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The Nightmare Scenario

By Sergei Plekhanov
2 3
Sergei Plekhanov
Contributor
Sergei M. Plekhanov is associate professor in the department of political science, York University (Toronto, Canada), coordinator of the Post-Communist Studies Program and Security Studies at York Centre, and…
Sergei Plekhanov

UPDATE #2:

Check out these three new pieces relevant to nuclear proliferation:

UPDATE #1:

The Nuclear “Doomsday Clock” Ticks Two Minutes Closer to Midnight


Editor’s note: A former arms control expert in the Soviet Union argues that Bush, in his obsession with North Korea and Iran’s relatively minuscule nuclear threat, has effectively ignored the much more perilous threat of Russia’s 10,000-strong nuclear arsenal.

This week, the international crisis that started in September with U.S. discovery of stepped-up uranium enrichment activities in Iran is expected to trigger a nuclear war between Russia and the United States. In the past few weeks, international attempts to defuse the crisis failed, as Russia, supported by China and North Korea, increased the readiness of its armed forces and made several threatening moves. In his address to the citizens of Russia, President Valdimir Putin called the situation “grave” and expelled U.S. diplomats from Moscow. President Bush invoked the War Powers Act. A Russian reconnaissance plane collided in midair with a U.S. plane in the vicinity of U.S. ballistic missile defense installations. It is expected that in the next few days, Russia will launch a strategic nuclear strike at American command centers and armed forces. The U.S. will retaliate.

This is the gist of the scenario, called Vigilant Shield ’07, for this year’s Homeland Defense Exercise, currently being conducted by the U.S. Northern Command, according to Washington Post columnist William Arkin’s Early Warning blog (“Russia Supports North Korea in Nuclear War” and “The Vigilant Shield 07 Exercise Scenario”). War games are a peculiar genre, easy to make fun of, but the logic of this scenario merits serious attention, as it reminds us of an important reality we usually prefer to forget about.

When we think about the danger of nuclear war nowadays, the mind zeros in on North Korea and Iran and stays there, preoccupied with the fact that North Korea has a few nuclear bombs, while Iran may or may not build a few of its own in the next decade. The international community is tying itself in knots trying to respond to the colossal threats to world peace and security that these two countries present.

Now, the reality is that of the world’s estimated 22,000 nuclear weapons, about 21,000 belong to the U.S. and Russia, each of the two possessing nearly equal numbers and keeping about 1,000 of them ready for launching within 30 minutes. The rest are distributed in batches of a few hundred among France, the UK, China and Israel, while the new members of the “nuclear club,” India and Pakistan, possess a few dozens each (Nuclear Issues — CDI).

If we should worry about the existence of nuclear weapons with their unique capacity to put an end to human life on this planet, it is odd that we overlook the thousands and peer at the murky single digits through a magnifying glass and tremble with fear.

What happened to the clarity of mind that defined world thinking about nuclear weapons 20 years ago, when it was obvious that the really dangerous nukes were those in massive numbers that the Americans and the Russians trained on each other and were ready to use on a few minutes’ notice? Recognition of the danger and willingness to do something about it was then a mark of supreme statesmanship. So, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan jointly proclaimed in Geneva in November 1985 that “nuclear war can never be won and should never be fought,” it resonated through the global community, generating hopes that maybe, just maybe, they really meant it and would do something real to reduce the nuclear threat. And they did. They worked out a series of agreements to bring the Cold War to a close and start the process of nuclear disarmament. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, the momentum of nuclear arms reduction continued for a decade. And then, at the dawn of the new century, just as we stopped worrying about the big bombs because they seemed to be on the way out, a Second Nuclear Age began. One of its hallmarks is that both Washington and Moscow have rediscovered the political value of nuclear weapons and are working to make sure that their still-enormous arsenals can be used, quickly, for unleashing a war that would cripple this planet beyond repair.

The existing architecture of nuclear arms control, composed of dozens of international treaties and institutions created to monitor their implementation, was built in the 1960s-1990s primarily to reduce the threat of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Underpinning the architecture was U.S.-Soviet strategic parity. In a very real sense, the energy of the global East-West conflict fueled the efforts to contain and regulate it. And Washington and Moscow became joint custodians of international arms control. Today, that joint enterprise seems to be on the way to Chapter 11.

There are a number of reasons for this.

First, there is complacency. Since the 1980s, the sense of urgency that had stimulated arms control efforts in the past has progressively weakened. The fear that the U.S. and Russia might use their fearsome arsenals gave way to a fear that the Russian economic crisis might make the post-Soviet arsenal easy prey to organized crime and terrorism. Safe dismantlement and storage of the redundant weapons and submarine reactors was becoming a more important area of U.S.-Russian cooperation than mutual reduction of the arsenals.

Even more important is the impact of the new U.S.-Russian strategic disparity. The fact that both countries have continued to maintain roughly equal numbers of nuclear arms has been increasingly at odds with the real dimensions of the two sides’ international influence. While Russia reeled under the impact of its calamitous transition to capitalism and the Kremlin’s attention largely turned inward, the United States claimed the role of the world’s hegemonic power intent on remaking the global order.

 

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