Vijay Prashad: No Such Thing as a Small Nuclear War

The NATO escalation of the Russia-Ukraine war as well as the growing conflict around China are more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Erik Bulatov, Soviet Union, “People in the Landscape,” 1976.

By Vijay Prashad
Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research

There was a time when calls for a nuclear-free Europe rang across the continent. It began with the Stockholm Appeal of 1950, which opened with the powerful words “We demand the outlawing of atomic weapons as instruments of intimidation and mass murder of peoples” and then deepened with the Appeal for European Nuclear Disarmament of 1980, which issued the chilling warning “We are entering the most dangerous decade in human history.” 

Roughly 274 million people signed the Stockholm Appeal, including — as is often reported — the entire adult population of the Soviet Union. Yet, since the European appeal of 1980, it feels as if each decade has been more and more dangerous than the previous one.

“It is still 90 seconds to midnight,” the editors at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (the keepers of the Doomsday Clock) wrote in January. Midnight is Armageddon.

In 1949, the clock sat at three minutes to midnight, and in 1980 it had retreated slightly from the precipice, back to seven minutes to midnight.

By 2023, however, the clock’s hand had moved all the way up to 90 seconds to midnight, where it remains, the closest we have ever been to full-scale annihilation.

This precarious situation is threatening to reach a tipping point in Europe today. To understand the dangerous possibilities that could be unleashed by the intensified provocations around Ukraine, we collaborated with No Cold War to produce briefing No. 14, “NATO’s Actions in Ukraine Are More Dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Please read this text carefully and circulate it as widely as possible.

For the past two years, Europe’s largest war since 1945 has been raging in Ukraine. The root cause of this war is the U.S.-driven attempt to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) into Ukraine.

This violates the promises the West made to the Soviet Union during the end of the Cold War, such as that NATO would move “not one inch eastward,” as U.S. Secretary of State James Baker assured Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990. 

Over the past decade, the Global North has repeatedly snubbed Russian requests for security guarantees. It was this disregard for Russian concerns that led to the outbreak of the conflict in 2014 and the war in 2022.

Today, a nuclear-armed NATO and a nuclear-armed Russia are in direct conflict in Ukraine. Instead of taking steps to bring this war to an end, NATO has made several new announcements in recent months that threaten to escalate the situation into a still more serious conflict with the potential to spill beyond Ukraine’s borders.

It is no exaggeration to say that this conflict has created the greatest threat to world peace since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

This extremely dangerous escalation confirms the correctness of the majority of U.S. experts on Russia and Eastern Europe, who have long warned against the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe. 

In 1997, George Kennan, the principal architect of U.S. policy in the Cold War, said that this strategy is “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” The Ukraine war and the dangers of further escalation fully affirm the seriousness of his warning.

Elif Uras, Turkey, “Kapital,” 2009.

NATO Escalating Conflict in Ukraine

The most dangerous recent developments in this conflict are the decisions by the U.S. and Britain in May to authorise Ukraine to use weapons supplied by the two countries to conduct military attacks inside Russia. 

Ukraine’s government immediately used this in the most provocative way by attacking Russia’s ballistic missile early warning system. This warning system plays no role in the Ukraine war but is a central part of Russia’s defence system against strategic nuclear attack.

In addition, the British government supplied Ukraine with Storm Shadow missiles that have a range of over 250 km (155 miles) and can hit targets not only on the battleground but far inside Russia. The use of NATO weapons to attack Russia risks an equivalent Russian counter-response, threatening to spread the war beyond Ukraine.

This was followed by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s June announcement that a NATO headquarters for operations in the Ukraine war had been created at the U.S. military base in Wiesbaden, Germany, with 700 initial staff. 

On June 7, French President Emmanuel Macron said that his government was working to “finalise a coalition” of NATO countries willing to send troops to Ukraine to “train” Ukrainian forces. This would place NATO forces directly in the war. As the Vietnam War and other conflicts have shown, such “trainers” organise and direct fighting, thus becoming targets for attacks.

Nadia Abu-Aitah, Switzerland, “Breaking Free,” 2021.

More Dangerous Than Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis was the product of an adventurist miscalculation by Soviet leadership that the U.S. would tolerate the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles only 144 km from the nearest U.S. shore and roughly 1,800 km from Washington. 

Such a deployment would have made it impossible for the U.S. to defend against a nuclear strike and would have “levelled the playing field,” since the U.S. already had such capabilities vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. 

The U.S., predictably, made it clear that this would not be tolerated and that it would prevent it by any means necessary, including nuclear war. With the Doomsday Clock at 12 minutes to midnight, the Soviet leadership realised its miscalculation and, after a few days of intense crisis, withdrew the missiles.

This was followed by a relaxation of U.S.-Soviet tensions, leading to the first Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963).

No bullets flew between the U.S. and the USSR in 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis was an extremely dangerous short-term incident that could have ignited large-scale war  — including nuclear war. 

However, unlike the Ukraine war, it did not flow from an already existing and intensifying dynamic of war by either the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. Thus, while extremely dangerous, the situation could also be, and was, rapidly resolved.

The situation in Ukraine, as well as the growing conflict around China, are more structurally dangerous. Direct confrontation is taking place between NATO and Russia, where the U.S. just authorised direct military strikes (imagine if, during the 1962 crisis, Cuban forces armed and trained by the Soviet Union had carried out major military strikes in Florida). 

Meanwhile, the U.S. is directly raising military tensions with China around Taiwan and the South China Sea, as well as in the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. government understands that it cannot withstand erosion to its position of global primacy and rightly believes that it may lose its economic dominance to China.

That is why it increasingly moves issues onto the military terrain, where it still maintains an advantage. 

The U.S. position on Gaza is significantly determined by its understanding that it cannot afford a blow to its military supremacy, embodied in the regime that it controls in Israel.

The US and its NATO partners are responsible for 74.3 percent of global military spending. Within the context of the U.S.’ increasing drive for war and use of military means, the situation in Ukraine, and potentially around China, are, in reality, as dangerous, and potentially more dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Tatiana Grinevich, Belarus, “The River of Wishes,” 2012.

Warring Parties Can Negotiate

Hours after Russian troops entered Ukraine, both sides began to talk about a drawdown of tensions. These negotiations developed in Belarus and Turkey before they were scuttled by NATO’s assurances to Ukraine of endless and bottomless support to “weaken” Russia.

If those early negotiations had developed, thousands of lives would have been spared. All such wars end in negotiations, which is why the sooner they could have happened, the better. This is a view that is now openly acknowledged by Ukrainians. Vadym Skibitsky, deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, told The Economist that negotiations are on the horizon.

For a long time now, the Russia-Ukraine frontline has not moved dramatically. In February, the Chinese government released a 12-point set of principles to guide a peace process. These points — including “abandoning the Cold War mentality” — should have been seriously considered by the belligerent sides. But the NATO states simply ignored them.

Several months later, a Ukraine-driven conference was held in Switzerland from June 15–16, to which Russia was not invited and which ended with a communiqué that borrowed many of the Chinese proposals about nuclear safety, food security and prisoner exchanges.

Velislava Gecheva, Bulgaria, “Homo photographicus,” 2014.

While a number of states — from Albania to Uruguay — signed the document, other countries that attended the meeting refused to sign on for a range of reasons, including their sense that the text did not take Russia’s security concerns seriously. 

Among the countries that did not sign are Armenia, Bahrain, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Libya, Mauritius, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates. 

A few days before the Switzerland conference, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin stated his conditions for peace, which include a guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO. This view is shared by those countries of the Global South that did not join the Switzerland statement.

Both Russia and Ukraine are willing to negotiate. Why should the NATO states be allowed to prolong a war that threatens world peace? The upcoming NATO summit in Washington from July 9–11 must hear, loudly and clearly, that the world does not want its dangerous war or decadent militarism. The world’s peoples want to build bridges, not blow them up.

Maxim Kantor, Russia, “Two Versions of History,” 1993.

Briefing No. 14, a clear assessment of current dangers around the escalation in and around Ukraine, underscores the need, as Abdullah El Harif of the Workers’ Democratic Way party in Morocco and I wrote in the “Bouficha Appeal Against the Preparations for War” in 2020, for the peoples of the world to:

  • Stand against the warmongering of U.S. imperialism, which seeks to impose dangerous wars on an already fragile planet.

  • Stand against the saturation of the world with weapons of all kinds, which inflame conflicts and often drive political processes toward endless wars.

  • Stand against the use of military power to prevent the social development of the peoples of the world.

  • Defend the right of countries to build their sovereignty and their dignity.

Sensitive people around the world must make their voices heard on the streets and in the corridors of power to end this dangerous war, and indeed to set us on a path beyond capitalism’s world of unending wars.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations.  His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and, with Noam Chomsky, The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of U.S. Power.

This article is from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

Views expressed in this article may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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5 comments for “Vijay Prashad: No Such Thing as a Small Nuclear War

  1. susan
    July 1, 2024 at 08:18

    Has nobody figured out that this planet is a closed system and that what goes around, comes around? I live near Yucca Flat in Nevada and have seen what above ground nuclear tests have done in the area – we should all be very, very afraid!

  2. jtfutf
    June 29, 2024 at 02:48

    The author forgot to mention that Nato gave Ukraine F-16s and the bombs that go on them, trained the pilots, is paying their salaries, and will allow the aircraft to attack Russia from Nato airbases neighboring Ukraine.

    So Nato will be straight out attacking Russia using pilots who are Ukrainian nationals.

    F16s are nuclear capable and there have been numerous recent attacks on the Russian strategic nuclear radar system.

  3. WillD
    June 29, 2024 at 02:03

    After watching Biden’s disastrous and largely incoherent performance in his so-called ‘debate’ with Trump, it frightens me even more that such a clearly delusional, irrational and visibly incapable person should be running the most aggressive and warmongering country in the world, and taking it right up to the brink of a nuclear conflict with Russia!

    He has a filthy temper, loathes Putin and Xi, and lives in a horror fantasy world where they are threatening and attacking the US – which of course they aren’t.

    He is able to launch a nuclear strike without consulting anyone – without Congressional approval! Could any of his closest advisers and minders stop him if he tried? Would they?

    This one single demented old man is the biggest single threat to the planet right now – by far! No individual should ever be able to wield such a vast amount of destuctive power – more than enogh to wipe out all life on the planet many times over.

  4. Steve
    June 28, 2024 at 09:20

    “The Cuban Missile Crisis was the product of an adventurist miscalculation by Soviet leadership that the U.S. would tolerate the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles only 144 km from the nearest U.S. shore and roughly 1,800 km from Washington. ”
    Let’s not forget or hide the fact that “In 1961, the US government put Jupiter nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey.” And it was that, and the US’s aggresive policy towards Cuba, that caused the crisis in 1962.

    • floyd gardner
      June 28, 2024 at 10:47

      Thank you, Steve; VP is way off base in his 1962 history.

Comments are closed.