies would begin to drive them out – west to east.

    I will leave others to worry about what to do with the Crimea and the Dombas region as this military operation proceeds. But we should keep the purpose clear: Russians, GO HOME.

    I encourage you to think about this over the next two weeks. Maybe the Russians will run out of missiles and artillery shells. Maybe the Stingers and Javelins will arrive and turn the tide. But my bet is that there will be at least another 3 million refugees. More cities will be leveled. And more Ukrainians will be dead – some by bullets, some by bombs, some by starvation.

    But I think that we need to do more.

    If you would like to comment back – and maybe provide your email – please do so.

    I look forward to continuing to read your pieces in the Monitor.

    • March 20, 2022 at 2:33 pm

      Hi Tom, thanks so much for writing. I will reply to you privately.

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