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12 January, 2012  ▪  Bohdan Tsioupine

A Dead Hand on the Red Button

The nuclear arms race goes on, even though nuclear weapons are becoming less important

A victory in a full-fledged nuclear war is impossible. Moscow and Washington reached this conclusion, or rather admitted it, in 1985. “Do you understand what it means?” said Mikhail Gorbachev, the then Secretary General of the USSR Communist Party, to Washington Post reporter David E. Hoffmann. “This means that everything we have been doing until now is wrong!”

This mistake – developing weapons of mass destruction and an arms race – had several generations of people nearly scared to death. It also had an exorbitant price tag and should be a lesson to learn for the present-time “collectors of lands” in Moscow. The takeaway is that this mistake expedited the breakup of an entire communist empire. However, mankind failed to learn the lesson – since the end of the Cold War the number of countries desperately wanting to add a nuclear bomb to their military arsenal has not decreased. By hook or by crook and at any cost, without any consideration for their hungry and illiterate population, North Korea, India and Pakistan developed nuclear weapons. Israel refuses to admit not having them and calls it a means of self-defense. This is driving Iran crazy and also led to the end of Saddam Hussein’s reign in Iraq. The fact that South Africa and such post-Soviet countries as Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan gave up their nuclear warheads is a small gain against this background.


When Labour came to power in Great Britain in 1997, their ideological rivals warned that they would run the national defense system into the ground by renouncing nuclear weapons. But when politicians find themselves at the helm of a country, they begin to behave like powers in charge. Prime minister-elect Tony Blair declared that “it would be unwise and dangerous” to get rid of nuclear warheads. Labour announced a 20% cut in the nuclear arsenal and, at the same time, a ₤20-billion allotment to build a new generation of submarines armed with Trident nuclear missiles. It was Labour government that wrote guarantees that Great Britain would run its nuclear program until 2042 and would cooperate with the USA on its continuation later. Officially, the explanation was that Labour were not dropping their platform of completely freeing the world of nuclear arms. They downsized Britain’s containment arsenal to a minimum level by cutting it by 50% compared to earlier plans. They promised to continue to take part in multilateral talks on nuclear disarmament, but as long as WMD existed, they felt they were could not be alone in this and leave the next generations open to the threat of nuclear blackmail.

The Conservatives, who are now running the UK government, have a clear stance: they are definitely in favor of having nuclear arms in contemporary global conditions. In late November 2011, the UK Ministry of Defense allotted as much as ₤2 billion to build new nuclear weapon production facilities. So who is wrong, after all? Why is it that what was once recognized as a dangerous mistake remains relevant today, 20 years after the end of the Cold War?

David E. Hoffman has been watching politicians and the military for over 27 years as a reporter and later an editor at the Washington Post. He was a correspondent reporting from the White House during the Reagan administration and later from the Kremlin under Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. Hoffman also believes that a nuclear confrontation would be a mistake with catastrophic consequences. He wrote a book on the subject, The Dead Hand, so convincing that it won him the Pulitzer Prize, which is the journalist's Nobel Prize.


An interview for The Ukrainian Week was another opportunity for Hoffmann to voice his arguments that thinking about nuclear weapons and other WMD as a necessary deterrent to keep humanity from more wars is false and dangerous.

U.W.: Is the Cold War really over? In 2007, Putin announced that Russia’s strategic aircraft were resuming their patrolling missions. The new Russian Military doctrine, approved by Moscow, leaves room for Russia to use nuclear weapons first and even against non-nuclear states.

I would look at it from a different angle. I believe that Russia is trying to find its place in the world: Is it a global power or a regional one? And it will be taking steps like this to show its strength. The USA is doing the same. What really concerns me, however, is that in the course of the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union each accumulated hundreds of earth-to-earth missiles that can cross the ocean and destroy an entire country. They can be launched in a matter of minutes. The military are using the term “on alert.” At the time, American earth-to-earth missiles were placed on four-minute alert. In other words, they would have been in the air four minutes after a presidential order. Back then there was some justification for this. Each side had to be prepared to strike back so that the deterrent factor would work. Is there any sense in it today? People are not aware of this, but American missiles are still on four-minute alert and submarines on a 12-minute alert. I suppose that missiles in Russia are also on alert. And you wonder what for. We don’t need it anymore.

U.W.: Don’t we have new confrontations and threats in the world? And new nuclear states, such as Pakistan, India and North Korea?

Let’s look at the figures only. The Russian Federation and the United States have 90% of the total amount of around 22,000 nuclear warheads in the world! Meanwhile, Pakistan has around 100-200, India 200, China 240, France perhaps 200 and Britain 200. All these countries are a problem that I am prepared to discuss separately, but they have relatively few warheads. Russia and the USA continue to have thousands, even though they are no longer in confrontation. They don’t need all these bombs. I’m not saying that we have to immediately reduce the number to zero. But I know a number of military men who say: If we – Russia or the USA – cut our nuclear arsenals by half today, it would in no way hurt our security. So there is this huge excess. Therefore, before we speak about the 120 Pakistani nuclear missiles that help them feel more secure next to India, we need to mention the 2,000 American strategic nuclear warheads that are not accounted for by any strategic armaments agreement. This is a so-called reserve – they are kept away in storage places. We also need to mention Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons – close-range missiles that are now important to it due to the decline of its conventional weapons. They are not covered by any treaty, either. They have not been counted, and the situation with them is not clear.

Take just these two types I’ve mentioned. Imagine that each side gives up 2,000 missiles, a total of 4,000, and that's more than all nuclear warheads kept by the rest of the countries in the world. If we speak about a desire to shed the heritage of the Cold War, we need to tackle the largest arsenals first.

U.W.: Some very influential people say that nuclear weapons were a deterrent for nearly half a century, that they proved to be efficient and should be kept.

By and large, it was true. For decades after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, neither the USA nor the Soviet Union used nuclear warheads even once. It can be said that they kept the sides on alert and contained them. But people are often unaware (and this is one of the reasons why I wrote my book) that nuclear standoff and keeping missiles on alert are dangerous in themselves. The claim that weapons of mass destruction helped keep peace on earth is, to an extent, an exaggeration.

Let me give you two examples: a B-52 bomber had a technical malfunction as it flew over the USA in 1961. It shed four nuclear bombs. Three of them simply fell down, while the fourth one started the countdown. It was only the last pilot-controlled safeguard mechanism that prevented a nuclear explosion. But imagine it had happened, could we say today that nuclear weapons helped keep peace? Here is the other example: in the first chapter of my book I write about a false alert in the early warning center located south of Moscow. The early warning system glitched and reported that the USSR had become the target of a massive missile strike. This is just one of many false alarms that happened. Are you aware that there were hundreds of them? So malfunctions, accidents, mistakes and false alarms happen all the time and any of them could lead to a nuclear explosion. Humanity has simply been very lucky!


U.W.: We in Ukraine often hear that our country made a mistake by giving up its share of the Soviet nuclear weapons and that by keeping them Ukraine would be a stronger and better protected state now.

I believe these arguments are false. Those who advance them are not, evidently, thinking what value these nuclear armaments would really have for Ukraine. I am speaking about their value as a deterrent. Who would be afraid of these weapons? I don’t think Russia would. It has many more such missiles than Ukraine would. Moreover, Russia controlled all the missile launch codes. In my opinion, when the Soviet Union broke up, the value of nuclear arms as a deterrent and a political tool began to dissipate. Frankly, Ukraine is perhaps more secure now, and it is spending less on its defense. Or do you think you would have better relations with other countries and NATO if you had Soviet missiles on its territory? Ukraine would have to maintain these armaments, produce uranium, take care of them, think about ways to prevent explosions and safeguard them against theft. Moreover, there would be numerous complications – not because someone would be afraid of Ukraine using its weapons but because contemporary global threats cannot be countered with nuclear warheads. Can they protect you against bin Laden or people like him?

The fact is that both American and Russian weapons of mass destruction are losing value. They are becoming outdated, even if not completely obsolete. But why would Ukraine need this?

U.W.: What can spur contemporary leaders to reduce WMD arsenals if not get rid of them altogether?

I don’t know in what direction Russia is moving. But we in the USA have a very clear system of government. The military serve the civil government. The political system elects a president rather than a general. If our congressmen, mayors, governors and voters say: “We want you to do this and this,” the military will follow the order. I am not denying that they have clout. If officials cannot agree, the military simply pursue a policy they are used to. They can rarely be seen as a source of radical transformations. They are satisfied with the status quo, and this is part of the problem. Our politicians have proven incapable of making decisions. As a result, we continue to go along the beaten path every day with all those nuclear warheads. And the military report with satisfaction: “Yes, they are ready; they are on four-minute alert! We need them!”

In fact, politicians are moving in the opposite direction. We have a group of congressmen who declare support for nuclear weapons and financing them. So politicians are working in many different directions. And this is one of the many reasons why we still have these weapons. The congressmen who are in favor of keeping a nuclear arsenal may, in a sense, be more influential than those who are against it.

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