Stumbling Into Nuclear War

In a story that deserves more attention, Ukraine recently attacked a Russian early warning radar facility designed to detect nuclear attacks. This insane action conferred no military advantage on Ukraine—the station monitored potential launches in the Middle East—but it carried with it the risk of igniting a nuclear war. From the perspective of the country being attacked, the only reason to attack an early warning system would be to blind one’s enemy as a prelude to a nuclear attack.

Nuclear war is the most dangerous game. It means the end of civilization. If this horror show ever comes to pass, it is likely more than half of the people on our planet will die. Many console themselves that they’ll die instantly and that most of the consequences will borne by others, but no one can be sure.

Even with such cold comfort, many will survive, at least for a time. They’ll survive disfigured, injured, poorer, hungrier, and sicker. And they will do so in a new world where things we take for granted like clean water, electricity, medical care, and basic law and order are all absent. But they will be alive, and they will try to remain so.

Nuclear Forgetfulness

Unfortunately, rational fear of nuclear war is not as much a part of the public consciousness as it once was. Generation X and Baby Boomers both grew up worried about nuclear conflict. They did “duck and cover” drills in school and saw footage of nuclear tests on television. They had a sense of the scale of the risks from books like Alas Babylon and influential films like Dr. Strangelove, War Games, and The Day After.

When the Cold War ended, it was a great relief, especially in the West. We were told the world was still dangerous, but it didn’t feel as dangerous as it did when a hair-trigger nuclear posture prevailed between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Serbia did not carry the same existential risk that prevailed during the Cold War. Today, the risk of nuclear war is more salient, not least because of the arrival of a flotilla of Russian naval ships in Cuba. The ships include the frigate Admiral Gorshkov, which is capable of launching nuclear-tipped hypersonic missiles, along with the never-seen-before nuclear submarine Kazan.

While ostensibly there to conduct naval exercises, the visit has a whiff of the Cuban missile crisis and its risky nuclear brinkmanship. This situation has understandably alarmed many Americans. We are used to being invulnerable and impressing others with our military power. We even direct our naval ships into the Black Sea. We are definitely not used to hostile, nuclear-armed vessels patrolling off of our coasts.

Here, our collective anxiety makes some sense. Being so close to the United States, any of these ships could launch nuclear missiles in order to destroy command and control systems and decapitate our national leadership. Russian hypersonic missiles would take twelve minutes or less to reach Washington, D.C.

Russia Is Sending a Signal

This visit takes place in parallel with a proxy war in Ukraine, in which the United States and other NATO countries have supplied training, intelligence, and arms and ammunition in order to weaken Russia and its armed forces.

Weakening is an anodyne word that does not convey the full gravity of what is taking place. We are trying to kill Russians and destroy their military. We have had some success in doing so, and we have not made any secret about it. This is understandably very provocative to the world’s largest nuclear power, even if one condemns Russia and its invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian flotilla’s visit appears to be an intermediate step, one designed to communicate a message: we can hurt you too. It is too public to be the foundation of a sneak attack.

But the risk of such an attack is very real. Submarines on both sides already have the potential for a decapitating first strike against the other, and this does not require any public port visits. Ordinary first strikes are deterred by the prospect of mutually assured destruction, but a submarine attack that seeks the swift removal of the leadership and command systems of the other side may occur regardless. They may occur because, if they are successful, these attacks defeat the possibility of an otherwise-inevitable retaliatory strike and thereby defeat the logic of mutually assured destruction.

More importantly, Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he views the war in Ukraine as an existential war for national survival and that Russia will do everything necessary, including using nuclear weapons, to win. He has repeatedly warned the United States and other NATO states that there are lines that we have crossed or are about to cross, which may set in motion a chain reaction that leads to the use of nuclear weapons.

Like the man who jumps from the building and says, “So far, so good,” the failure of these provocations to yield a Russian response are lulling us into a dangerous complacency. We will only know we have gone too far when a global nuclear war breaks out. We should instead steer clear of such risks and maintain an ample margin for safety.

A War No One Wants

The recent authorization for Ukraine to use western weapons for deep strikes within Russia proper accords with American military doctrine. This doctrine calls for disruptive and deep attacks against enemy logistics hubs and command and control infrastructure. This is a well-supported conventional strategy, but, even during the Cold War, western planners never fully accounted for the risk of provoking a nuclear response.

This boomerang effect does not depend on one or the other side’s inherent ruthlessness; rather, it arises from ordinary fear and confusion about an adversary’s intent. As Barry Posen argued in his Cold War-era study Inadvertent Escalation, “confusion about the relationship between conventional and nuclear war can lead to situation in which Western conventional and nuclear forces work at cross purposes.” In such a scenario, we or Russia do something that we consider conventional, proportionate, normal, and non-nuclear, but the other side perceives it quite differently.

For example, an American or proxy attack on a navy base or airport using conventional weapons may seem a far cry from a nuclear threat, but what if one or more planes at the airfield is an early warning plane or a nuclear-capable bomber? The party being attacked may reasonably wonder if the real intention is to defeat its nuclear retaliatory capability.

This is one of the paradoxes of conventional conflict between nuclear powers: tactical and operational victories using conventional weapons can lead to perceptions that it is time to “use it or lose it” for nuclear weapons.

The incremental escalation of the Ukraine War flows logically from the American doctrinal emphasis on deep strikes to disrupt enemy logistics. I wrote before the war began, “It’s not clear that the United States would keep any conflict over Ukraine confined to the borders of Ukraine. After all, Russian logistical depots, strategic reserves, and manpower are located in Russia proper. Avoiding them in conducting warfare would give Russia’s substantial conventional capability even more power than it would otherwise have . . .” Yet here we are. Ukrainian missiles have not only sunk Russia’s capital ships and been directed at civilian areas of Moscow, but now are being directed at Russia’s critical nuclear early warning radar sites.

While this could be a case of the Ukrainians acting on their own, they are very much our proxy. I suspect this is actually a probing attack authorized by the United States, where public protests function as cover-enhancing plausible deniability.

Either way, this is madness. Regardless of their intentions, our leaders should be held accountable for the foreseeable consequences of their policies and the foreseeable risks that they are presently creating. Providing sophisticated long-range weapons and authorizing Ukraine to use them within Russian territory courts disaster on the biggest scale imaginable.

During the Cold War, policymakers and the public had a comparatively more sophisticated understanding that a nuclear war was a risk of such magnitude that direct confrontations between the Soviet Union and NATO had to be avoided. This approach prevailed even after acts of aggression, including the Soviet interventions in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). But today a compliant media, an ignorant public, and an arrogant ruling class have combined to render the risk of nuclear war higher than it was at any point during the Cold War.

God help us.

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.


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About Christopher Roach

Christopher Roach is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness and an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, Chronicles, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.

Photo: HAVANA, CUBA - JUNE 12: A submarine belonging to the Russian Navy flotilla arrives at the port of Havana, today, Wednesday, June 12, 2024, in Havana, Cuba. A Russian Navy flotilla that includes a modern frigate and a nuclear-powered submarine arrived in Havana this Wednesday morning as part of a scheduled visit. (Photo by Yander Zamora/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Notable Replies

  1. Fred Thompson’s line in the Hunt for Red October, " This business will get out of control. It will get out of control and we’ll be lucky to live through it", resonated with me the first time I saw the movie, and has stayed with me ever since. Elites playing the brinkmanship game are like two year old’s playing with matches—so fascinated with the pretty fire, they have no concept of the destruction it could bring.

    At least three serious peace proposals in the Ukrainian conflict have been proposed and all were shot down by the folks at Foggy Bottom. I’m toying with the idea of dropping Brinkmanship and replacing it with Blinkmenship. It is getting that ridiculous and dangerous.

  2. It would be easy to compare DC’s foreign policy brahmins and Pentagon brass to the loopy characters in the '60s dark comedy Dr. Strangelove, but it wouldn’t necessarily be inaccurate.

    DC has become one long-running, never-ending parody of a Roman baccala, or perhaps, a poor imitation of a college keg party. Drunk on power, perks and perceived invincibility, the powers-that-be are playing a fast and loose game with a paranoid Russia that is neither inebriated, nor amused with its arch-enemy’s antics.

    As Mr. Roach notes, DC’s adolescent, school-yard game of chicken with the Russians could get real at any moment. And if it does, suffice to say, there will be no “adults” left in the room–if there ever were.

  3. Whoa. I used to be a regular commenter on AG (under another handle) before it switched to a paywall system. I came here because the level of discussion was higher than on any other comment section I had ever been part of.

    Now I finally decided to give AG+ a try, but I see that, post-paywall, the comments have trickled to practically nothing (no offense to Everett or Maximus) and it definitely doesn’t feel anywhere near what it was before. Good move, AG. “What if there was a party and nobody came?”

    Yes, I know. If everyone who was there before would pay the monthly $8, we’d still have a vibrant and exciting community. But “if” is just pie-in-the-sky, as we learned with the many “ifs” that demagogues like 0bama and FJB’s handlers (but I repeat myself) have dished out over the years.

    Thanks for nothing, AG. Bowing out.

  4. No offence taken Jean. In an effort to boost interest in the commentary again, you might have noticed AG is posting some of the comments under the “free” article to expose readers to some of the comments. We regulars are hoping it will boost further interest.

    With advertising dollars down across the board and site financiers becoming more discriminatingly with their much needed underwriting support, more and more sites are forced to subscription models. No one likes it, but here we are.

    Though various models have been tried, I haven’t seen one I would call a rousing success. (though I think Tim Pool has been very successful with his model) For myself, I’m down to AG, Blaze, and Tucker Carlson. I was one of the first subscribers to PJ Media but dropped that subscription after the first year. I’m sticking with AG because I feel it important to continue my support. I do understand where others might not feel the same.

    When I think of it in inflationary terms, my $8 subscription per month is about equivalent to about 80 cents per month in 1990 dollars. Others don’t feel the same—obviously. I’m not a Starbucks drinker—coffee tastes burnt to me—but it’s about the price of a single Vente Latte.

    In the end, it is an example between value and worth. Thanks for giving it a try though.

  5. Thank you, Everett–maybe my post was more of a cri de coeur from a guy who was expecting to find the thriving community (or at least a semblance of it) that we had when the comment section was free.

    Tell you what. I’ll try to stick around for some time, to see if there’s any chance the site may become vibrant again. As you say, $8 is not much of a gamble.

Continue the discussion at community.amgreatness.com

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