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Russia's Invasion of Europe and The Threat of Nuclear War

by R. Anthony Arnold
March 2022

In Russia’s build up to, and eventual invasion of, a war in Ukraine, there were two occurences that greatly raised both eyebrows and tension. The first was the conducting of drills by their strategic nuclear forces in the earlier part of February. The second was a statement by President Vladmir Putin, himself, when the war began, warning that any country that interfered would face “consequences you have never seen;” which some understood as a reference to the threat of nuclear war.

Russia’s stockpile of nuclear weapons leads the world, and so the possibility that they could use one of them in a war must be treated as credible. However tragic and destrucive the atomic bombs we dropped in World War 2 were, they pale in the comparison to the power of modern nuclear armaments. Because of those two factors, there’s an understandable desire to avoid doing anything that might lead to an exchange of weapons, which could carry apocalyptic consequences.

And yet, that very thing could lead to an almost complete breakdown in the international order, particularly our ability to honor our commitments to others.

In 1994, as Ukraine continued to move away from their Soviet Union past, they wanted to build closer ties to the rest of the international community. The problem was that in the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had been left with thousands of nuclear missiles. They didn’t have complete control over them. for technical reasons, but the presence of such a large and uncontrolled arsenal was concerning.

So, the two sides traded in a document known as ‘The Budapest Memorandum’. Ukraine agreed to either get rid of or destroy their weapons and the other countries that signed the document agreed to recognize their new borders and respect their right to independence. Those signing countries were the United States, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Russia.

According to Part 4 of the Budapest Memorandum, “ The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, as a non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used.”

Now, if you look this up, you’ll find disagreement on whether or not the agreement represented a security guarantee. It was largely understood, at the time, that the primary threat to Ukrainian independence was going to be Russia. So, all the wording about recognizing and respecting their sovereignty certainly gives the impression that the western countries signing this document would defend Ukraine, if necessary, from Russia.

This impression was further strengthened in November of 2021, when current Secretary of State Anthony Blinken signed the Charter on Strategic Partnership with Ukranian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, which once again emphasized our “unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.” This time, as Russia’s forces were building up their presence, there was no doubt who the threat would be.

But what does it mean to be “unwavering,” and how does that apply in a world where weapons of war can wipe out vast swaths of human life in under an hour?

Imagine a scenario where the tiny country of Estonia is being invaded. It’s a tiny little country, with a population of just under 1.5 million. It’s also a former member of the Soviet Union, like Ukraine. But unlike Ukraine, Estonia is an official member of NATO.

According to the NATO website, Article 5 specifically lays out: "The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area."

Meaning that if there were to be an attack on their sovereignty, every other NATO country would be obligated, legally, to aid them. Now, maybe we’d decide that risking a nuclear exchange over a country as small as Estonia just isn’t worth it. But, if we were to do that, what would it say about the strength of our commitments if we can discard them with such ease?

This is the bind that nuclear weapons have put us in. The absolute desire to avoid all-out war means that anything less than that becomes much more acceptable. Right now, we’re helping Ukraine the best we can, without committing our own soldiers. Perhaps, in a world without nuclear weapons, true weapons of mass destruction, we’d be more committed to supplying troops for the Ukrainian cause.

Whether that would be a good thing or bad thing isn’t the point. The point is that the existence of these weapons has irrevocably altered the way we approach these problems. Because, if you won’t defend Ukraine or Estonia due to the risk, then why defend Germany or France or the UK? Why even defend your own home country? The risk hasn’t changed. The threat of annihilation would be there in every single case.

There are only two ways to avoid the risk of nuclear war, forever. The first is to hope that humankind, and the leaders of all nations, evolve to the point where war becomes a relic of the past; which seems unlikely. The second is to discard our commitments to others and allow large and nuclear capable countries to do as they wish. That’s more possible, but also seems cruel and would involve us going back on our word.

In the immediate aftermath of World War 2, everyone was awestruck and terrified by the arrival of these new weapons. At no other point in history had countries possessed the kind of force that led Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist in charge of “The Manhattan Project” during World War II and the father of the atomic bomb, to say, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.

Oppenheimer would be haunted by his creation, saying nearly two years after World War II, “In some sort of crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humour, no overstatements can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”

He recognized what few others did. The era of nuclear war had begun, and everything had changed.

In the decades since that event, our foreign policy has been slow to adapt to this fact. We have, instead, adopted two paths that appear to be at odds with one another. On the one hand, we maintain security agreements that would oblige us to defend, with our military, countries across the world. On the other hand, we, for now, have an unshakeable commitment to avoiding anything that would risk nuclear exchange.

Oppenheimer recognized that the knowledge of how to build these weapons couldn’t be contained. The demand for more power and more control will compel science to develop ever more devastating weapons, with no guarantee that those weapons will remain in the hands of the “responsible” or the “good.” Even in a country like ours, where leaders rotate every few years, there’s no guarantee that in 20 years our democracy won’t have somebody in charge who is just as determined as Putin.

At some point, it’s likely that a nuclear-armed country will carry out an act of aggression against a country we’ve pledged to defend. Then the question becomes, ‘will we enter the fight’?

There are no easy answers here. Each route presents us with the most serious of consequences. Either we’ll honor our commitments and risk ending everything; or we’ll back down and the security assurances that have brought a measure of stability to the world will be rendered meaningless.

For a while, during the long peace in Europe, it appeared that we would never need to come up with an answer to that question. But Russia’s invasion of Europe, and the shattering of that long peace, have reminded us of the inevitability of war, and the answers it demands.