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Nuclear War in the Baltics – the General is Wrong

May 22, 2016


According to Sir Richard Shirreff, a recently-retired British general, there’s a fair chance that next year we will be involved in a nuclear war sparked by Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions in the Baltic. If we are not involved, we will still be caught in the economic blast that such an event would trigger. That would be the best case. The worst would be that our membership of NATO would oblige us to join in the nuke tossing.

So what are the vast majority of us who are not generals, politicians and geopolitical analysts to make of this dire warning?

Well, I suppose we could buy his novel, in which the dire scenario he envisages unfolds. That, presumably, is the reason for all his recent interviews. Though if a nuclear war breaks out, the general would be unlikely to be around to enjoy his newly-enriched retirement.

Sir Richard is wrong, for one simple reason. The dynamics that have prevented nuclear war between the superpowers (if Russia can still be given that accolade) for the past seventy years have not changed. Those who launch such a war will not benefit from its conclusion.

That’s not to say that there isn’t still a high risk of a nuclear exchange being triggered by a computer error leading to one side concluding that it’s under attack when actually it isn’t. And a regional nuclear war surely becomes more likely as current non-proliferation protocols continue to be broken by the like of North Korea.

But is Vladimir Putin mad enough to risk his nukes in an exchange with NATO? He might be, but it takes more than one madman to start a war. Even though Putin seems to have concentrated more power into his own hands than was ever vested in a Soviet leader, he still depends on his supporters and on the chain of command. All of those who have ridden on the back of Putin’s rise to power would find themselves destroyed, if not physically, then financially. It would only take one sane intervention, even if it’s motivated by instincts of self-preservation, to break the escalation chain before the big bang.

This happened during the Cuba crisis in 1962, and more recently in 1983, when a Soviet commander used his own judgement to stop the response sequence in its tracks after an alert based on a computer error. For those of you who are keen on might-have-beens, you could do worse than to read David E Hoffman’s The Dead Hand – The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race, which I reviewed here a couple of years back.

Whatever safeguards exist today to prevent an accidental war, Mutually Assured Destruction still applies. No matter that the US, Russia and probably China possess tactical nukes that can take out something smaller than a city – a ship or a tank battalion for example – any nuclear exchange would light a fuse that would be hard to extinguish.

So I for one will continue to live my life in the knowledge that tomorrow I could be knocked down by a bus, killed in a car crash or choked to death by a fish bone. And that any of those outcomes would be far more likely than to end up as a bunch of disassociated molecules in a mushroom cloud.

Should the general be right, sadly he would be unlikely to be in a position to tell us that he told us so.

From → Politics, UK, USA

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