Mahanth is Editor
My college thesis, a deep academic dive, Senior year at Georgetown School of Foreign Service was on nuclear weapons proliferation in India and Pakistan. I was guided and mentored by highly prominent practicing Washington experts in the field of nuclear weapons including Robert Gallucci, Alan Krass, and Lawrence Scheinman– who were administrators or adjuncts on campus while simultaneously working in the field. Bar none, by a mile, having practicing academics rather than ivory tower theorists as professors was the best part of my college experience. Other professors and TAs of mine included Indian Ambassador Sunil Lal, the feisty and stern UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, CIA folks, Secret Service folks, State Department climate change negotiators, and DEA personnel. Only later in life do I appreciate how special that academic time was with such a rich set of experiences being shared- including how many international climate change deals took an entire bottle of whiskey to complete, LOL. Meanwhile, I interned at the Indian Embassy immediately after the 1998 nuclear weapons tests by India and Pakistan, which pissed off Washington very very badly, so I was really in the thick of things working on major sanction response strategy. I used to get coffee often with the current Ambassador to the United States Mr. Sandhu, a good guy, at least when he was a mid-level bureaucrat. However, there was a dark side to all of this. This choice of nuclear academic and also professional work forced me to read a lot about this super morbid topic, write a lot about all the grim potential outcomes, and think about the horrors of what nuclear weapons do to people.
We must act accordingly with the real world we live in, and not the world we wish it was. I wish all nations deleted their stockpiles, but that won’t happen due to the “prisoner’s dilemma”- if you get caught with your pants down it means the end of your country. And there is a positive to proliferation as most foreign policy theorists know, which is that Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) will prevent nations from going to war. That hope has held since Japan 1945. It’s a 70+ year run, but the odds of the run ending are alarmingly high!
But the bad news is substantial if we choose to go down the rabbit hole, which I think we must. Nuclear weapons are not too hard to make technologically speaking, given enough money and time. Like computers, they are getting bigger, better, stronger, faster as time goes on. 10 countries are known to have them and I’d guess 5 more have processes in place to join the club in short order if they felt the need. Nuclear warheads are pointing at you, at me, and at everyone we know in most parts of the world, with the ability within minutes to easily annihilate the town or city we live in within minutes. Until recently, the most dangerous flashpoint was the India-Pakistan-China nexus- with India having plans for Pakistan and China, and those two having some nasty protocols for India’s major population centers too. Probably a close second has been North Korea, and despite that nation’s disgusting leadership since inception especially when it comes to the way its own people are treated in the Hermit Kingdom, the dynasty has acted surprisingly responsibly when it comes to its nuclear arsenal. US military presence in South Korea probably helps keep things that way.
Now we must pivot to the Ukraine battlefield as the most dangerous flashpoint as of February 2022. It’s giving me nightmares when it comes to the nuclear equation. The US and NATO have stuff ready to go. Putin does too, and in a major break from accepted diplomatic and military practice, he is wildly threatening to use them against NATO allies.
We are in a World War already, make no mistake. The West is arming Ukraine, which makes it a proxy war already. Sanctions continue to zing around and be debated, with an unknown set of consequences for the war. Private companies are moving in and out of countries in response to the war in an era of unstoppable globalization. Fuel and fertilizer know no boundaries, and markets are getting roiled globally. Sri Lanka’s government is on the brink of disaster partly due to fuel prices and other inflation. Cyber warfare riddles all countries like a cancer, and it’s hard to pinpoint who is doing what in that shadowy space. What we do know for a fact is that Russia has pounded the US pretty lovely, both government and private sectors, on this front. It certainly affected our elections, pipelines, financial systems, and much more. No doubt the US government is also doing the same in other places and has for decades.
Whether Putin is a rational actor or not has been the big debate lately. I would argue since he took over Russia at the turn of the century all the way until February 24, 2022 he was. He did things to consolidate the power of him and his cronies, eliminate competition, build up the military, and engage in cyber warfare in Europe and the United States. Always toeing the line but not crossing it. Incursions into Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014, for example, were limited in scope and not something that could threaten the Russian state’s existence.
This new war is different. It isn’t rational from any way you look at it. The Russian people are dying and suffering very greatly alongside their Ukrainian neighbors. There will be no winners regardless of what happens there in the end- all of us are losing, everywhere in the world. We’ve already lost. Sure this may strengthen NATO but that is not a permanent fix to what is going on with Russia and China. And here is the exact spot in time where our fears should be triggered: a potentially very powerful, fully authoritarian, irrational despot, with his finger on the nuclear button.
I may be knowledgeable in this area but I certainly don’t have enough classified information to know how to “defuse” the Ukraine situation. We need to talk about it more though, because this conflict absolutely must get resolved, sooner than later, in order to avoid the threat of nuclear conflagration. There are no easy answers. Even if Putin loses power that may not be the best answer, because his successor might even be worse, which is certainly possible. Being ruthless to hold onto power is a feature of Russia going back millennia. Meanwhile unintended consequences have been the bane of US foreign policy, where our own creations have come back years later to bite us, like Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
We have now cornered Putin like a rabid dog. China will help him limp along. His position at the top seems to be secure. We need to use as much diplomacy as is humanly possible to get out of this mess, as Volodomyr is valiantly attempting– and then embark after this conflict is finally over on a serious conversation about global nonproliferation and destroying stockpiles with invasive inspection protocols for every country including the United States by the United Nations. Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before nuclear bombs go off again. The odds of us making it a century from now without a terrorist group or nation using one of these 13,000 or more toys is probably close to nil.
Imagine: if the United States focused $2 billion in Ukraine aid toward diplomatic solutions instead of just lethal weapons, what could be accomplished.