A nuclear war cannot be won

We can all agree that a nuclear war cannot be won.

Yet, the Russia-Ukraine war is quickly escalating. Russia just announced it will cut off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria starting April 27th. The West is arming Ukraine. And threats are being made by all involved.

It doesn’t matter who is right or wrong, who started it, who pushed the button first or who is the more powerful force. Once nukes start flying everyone loses. What this really means is during a nuclear war the majority of the human population either combusts in the immediate blasts, dies from radiation sickness or starves during the ensuing nuclear winter.

A nuclear winter caused by soot blasting into the atmosphere, blocking sunlight, could drop temperatures by 7 or 8 degrees Celsius for years. Parts of North America and Eurasia could experience 20-30 degree temperature declines. Agricultural output would plummet, possibly reaching 0.

A nuclear war could theoretically extinguish 100% of human life.

The effects of a nuclear war are not a foregone conclusion as many still debate the veracity of existing theories. Still, as humans, we have a moral obligation to our ancestors to avoid the risk of extinction no matter how small. So it is shocking how casually people are discussing escalation of war with Russia, by proxy, directly and even through the first use of nuclear weapons.

The bravado and rhetoric from all sides is disturbing. We’re openly arming Ukraine, many armchair generals are calling for a no-fly zone and some even suggest the West go straight for Moscow. The real generals agree.

“If this is left to stand, if there is no answer to this aggression, if Russia gets away with this cost-free, then so goes the so-called international order, and if that happens, then we’re entering into an era of seriously increased instability. What’s at stake is the global international security order that was put in place in 1945. That international order has lasted 78 years, it’s prevented great power war, and underlining that entire concept is the idea that large nations will not conduct military aggression against smaller nations, and that’s exactly what’s happened here, an unprovoked military aggression by Russia against a smaller nation.” — Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley

Milley is right: a) The post-WWII peace dividend has benefited much of the world and b) bullies only respond to force.

Also, as Milley states, much is at stake.

This war isn’t just about Russia and Ukraine. This is about the heartland of the world – Eurasia. The heartland theory was first proposed by Sir Halford John Mackinder, a British geographer who wrote a paper in 1904 called “The Geographical Pivot of History.”

Mackinder observed that the majority of the world’s population resided on the Eurasian and African landmass and that control of this “world island” would lead to eventual world domination. This world island could be best controlled from the pivot area, which would guarantee self-sufficiency in food for the country dominating the region, and the pivot area’s inaccessibility by sea would provide a formidable defensive barrier. The pivot area was vulnerable to land attack only by way of the plains of eastern Europe. Thus, control of eastern Europe would ensure domination of the pivot area and ultimately world domination. — Britannica

Whether or not you think this theory is antiquated, many still subscribe to it. This is a battle for the heartland, explaining why the West was so quick to aggressively respond. Mackinder’s theory is complicated by the existence of both air power and ICBMs but still shapes Russian geopolitical strategy today.

Although much is at stake, simply pushing back on the bully might not be the rational approach when that bully has proven to make vast miscalculations and possesses the weaponry to destroy mankind.

Putin, once seen as calculating, has proven to act on misinformation by making one of the biggest blunders in modern military history. Can a man who made this grave mistake be trusted not to make another? Moreover, can we conclude he will not lash out as he is increasingly isolated and cornered. One must even acknowledge the risk that he has added a ‘dead-man’ switch to Russia’s nuclear arsenal to automatically launch should he die for whatever reason. Why should he care either way at that point?

You can try to rationalize away these risks, but they remain elevated for as long as this war continues. The reality is we’ll never fully understand the Russian mindset, thus rationalization is futile. In their view, a NATO-friendly Ukraine is an existential threat. In their minds, they are the simply fighting to survive or to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.

Name an aggressor throughout history and you can easily find the rationale for why they attacked. Did allied powers set WWII in motion by creating the punishing and humiliating Treaty of Versailles after the defeat of Germany during WWI? In no way does this justify what Nazi Germany did, but this formed part of their rationalization and it wasn’t until 70-85 million people died and Allied tanks rolled through Berlin that the war ended. The potency of ideology can push civilization to hell on Earth.

This is not 1939, Russia is not Nazi Germany and Ukraine is not Poland. The appeasement strategy clearly failed during the early years of Nazi aggression, and the inertia to fight didn’t ultimately result in any less sacrifice. History tells us we should have intervened much earlier during the rise of Nazi Germany, but they did not possess the ability to destroy mankind. Today the lessons learned from failed appeasement are only part of the calculus.

Regardless of who is right or not as it relates to ideology or appropriate response, it all comes down to one simple truth: “A nuclear war cannot be won”. Yet, the longer this goes and the more things escalate that is where we’re headed.

The ONLY answer to the Russia-Ukraine war is de-escalation. This is difficult to accept for many, as it doesn’t mean a return to the world as it was January 2022. Instead, de-escalation comes from sacrifice and mutual benefit. It requires all sides to adopt a new somewhat compromised reality. Given what’s at stake in this particular conflict, it seems like the world may need to reluctantly accept a new geopolitical order. Or perhaps the return to one prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Twenty years ago I might have called myself a coward saying these things. Today I believe it’s what must be done to secure the future for our ancestors.

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  1. pravchaw

    Makes sense. Damned if we do and double damned if we don;t.

    Like