09/08/2014 04:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Ukrainian Crisis' Overlooked Nuclear Dimension

Sasha Mordovets via Getty Images

It has surprised and worried me that almost none of the mainstream media's coverage of the Ukrainian crisis has mentioned the nuclear dimension to the risk. If the West feels (as it currently does) that Russia is solely to blame, and Russia feels (as it currently does) that the West is solely to blame, neither one is likely to back down. Add in the US's overwhelming conventional military superiority and Russia's 8,000 nuclear weapons, and you have the potential for nuclear threats -- and therefore for nuclear use.


I'm not saying a repeat of the Cuban Missile Crisis is likely, but given the consequences, how much risk is acceptable? We seem to find ourselves in such messes so frequently -- the Georgian War was just six years ago -- that even a 1 percent risk would be far too high.

Here are a few recent articles which add to my concern, and one which gives me hope:

Last week, Ukraine took steps to move from non-aligned status to seeking NATO membership, and NATO's Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he would "fully respect if the Ukrainian parliament decides to change that policy [of non-alignment]."

For reasons noted in my post of a few days ago, it is extremely dangerous -- especially for Ukraine -- for Rasmussen to encourage its hopes of joining NATO.

Adding to the danger, an escalatory spiral appears to be in process, with NATO taking actions which are seen as threatening by Russia, Russia responding in kind, and Putin reminding the world that, "Russia is one of the most powerful nuclear nations. This is a reality, not just words."

Monday, Ukraine's Defense Minister declared that, "A great war has arrived at our doorstep -- the likes of which Europe has not seen since World War Two."

Also on Monday, a group of former CIA intelligence analysts warned that:

accusations of a major Russian invasion of Ukraine appear not to be supported by reliable intelligence. Rather, the intelligence seems to be of the same dubious, politically fixed kind used 12 years ago to justify the U.S.-led attack on Iraq (The group also warned about faulty intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq War.)

These former intelligence analysts are not saying that our government's accusation is wrong. But they are reminding us that there is historical evidence indicating that we should be more cautious in assuming that it is correct.

Thursday, Foreign Policy had an article, "Putin's Nuclear Option," which says in part:

But Putin would never actually use nuclear weapons, would he? The scientist and longtime Putin critic Andrei Piontkovsky, a former executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow a political commentator for the BBC World Service, believes he might. In August, Piontkovsky published a troubling account of what he believes Putin might do to win the current standoff with the West -- and, in one blow, destroy NATO as an organization and finish off what's left of America's credibility as the world's guardian of peace.

I strongly encourage readers to read the full article. Again, it is not a likely scenario, but given the consequences, even a small risk is too much.

Little-known confrontations between Russian and American military aircraft and submarines also add to the danger.

Getting unstuck from the "tar baby" in which we have unwittingly stuck our fist will require a more mature approach than we have brought to the table thus far. We need to stop seeing Ukraine as a football game that will be won by either the West or Russia, and start being concerned with the safety of all Ukraine's residents -- ethnic Ukrainians, ethnic Russians, Tartars, and more. Fortunately, recently (September 4), Georgetown Prof. Anatol Lieven had an Op-ed in the International edition of The New York Times which outlines a possible exit strategy which has the potential to do just that. It concludes:

The choice today is not between a united Ukraine fully in the Western camp, or a Ukraine which has lost part of its territory to Russia. As recent military developments have demonstrated, the first outcome is simply not going to happen. The choice is between a Ukraine with an autonomous Donbass region, along with a real chance of developing the country's democracy and economy in a Western direction, or a Ukraine which will be mired in a half-frozen conflict that will undermine all hopes of progress. The way out of this disaster is obvious -- if only Western governments have the statesmanship and courage to take it.