Thinking About the Unthinkable — A Nuclear Miscalculation
Author: Greg Valliere
January 28, 2022
MILITARY EXPERTS HAVE BEEN RELUCTANT to even whisper about the unthinkable in Ukraine, but there’s growing anxiety over a Russian incursion that prompts a miscalculation. Could the Russians use one of their thousands of nuclear weapons?
THE THREAT OF A GROSS MISCALCULATION has alarmed experts in recent days, and those concerns are now out in the open. This morning’s Politico, in a chilling article, quotes many of these officials, who worry about what one experts calls “the law of unintended consequences.”
THE HIGHLY REGARDED Federation of American Scientists estimates that Russia possesses approximately 6,400 nuclear warheads, the largest stockpile in the world. The U.S. has about 6,000 and Russia also has vast supplies of chemical and biological weapons.
“IF YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT a nuclear-armed environment, which is already fragile, then you are living in an environment [where] things could escalate quite quickly, by accident or miscalculation,” said former UK defense chief Des Browne in the Politico article.
“NOBODY THINKS any of these weapons are going to be used deliberately, but miscalculation is a significant chance,” added Browne, who chairs the Euro-Atlantic Security Leadership Group.
POLITICO QUOTES A FORMER GOP GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL who still works on nuclear security issues: “The Russians have something like 4,000 tactical nuclear weapons and they have an ‘escalate to win’ nuclear doctrine, which says ‘we use nuclear weapons first if a conventional conflict starts to spin out of our favor.’”
ONE RUSSIAN DIPLOMAT last month went so far as to publicly threaten the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in the crisis. These weapons have a lower “yield” than traditional atomic bombs and are designed to be used against conventional forces in battle.
ACCORDING TO FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR Richard Burt, who has negotiated arms control treaties with the Soviet Union, “people are worried about the possibility, through some process of escalation — that somehow gets out of control, misreading, misunderstanding signals, or technical mistakes — [and] that nuclear weapons in one form or another could become a factor in this crisis,” Burt told Politico.
ANOTHER HUGE CONCERN is that Russian cyberwarfare could scramble signals, according to Chris Painter, a former top government cyber official. He warned this week of the risk of a nuclear escalation caused by a cyber attack impacting nuclear forces.
“WE KNOW that Russia and other services are intent on intruding into U.S. systems,” he told an event hosted by the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative. “Obviously, nuclear command and control would be a target they’d want to go after and get a foothold in. This is a really dangerous thing … if those systems are seen to be unreliable … that does have a real effect on deterrence. It’s hugely escalatory.”
WE CONTINUE TO BELIEVE that a diplomatic “off ramp,” is likely — with plenty of carrots and sticks for Putin — that will resolve this without an all-out war. But the mere fact that leading experts are talking about a nuclear miscalculation makes this the greatest global threat since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
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