Oscar van Heerden | We are on the precipice – will we have a nuclear fallout in our lifetime

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It's time for a rethink by the West about the ultimate end game here and it's not going to be a fallen Putin nor a fallen Russian economy, writes Oscar van Heerden

The year is 1962 and the world is confronted with the Cuban Missile Crisis. In short, the USA decided to deploy missile systems in Italy and Turkey supposedly pointed toward the then Soviet Union. This would be considered a first strike capability for the USA and needless to say a national security threat for the Soviet Union (Russia). Russia responded and deployed similar missiles on the island of Cuba, only a few miles away from mainland USA. The confrontation is considered the closest the Cold War came to escalating into a full-scale nuclear war. The final outcome or results of this confrontation were:

  • Publicised removal of the Soviet Union's nuclear missiles from Cuba;
  • Non-publicised removal of American nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy;
  • Agreement with the Soviet Union that the United States would never invade Cuba without direct provocation; and
  • Creation of a nuclear hotline between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Today we stand on the precipice yet again, exactly 60 years on and the world is confronted with another confrontation between these two foes and it seems very likely that we might again come close to a nuclear fallout. I speak of a fallout because it’s a myth that we can have a nuclear war.

These weapons systems are such that you don’t drop one and then the other party responds and also drops one as if you are dealing with conventional bombs. No, if one country decides to drop a nuclear bomb and the other country responds, we have a nuclear holocaust because neither party will stop at that. More and more nuclear weapons will be passing each other overhead and that would be the end of our world as we know it.

Rattling worrisome 

So, this sabre rattling from both sides in this Ukraine conflict is most worrisome. And before anyone wants to pretend that Putin was the first to threaten nuclear weapons usage, this is unfortunately just not true. The Pentagon, NATO and some European governments spoke of nuclear war well before Putin made his remarks concerning its arsenal and what his government will do to protect the territorial integrity of Russia. You see, this war started out because Russia invaded Ukraine and some countries in the west came to the aid of Ukraine. Fine, we understand why this intervention is required. Supposedly in defence of the democracy and sovereignty of Ukraine. Somewhere in the six months long battle, it seems the parameters of the war changed radically. It's no longer just about making sure that Russia’s expansionary actions are curtailed but that Russia’s government and, in particular Putin, must fall. In other words, this has now become a war of wanting to overthrow the regime of Russia. 

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May I remind everyone that this is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and you don’t get to be a permanent member because of your good looks. No, it's because you are the largest country in the world and you have the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world. And a small but important fact that is also continuously ignored by many for their own ulterior motives, is that it's one of the countries that was part of the allied forces in World War 2 against Nazi Germany.

These permanent members don’t fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court so, talk of war crimes simply doesn’t matter to Russia, as it has not mattered to the USA over the decades of invading numerous countries and we know how the USA used its veto vote in the UNSC to also protect Israel against war crimes committed against the Palestinian people. And before anyone calls foul and talks of “whataboutism”, this duplicity has gone too far and the continuous dualism that exists in the international system is being rightfully challenged by some powerful nations. In particular, Russia, China, India, South Africa, Brazil, Iran, Venezuela and many more.

ALSO READ | British, Ukrainian missions in SA reflect: Russia's invasion overshadows Independence Day

International law must apply equally to all and not just to some. War crimes are war crimes period, regardless of who is committing them. There was a time when the USA wanted to pass a resolution in the UN that “rape as a weapon of war” must be declared illegal and that transgressors must be held accountable, just not their armed forces as the USA. South Africa rightfully disagreed and said that everyone’s armed forces, including the USA, must be subject to this new law. Eventually, the USA had to agree, and the resolution was passed. But this is the sort of exceptionalism that the international system at times adheres to. The simple right thing to do, however, is that what’s good for the goose must be good for the gander. That’s all.

Bias of mainstream media 

The unbelievable bias of mainstream media is also rather worrisome throughout the world including here at home. As I am observing the events unfolding in Ukraine and the disputed territories of the Donbas region, Crimea, Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, I’m now informed of the continuous shelling/bombing of these areas by the Ukrainian armed forces and by extension their Ukrainian government for the last eight years since 2014. This is unbelievable, a government that claims these territories as part of them but bombing the peoples of these regions to thy kingdom come every day. No wonder they would rather want to be part of Russia. If this is indeed untrue I will be the first to acknowledge it but I don’t think it is. After all, contrary to popular opinion, the Zelensky presidency came about through an illegal coup which took place in 2014. Both president Poroshenko and Zelensky came to power as a result of this coup of a democratically elected president Viktor Yanukovych but no one wants to talk about this.

I don’t know how this war will ultimately pan out and I also don’t know what the outcome of these referendums will ultimately be but what I do know is that glibly talking about nuclear war and tactical nuclear weapons is irresponsible. The USA State Department talks of catastrophic consequences should Putin use nuclear weapons, what exactly does that mean? I think we should be very worried since the USA is the only country in the world that has used these destructive weapons before. Russia has always had a simple doctrine, they will only use such weapons as a retaliatory response and not as an offensive measure. Time will tell.

The other undeniable fact is that if the USA wanted to end this senseless war they can. After all, it is the USA in the main but not exclusively that is funding this war. Thus far, the USA has made more than $15 billion available to Ukraine for the war. So, they are the ones that can simply say no more, call Ukraine to the table and insist on negotiations with Russia. We now know that all Russia wanted was:

  • A clear commitment that Ukraine will never join NATO because this poses a national security threat to Russia.
  • In exchange Russia will withdraw from Ukraine.
  • Because of this war now, Russia will have an added demand and that would be that the territories and its peoples in the Donbas region be allowed to secede to Russia. 

Cooler heads 

This last demand will be a sticky one but will certainly be on the table. Leadership is what was provided during those nerve-racking 35 days in 1962. President John F Kennedy and his brother Bobby Kennedy allowed only cooler heads in the room when discussing a possible way out of this potentially very dangerous situation. They did not allow the hawks of the military-industrial complex to dictate to them about war. And ultimately they knew that in any negotiations it was a give-and-take scenario, hence they took away the possibility of Soviet missiles in Cuba and gave away their missiles in Turkey and Italy. Russian president Nikkita Khrushchev also provided the necessary restraint and thoughtfulness during this crisis. This was leadership at its best. 

What we are dealing with currently leaves much to be desired. Europe is playing chicken with Russia and the peoples of Europe are suffering as a consequence. High energy prices and high food prices are unsustainable. Sanctions are simply not working against Russia. They are feeling some effects but made tens of billions of dollars in revenues from oil and gas which soared over the last six months. Russia has increased its foreign reserves exponentially and whilst Europe will be suffering the dark and cold winter about to set in, Russians are having plenty of energy.    

ALSO READ | Sipho Masondo: Analysing Russia’s reasons for invading Ukraine — what role did NATO play?

It's time for a rethink by the West about the ultimate end game here and it's not going to be a fallen Putin nor a fallen Russian economy. By all accounts, this war will be going on for many more months to come. Negotiations are the only solution and instead of warmongering on the part of Zelensky and his allied forces, best they invite the bear, Putin to the table and negotiate a truce.

Going to war with Russia and China potentially in order to hang on to one's superpower status at all cost is simply a silly, costly and potentially catastrophic plan for the citizens of the USA. Only the people of the USA and the Western Hemisphere will suffer what they must.

- Dr Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular


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