With a nuclear power at war, we must have complete clarity about events

For more than three decades, we've lived without the threat of nuclear war.  That means that the knowledge gained during the Cold War about nuclear deterrence has largely been lost.  In addition, the nature of nuclear war itself has changed, as rogue nations and unstable leaders have entered the nuclear fray.  For this reason, it's imperative that world leaders and those who control the news and can affect decision-making educate themselves about what's going on.

On March 14, 2019, almost three years ago to the day, I asked the readers of American Thinker a direct question.  Is President Putin diabolically smart or simply a psychopath?  Perhaps he is both because, by his direct action, the world is now a much more dangerous place as the former KGB officer creates a nuclear doomsday scenario backed by real Russian naval capabilities.

With his war against Ukraine, Putin has put both aspects of my question into play.  He's now been proven to be a diabolically smart and unchecked megalomaniac leader of a nuclear strategic threat to the world.  To add to the threat level from Russia, there are credible rumors that he has significant health issues that can deeply impair and affect his judgment.

Regardless of what are his driving motives, Putin has managed through his actions to introduce the possibility, however small but still real, of unleashing nuclear war, either at the tactical level or, horrifically, leading to a strategic showdown.

To get up to speed with what we're facing, both world leaders and editors of powerful and important global news outlets should immediately go back to trying to understand the brilliance of the late strategic strategist Herman Kahn and his seminal book, Thinking about the Unthinkable.  Kahn's insights about the use of atomic devices to deter nuclear war were a major contribution to winning the Cold War against the Soviet empire without trigging a bloodbath of countless millions dying in mushroom clouds.

However, it's important to understand that nuclear threats have changed.  While Kahn is no longer with us, Professor Paul Bracken of Yale, who worked under Khan at the Hudson Institute, is one of the foremost authorities on today's worldwide potential threats of a nuclear weapons exchange.  Professor Bracken developed a strategic deterrence analysis, bringing it into the 21st century with his book, The Second Nuclear Age, published in 2013.


Image: Nuclear blast by pxfuel.

The book's premise is that, although the Cold War officially ended decades ago, we cannot act as if there were no nuclear threat, and that's not just because of Iran or North Korea.  As the Amazon blurb states, "the whole complexion of global power politics is changing because of the reemergence of nuclear weapons as a vital element of statecraft and power politics.  In short, we have entered the second nuclear age."  In this age, "nuclear weapons are changing the calculus of power politics."  He argued that "the United States needs to start thinking seriously about these issues once again" and "must not allow itself to be unprepared for managing such crises."

It's to be hoped that someone in the Biden administration has talked to Bracken or, at least, read his book.  For those who haven't read the book, including those writing for major publications covering events in Ukraine, here are a few things to keep in mind.

In Ukraine, there's been fighting near Chernobyl's radioactive ruins, although, thankfully, the ruins are still contained.  There's also been fighting around operational nuclear power plants.  Lastly, Putin is making oblique nuclear threats.  With these things in play, everyone discussing Ukraine must understand what happens if nuclear sensors throughout Europe identify radioactive particles loose in the atmosphere.

The three potential ways radioactive fallout can be unleashed are (1) an explosion at a nuclear power plant, (2) a "dirty bomb" exploding deadly radioactive material such as plutonium into the atmosphere using high-power conventional explosives, and (3) the Russian doctrine of "escalating to de-escalate" and their use of a low-yield device (bomb) to demonstrate their resolve.

Often, "fingerprinting" what sensors picked up can clarify the nature of the event.  This is especially important because, although there are many commendable and courageous reporters on the ground in Ukraine trying to capture ground truth, there are also significant information and disinformation stratagems in play by all sides.  These confuse everything, including national command authorities, who are having issues with cutting through the fog of war with actionable clarity.

With headlines that too often scream "ready fire aim," there's the real possibility that someone will declare that nuclear particles are the first round of a nuclear war breaking out when, in fact, what's being picked up is a nasty and deadly conventional munitions event exploding at a power plant or a "dirty bomb" (which is actually a chem/bioweapon because plutonium [Pu] is a deadly radioactive chemical element).

Everything will change for the worse if Putin authorizes his military to use a low-yield tactical nuclear device.  So, if the unthinkable happens and radioactive elements enter the atmosphere, this is a plea to reporters, editors, and national command authorities in the U.S. and NATO: before you do anything else, pause to make sure you understand what just happened, because World War III can hang in the balance.

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