Themes and Patterns Emerging From A Scan of History, Theme 1: The Nuclear Reality

I have placed this at the beginning of my “history themes and patterns” blog as I see this as the most pressing issue mankind has faced over our history – as it has the ultimate consequence. Nuclear weapons top the arsenal capabilities of mankind. (I will write on other themes in subsequent blogs.)

A brief war-making history of mankind: It is fascinating to note the inexorable advance in weaponry and techniques over the past thousands of years mankind has utilized to either attack or defend their forms of governance and territory. The escalation has moved from chariots, to horses (and the stirrup to transfer the horse’s strength to a lance), to long bows, to fire arrows, to gunpowder and guns, to steel and rubber, to Gatling’s machine gun, to tanks, to sea power (from sail to steam on the water, and acoustic torpedoes and nuclear powered subs underwater), to air capability, be it planes, bombs, and rockets, and satellites and unmanned drones that take human life out of the attackers’ equation, and of systems and hacking and disinformation that go with all these weapons, becoming weapons themselves. Enter now the issues of gene manipulation and the threat ChatGPT technology have on the future of mankind.

But Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed it all. Since August 1945 when the first atomic bombs devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world has had to deal with the reality that we have the power to eliminate civilization.

As soon as the Second World War was over a race was underway to build nuclear weapons even more lethal than those the US dropped on Japan. The nuclear arms race was perhaps the most alarming feature of the Cold War competition between the United States and Soviet Union. Over the decades, the two sides signed various arms control agreements as a means to manage their rivalry and limit the risk of nuclear war.

So where are we now?

The Doomsday Clock suggests that the world is the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been. Let us start off with some expert opinion on the current nuclear risks. In January 2023, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands forward of their famous Doomsday Clock, largely (though not exclusively) because of the mounting dangers of the war in Ukraine. Maintained since 1947, the clock is a metaphor for threats to humanity from unchecked scientific and technological advances. 

The Bulletin’s website is clear: “Russia’s thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons remind the world that escalation of the conflict – by accident, intention, or miscalculation – is a terrible risk. The possibility that the conflict could spin out of anyone’s control remains high. Russia’s recent actions contravene decades of commitments by Moscow. In 1994, Russia joined the United States and United Kingdom in Budapest, Hungary, to solemnly declare that it would ‘respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine’ and ‘refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine…’ These assurances were made explicitly on the understanding that Ukraine would relinquish nuclear weapons on its soil and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—both of which Ukraine did.”

Their website continued: “Russia has also brought its war to the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor sites, violating international protocols and risking widespread release of radioactive materials. Efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency to secure these plants so far have been rebuffed.”

This Clock has become a universally recognized indicator of the world’s vulnerability to global catastrophe caused by manmade technologies. The Clock now stands at 90 seconds to midnight – the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been. Last year, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned in a release that “humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.”

Nine countries possess nuclear weapons: Russia, France, the UK, Pakistan, India, Israel, North Korea, China, the United States – and there is Iran, threatening. In total, the global nuclear stockpile is close to 13,000 weapons. 

There are significant risks emerging in the following areas:

Russia: the potential use of nuclear weapons in the war with Ukraine. The war in its 16th month seems to have reached the point where both sides have the capacity to threaten each other. The Russian military can constantly threaten Ukranian security (even though they have suffered significant casualties and equipment loss) and their air power and sea-launched weaponry remains formidable. Ukraine, on the other hand, have an impressive fighting force supported with billions of dollars’ worth of equipment and training from their allies. They can hold at risk any area under Russian occupation. They likely will be able to retake some (all?) territory lost. What remains is that both sides will pose a persistent threat to the other. Further there will be an ongoing dispute over the areas of Ukraine that Russia has claimed to annex. It seems unlikely that either side can achieve a decided victory, unless Putin decides to resort to weapons of mass destruction.

Putin continues to up the ante. He said a few months ago “In todays’s conditions, when all the leading NATO countries have declared their main goal to inflict a strategic defeat on us, to make our people suffer… how can we not take into account their nuclear capability?” After he suspended in February, 2023 Russia’s participation in the last arms control agreement with Washington (the New START treaty), he then said Russia “would take into account” the nuclear weapons capabilities not only of the US but of other NATO countries such as France and Britain. Expiration of the treaty means that this would eliminate mutual inspections, deepen mistrust, spur a nuclear arms race, and heighten the possibility of a nuclear exchange. 

On April 25, Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council (chaired by Putin), warned that “the world is likely on the verge of another world war” and declared that Moscow wouldn’t hesitate to use nuclear weapons if it faced an existential threat. 

On May 4 the nuclear risk calculus going forward globally has changed dramatically: the US Patriot system intercepted a Russian Kinzhal hypersonic missile. Moscow had, for years, boasted that its Kinzhals, which are nuclear-capable and travel at up to 10 times the speed of sound, were unstoppable. Worse for the Kremlin, on May 16 Russia launched a “saturation attack” including several Kinzhals, other missiles, and drones, and all were destroyed by the Patriot system. (Ukraine has only one Patriot system so far, but Taiwan has 50 Patriot systems.)

Russia, and specifically Putin: we must focus on this man and his legendary cruelty and vengefulness. So much has been written about Putin, but the nuclear equation cannot be assessed without placing him further under the magnifying glass. The man continues his common theme that the West is bent on destroying Russia and that his battle with Ukraine is part of a battle for Russia’s very survival. He continues to act in a latter-day Peter the Great fashion as a leader who is capable of winning back lost lands and restoring Russia to its previous position as a major world power. A frightening article in the May 30 issue of Foreign Affairs suggests that his “narcissistic traits tend to amplify the power of psychic numbing and diminish (his) perception of the value of the lives of others – if those lives are even considered at all.” 

The article talks about Putin’s legendary cruelty and vengefulness and notes that he “portrays the war in Ukraine as a righteous fight against Nazis and dehumanizes those who dare criticize him.” It suggests that Putin will not seek peace short of Ukrainian surrender and that Western governments “should weigh now their possible responses to an escalation that would come as a shock but should not come as a surprise… As his generals and mercenaries continue their infighting, he may take more risks to end the war sooner. He is a man whom humanity will wish it had kept away from its most dangerous weapons.”

The most recent (June 24, 25) failed mercenary mutiny aimed at toppling the top brass in Russia’s military complicates things. Russia’s top general, Valery Gerasimov, hasn’t appeared in public since the 24th when the head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, demanded that he be handed over. Gerasimov is the commander of the war in Ukraine, and the holder of  one of Russia’s three “nuclear briefcases.” (His deputy, General Surovikin, has also disappeared.) Putin seems more vulnerable, and thus more dangerous.

Russia, as an enriched uranium supplier, can subject a number of countries to political pressure. As well as weapons, Russia’s supplies almost half of the world’s enriched uranium and dominates the global market for new reactors. And most of Europe’s more than 100 reactors rely on Russian fuel. Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear-energy firm, is the world’s biggest exporter of reactors. Many of Rosatom’s customers have relied upon Russian loans for the construction of nuclear power stations. Russia has used its nuclear technology to wield political influence in many developing countries. Rosatom supplied the technology for 20 of the 53 reactors under construction in 2022. Many experts insist that there is no way to decarbonize global electricity grids without building more nuclear power stations. 

A paper published in Nature Energy last month by Kacper Szulecki and Indra Overland at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs notes that at least nine countries, including Bangladesh and Egypt, could be vulnerable to political pressure because they depend on Russian-built or -operated nuclear plants. Several other countries have high levels of nuclear co-operation with Russia. Turkey also depends on Russia for natural gas and assistance in building nuclear power plants. 

Russia with respect to Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant which presents a potentially catastrophic radiation disaster. Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. Early May the Moscow-installed governor of the region where most of the plant workers live ordered civilian evacuations, raising fear that fighting in the area could intensify. Moscow’s troops seized the plant soon after it invaded Ukraine last year, but Ukrainian employees continue to run it. The International Atomic Energy Agency director has spent months trying to persuade Russian and Ukrainian officials to establish a security zone around the plant. Although none of the plant’s six reactors are operating because of the war, the station needs a reliable power supply for cooling systems essential to preventing a potentially catastrophic radiation disaster. Fears that fighting in the area would intensify are valid. 

Then on June 6 Ukraine’s Kakhovka hydroelectric dam was breached following an attack that Moscow and Kyiv have blamed on each other (although the consensus seems to be that Russia is responsible). The dam sits on the Dnipro River, which feeds a reservoir providing cooling water for the nuclear power station some 150 kilometres upstream. This is making an already very difficult and unpredictable nuclear safety and security situation even more so.

Russia: the nuclear consequences of its eventual and inevitable disintegration. There is a reasonable case now being made for the possibility of the country’s outright collapse. Janusz Bugajski’s book Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture makes the case that dissolution is inevitable. Russia’s financial situation is tenuous, with its current budget deficit ballooning due to collapsing revenues. The Western allies have frozen $300 billion of Russian foreign exchange assets that will be earmarked to rebuild Ukraine. Besides the important questions of which states or satellites spin off on their own, is the critical question regarding which of them become swept into an EU-type alliance vs a “China world”. But there is another absolutely critical question hovering, and that is how will the nuclear capability be distributed. Western analysts say that Russia has its nuclear forces – ICBMs, submarines, and heavy bombers – spread across more than a dozen military bases throughout its vast territory. Will a given break away state that has nuclear weapons on its land retain such capability? 

Belarus, a country led by a Russian puppet, now has some Russian tactical nuclear weapons on its territory.” On May 24 Russia and Belarus signed a deal formalizing the deployment of Moscow’s tactical nuclear weapons on Belarus territory. This actually took place in June and is in direct contravention of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) signed in July 1968. (More countries are parties to the NPT, some 191 states, than any other arms limitation and disarmament agreement, a testament to the treaty’s significance.)

Tactical nuclear weapons are intended to destroy enemy troops and weapons on the battlefield. They have relatively short range and a much lower yield than nuclear warheads fitted to long-range strategic missiles that are capable of obliterating whole cuties. Putin continues to argue that by deploying its tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, Russia was following the lead of the US, noting that the US has nuclear weapons based in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. This is the first time post-Soviet Russia has stationed nuclear weapons outside its own territory.

In response to the news that Russian strategic nuclear weapons might be deployed to Belarus along with part of Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal, the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, said “Putin and I will decide and introduce here, if necessary, strategic weapons, and they must understand this, the scoundrels abroad, who today are trying to blow us up from inside and outside. We will protect our sovereignty and independence by any means necessary, including through the nuclear arsenal.” He went on to say “These are our weapons and they will contribute to ensuring sovereignty and independence.”

Iran can now produce nuclear weapons pretty much “on demand”. The country has an ongoing effort to research nuclear technology that can be used to make nuclear weapons. It has several research sites, two uranium mines, a research reactor, and uranium processing facilities that include three known uranium enrichment plants. It is thought to be developing a breakout capacity that could allow it to quickly build an atomic weapon should it decide to do so. Uranium has been developed near weapons grade. 

Recent satellite pictures appear to confirm that Iran is building a nuclear facility in the Zagros mountains, near the existing Natanz enrichment site. It seems to be so deep under the ground that it will be invulnerable even to America’s most powerful bunker-busting bomb. The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a think-tank in Washington, reckons that the deepest part of the chamber could be used as a hall for a small number of advanced centrifuges that could rapidly produce enough weapons-grade uranium (WGU) to make Iran capable of an unstoppable nuclear breakout. The general assessment is that it can produce nuclear weapons pretty much “on demand”.

Five years ago former President Trump withdrew from the 2016 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the JCPOA. Trump pledged he would negotiate a better deal but left office without fulfilling that pledge. Biden has been unable to resurrect it, partly because of Iran throwing up roadblocks and making unreasonable demands, including a guarantee that the next US administration will not again withdraw from the deal (something Washington could not meet). So the two sides are far from a deal. 

Yet Tehran’s nuclear program is now more advanced than it has ever been. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has enriched uranium to 84% – just one percentage point short of weapons-grade purity – and has amassed enough enriched fissile material for several bombs. As Foreign Affairs magazine said on May 8, “thanks to Trump’s strategic blunder, Iran is a de facto nuclear state: one screwdriver and one political decision away from weaponizing its nuclear capabilities.” 

Israel is undergoing tremendous internal political tensions. As Iran, Israel’s arch-enemy, is close to developing a nuclear-weapons capability, this puts extreme pressure on Israel – at a time when there is a constitutional crisis emerging. There are extreme differences in the country over the source of authority and legitimacy of different governing bodies. Right-wing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on trial for charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate affairs. His attempt to overhaul the judiciary has sparked mass protests, alarmed business leaders and former security chiefs. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been protesting in the streets against the plans of Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judiciary, weakening the country’s system of checks and balances by shifting power to Netanyahu. Then on April 14 Iran’s conservative President Ebrahim Raisi urged Palestinians to press on in their struggles with Israel and dismissing the Palestine Authority that rules the West Bank not controlled by Israel. This is not a good time for one of the world’s nine nuclear powers.

North Korea continues to out-rogue even its worst days. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is growing at an alarming rate. It continues to test intercontinental ballistics missiles that are capable of reaching the US. The current ones are new solid-fuel versions, 12 of which Kim Jong Un, their “Supreme” Leader, has recently paraded, along with tactical nuclear weapons targeting South Korea. They also continue to threaten Japan. During Trump’s presidency his erratic approach to North Korea – at times blustery, at others enthusiastic – left South Korea baffled and questioning its faith in Washington.  

As Michael Green, the CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said in 2016, “no administration since the Cold War has handed off the North Korean situation in better shape than they found it, largely because development of nuclear weapons capability has always been completely non-negotiable for Pyongyang. The Obama administration realized the futility of diplomatic deals early on, though it never came up with a policy to replace the previous approach.”

South Korea has two nuclear countries on its border and is making noises about obtaining its own nuclear arsenal. The country depends on the US nuclear umbrella to deter a North Korean attack, but as more cities across the continental US fall within the range of Pyongyang’s missiles, South Koreans are, quite reasonably, questioning Washington’s assurances that it will stand beside Seoul no matter the costs. 

There is a constant tension existing between the two Koreas. South Korea (usually with the US) carry out along the sea borders annual springtime exercises they call “rehearsals for nuclear war”. The two countries have held military drills since 1977 (they had one on May 25). They involve troops and weapon systems and simulate strikes on front-line North Korea military facilities. Usually North Korea responds to the “invasion rehearsal” exercises on its doorstep with missile and other weapons tests.

On April 26 President Joe Biden and President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea reaffirmed what Biden called the “ironclad” alliance between the two countries. They announced a new agreement, the so-called Washington Declaration, to increase cooperation in order to strengthen the message of nuclear deterrence conveyed to North Korea. This deterrence will include military training and exercises, the establishment of a joint nuclear consultative group, and the visit of a nuclear-armed submarine to South Korea. “We’re not going to be stationing nuclear weapons on the peninsula, but we will have visits to ports, visits of nuclear submarines and things like that,” Biden said. 

“A nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of whatever regime were to take such an action,” Biden added, a public reassurance Yoon was hoping to receive when he arrived in Washington. Nervous about North Korean development of nuclear weapons, a majority of South Koreans want to develop their own nuclear weapons, a stance the US strongly opposes. 

Further, as China grows more vocal about its ambitions to retake Taiwan, and as it expands its own nuclear arsenal, the US will have to assuage Seoul’s heightened sense of vulnerability.  

Japan matches its tragic history with its need for protection. Henry Kissinger predicts Japan will take moves to secure nuclear weapons within five years. While there are currently no known plans in Japan to produce nuclear weapons, it has been argued Japan has the technology, raw materials, and the capital to produce nuclear weapons within one year if necessary, and many analysts consider it a de facto nuclear state for this reason. A former Minister of Defense said in 2011 “I don’t think Japan needs to possess nuclear weapons, but it’s important to maintain our commercial reactors because it would allow us to produce a nuclear warhead in a short amount of time … It’s a tacit nuclear deterrent.”

In May, the Group of Seven (G7) met in Hiroshima, Japan. Fumio Kishida, Japan’s Prime Minister, set a defining agenda. He decided to host the summit in Hiroshima because, as he said, “There is no better place to express commitment to peace. I would like to send a strong message that the 77-year record of non-use of nuclear weapons since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki must not be ignored.“

India came close to a nuclear war with Pakistan in 2019. The country became a nuclear power in 1974. It has approximately 150 nuclear warheads, and has land-based, sea-based and air-launch nuclear capabilities. The state had declared a No First Use policy, which means they have vowed to never use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. However, as of August 2019, India said they are reconsidering this policy.

Pakistan became a nuclear power in 1998. It has approximately 160 warheads. If the current growth trend continues, Pakistan’s arsenal could grow to 220 to 250 warheads by 2025. Pakistan keeps its nuclear warheads stored separately from its missiles and will only assemble one if it will be used. Unlike India, Pakistan has not declared a No First Use policy, and instead has opted to emphasize smaller battlefield or “tactical” nuclear weapons as a counter to India’s larger and superior conventional forces.

India and Pakistan came close to a nuclear war in 2019 and Washington’s intervention prevented an escalation. Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in his new memoir Never Give an Inch (published in January 2023 of his time as Donald Trump’s top diplomat and earlier as CIA chief), “I do not think the world properly knows just how close the India-Pakistan rivalry came to spilling over into a nuclear conflagration in February 2019.” 

Australia and the AUKUS alliance extends nuclear proliferation. The agreement signed in September 2021 between the US, Britain and Australia to transfer US or UK nuclear submarine technology to Australia, including possibly highly enriched uranium, has been described as an act of nuclear proliferation, and has been criticized by scholars and politicians. In the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, scholar Sébastien Philippe wrote “we can now expect the proliferation of very sensitive military nuclear technology in the coming years, with literally tons of new nuclear materials under loose or no international safeguards.”

China: is continuing the nuclear weapons modernization program that it initiated in the 1990s and 2000s, but is expanding it significantly by fielding more types and greater numbers of nuclear weapons than ever before. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimate that China has produced a stockpile of approximately 410 nuclear warheads for delivery by land-based ballistic missiles, sea-based ballistic missiles, and bombers. The US Pentagon’s 2022 report to Congress estimated that by 2030 China’s nuclear stockpile “will have about 1,000 operational nuclear warheads, most of which will be fielded on systems capable of reaching the continental United States”. 

If expansion continues at the current rate, the Pentagon projected, China might field a stockpile of about 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035. In April 2022, the commander of the US Strategic Command, Adm. Charles Richard, referred to China’s expansion of its strategic and nuclear forces as “breathtaking,” later stating that China was intent on pursuing a “world-class military by 2030, and the military capabilities to seize Taiwan by force, if they choose to, by 2027”

The United States has some questions to answer over their past nuclear protocols and intentions. On May 22, 2021, The New York Times reported Daniel Ellsberg had released classified documents revealing the Pentagon in 1958 drew up plans to launch a nuclear attack on China amid tensions over the Taiwan Strait. (This is the same Ellsberg who in 1971 released the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret Pentagon study of US government decision-making in relation to the Vietnam War, to a number of newspapers.) According to the documents, US military leaders supported a first-use nuclear strike even though they believed China’s ally, the Soviet Union, would retaliate and millions of people would perish. 

Ellsberg told The New York Times he copied the classified documents about the Taiwan Strait crisis fifty years earlier when he copied the Pentagon Papers, but chose not to release the documents then. Instead, Ellsberg released the documents in the Spring of 2021 because he said he was concerned about mounting tensions between the US and China over the fate of Taiwan. Ellsberg also claimed that every president since Truman, with the possible exception of Ford, threatened the use of nuclear weapons. Some of these threats were implicit; many were explicit. 

Another US nuclear issue related to North Korea in the early 1950s should be noted. At that time, the United States remained the only nation capable of delivering an atomic bomb to a distant target. President Truman raised the ante. At a press conference, he told reporters he would take whatever steps were necessary to win in Korea, including the use of nuclear weapons. In October of 1951 Operation Hudson Harbor was a US Air Force Nuclear Strike training operation against North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union that was never escalated further. President Truman sent nine nuclear bombs with fissile cores on mock runs to Okinawa and North Korea on nuclear-capable B-29s. However by that summer the war had largely devolved into skirmishes in a narrow zone around the 38th parallel, and armistice talks were underway. But Truman did say that he would take whatever steps necessary to win the war.

Summary. This is a dangerous time. The atomic scientists behind the the Doomsday Clock are not jousting. We need cool heads at the senior levels of the UN (and other major country blocks), of the nuclear power states, of the renegade states, and from in particular China and the US, to step up as leaders. Since 1959 when the Antarctic Treaty was signed there have been 25 nuclear arms control treaties signed around the world of one form or another, including the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between the US and Russia that Russia suspended in February.

As Foreign Affairs magazine stated on Feb 6, “Political leaders in all nuclear-armed states have to balance two competing imperatives: ensuring that their weapons can never be used without proper authorization and keeping the weapons in a state of constant readiness. They solve this dilemma in different ways, designing idiosyncratic command-and-control systems that affect nuclear decision-making.”

History suggests that, when two powers of the strength of China and the US collide, the normal outcome is military conflict. But today this is not a normal circumstance because of mutually assured destruction. Adding the extraordinary situation created by Russia, and throwing in rogue players the likes of Iran and North Korea complicates further.

I have no answers, only fear, based on the facts laid out above.

10 thoughts on “Themes and Patterns Emerging From A Scan of History, Theme 1: The Nuclear Reality”

  1. Very interesting read. The portion on Russia and Ukraine is concerning along with North Korea. Scary stuff. I am interested in the upcoming film “Oppenheimer”. I think it will depict that the device they created to save the world, has long term moral effects on Humanity.

  2. Scary indeed, Ken. Thanks for pulling it all together. The only thing holding a nut case like Putin back is the almost certain knowledge that he and most of his people will also perish in a global nuclear conflict. My biggest concern is someone pulling the trigger by mistake. .

    1. I, like you, fear someone holding that kind of potential devastation pushing the wrong button in error…scary, especially after reading Ken’s blog!

  3. Very well written and informative article and it is , of course, very concerning. That said, I believe the changing climate caused by unabated emissions and no meaningful action to ease the problem is the number 1 threat to humanity and it is all happening at a much faster rate than expected. All one has to do is to look out the window to see the effects of our rapidly deteriorating climate.

  4. I HAD NO IDEA THAT Russia controlled as much of the worlds uranium as you mentioned in your article.As well ir suprised me that
    china has has as many nucclea weapns as you mentioned.again thanks for another well researched and well written article


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