The Nuclear Misstep: A Call and a Warning

Yesterday, the secretary general of the United Nations said the world is one misstep away from nuclear annihilation. In recent weeks and months a number of public figures, including members of the military, have voiced the same concern.

Why isn’t anybody listening? Maybe it’s global warming: where it isn’t hot — here in California, we are watching this year’s wildfires nervously and are worrying about the continuing drought — there are floods. Maybe it’s out-of-control inflation: some Israelis have to figure out how much milk and how many eggs they can afford to buy for their families, never mind a new apartment. Maybe it’s the unprecedented chaos of travel: with thousands of flights canceled every day and mountains of lost bags piling up in airports, taking a trip is more like Russian roulette than a vacation.

Nancy Pelosi is visiting the free, democratic island nation of Taiwan today. The Chinese dictator, Xi, who is already responsible for cultural genocide against Muslim Uighurs and Buddhist Tibetans, has spoken to the president of the United States with a crude belligerence that would have been considered unacceptable not long ago; and Xi’s controlled press has gone so far as to threaten to shoot down Pelosi’s plane, which would be an act of war. The recent novel “2034” has World War III begin in the South China Sea. There is little in it that is improbable a dozen years before it, today.

In the 1990s, following the collapse of the USSR, the US undertook not to expand NATO, but did. Communism was gone, and when Putin’s offer for Russia to join the alliance was rebuffed with ridicule, and NATO expansion continued, it would be hard to see it as defensive, rather than aggressive; or as merely Atlantic and European rather than specifically anti-Russian. The US openly interfered in Ukrainian affairs in 2014 during the insurrection that led to the overthrow of the country’s pro-Russian president. The Ukraine is to Russia what California and Texas put together are to America. The US and most of the West turned a blind eye, a deaf ear, and a bald head to Putin’s protestations that a red line had been crossed. He warned, was ignored, and then he acted.

Like many Russian leaders before him, Putin is an autocrat: his administration has dismantled the open society and civil liberty of the nascent Russian democracy of the 1990s. Labor camps are back in use for political prisoners; and you can get a big fine or a hefty sentence for calling the war “war.” Putin poisons and assassinates his political rivals — but then with our own CIA and military-industrial complex, it’s probably best not to throw stones from this American glass house. It’s not surprising that Russia is prosecuting its war next door with great brutality. Again, Americans historically have behaved no better or differently, in wars much farther from their front door; and besides there is an old Russian expression, На войне как на войне. It means, When you’re at war, ACT like you’re at war!

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States talked to each other above the noise of propaganda and mutual blame. There was no real hatred between the two peoples. Now there is much less communication between the two sides, greater public hostility, and no statesmanship. In the early 1980s, Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka published “War Day,” a novel set a few years in the future. Its premise is that even in a period of comparative calm, the US is so far ahead of the USSR technologically that the Russians, feeling cornered and desperate, react with brute force and launch a first strike, taking out Washington, NYC, San Antonio, and our main bases in the Midwest. We manage to hit them back, too, but after the initial salvo the destruction and chaos are already so devastating that an hour into the war the communications, command, and control systems of both superpowers collapse. Though most of America survives War Day, the ensuing five years bring crop failure, starvation, epidemics, social chaos, and poverty so severe than 60 million Americans die and the country’s unity and sovereignty are lost.

Today, the West is supplying the Ukraine with sophisticated conventional weapons superior to Russia’s, and the Russians are unable to make up their significant losses in manpower and materiel. They are consequently resorting to the terror bombing of Ukrainian civilian targets and to the use of crude weaponry with inexact targeting. Should Russia experience serious reversals, for instance in the regions of Kherson and Zaporozhye vital to its control of the Crimea and the Sevastopol naval base, the use of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons seems likely, even probable. This would be unprecedented and, given that US and EU sanctions are already draconian, it is hard to say how this side would or could react without running the risk of thermonuclear war.

On Navy Day, two days ago, Putin openly declared the United States is Russia’s principal enemy — Mr. Zelensky, Germany, Poland, the UK, etc. are mere satellites. Russia intends its navy to patrol the entire globe. Supposing there were to be an accidental or other confrontation between American and Russian warships- in the Arctic, in the Baltic, or really most anywhere. Given the level of mutual hostility, would diplomacy defuse the crisis, or would it escalate? One returns to the secretary general’s dire and unheeded warning about our being just one “misstep” away from Armageddon.

What is to be done? In the case of the Russia-Ukraine war, one agrees with the veteran diplomat Henry Kissinger that there must be a peace settlement, soon, with concessions by both sides. How is this to be achieved? As it seems to me, a consortium of major neutral countries: India, Turkey, Egypt, Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria, and Mexico, for starters, with others, like Israel and Kazakhstan, being attracted into the coalition — would exert sufficient weight to induce the combatants and their supporters to declare an unconditional ceasefire and come to an unconditional peace conference. The war is mainly a northern, white folks’ war. (As a Jew I must observe that it is also a gentile war that Israel needs to stay the hell out of: I have no sympathy for Ukrainian nationalists and the Polish, Baltic, and German anti-Semites who are arming and abetting them; nor do I consider the women and children in the Ukraine being murdered by Russian missiles to be the “Nazis” Putin says they are.) Nuclear war would kill everybody, without regard to skin color. It’s time for the non-aligned, non-white world to act.

I don’t know what to do about China and its dictator. But seems to me the Chinese government doesn’t go to bed thinking about dominating east Asia, though. They have to figure out how to keep over a billion people clothed, housed, and fed — how to maintain the fantastic economic success they have achieved. A lot of that success is just the hard work of the Chinese people. Some is due to partnership with the United States, which is a natural friend, not a rival. The Chinese leadership upon reflection might conclude that one-man rule by Xi is not in its interest, and neither is aggression abroad or repression at home. The US cannot and will not bend to Xi’s megalomaniac threats. But both sides need to find a common language.

These are urgent matters. People who want their children to have a future, for there to be a future on this planet for life in all the diversity the Master of the Universe has given, need to act now. Write to your elected representatives. Hold peace rallies and prayer vigils, in your synagogue and church and mosque. Write, speak, spread the word.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Emeritus Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University, and has served as Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian at Columbia, and part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He is on the Editorial Boards of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University; the journal Linguistica Petropolitana, Russian Academy of Sciences; and the journal Homo Loquens, Russian Christian Humanities Association. He is a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. He holds the PhD in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London; B.Litt. (Oxon.); B.A. (summa) (Columbia). His recent books include "Poets, Heroes, and Their Dragons", 2 vols., UC Irvine Iranian Series, 2020, and "The Complete Poems of Misak Medzarents", CSU Fresno Armenian Series, 2021.
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