Strategy beyond the Ukraine: It’s time to start thinking about the risks of nuclear war with Russia, and of appeasement

The world stands at a perilous point where the risks of an accidental (or other) nuclear war with Russia are greater than they have been since the most perilous points in the Cold War, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962 and the Yom Kippur War between Israel and the Arab states in 1973.

According to news reports, there is no functioning liaison between American and Russian nuclear officials. In the United States, funds for verification of Russian compliance with arms control treaties have been cut, while appropriations for new and better nuclear weapons have grown.

On the American side, no one seems to have been in charge. The stories of American ICBM crews cheating on preparedness tests seem to be but the tip of the iceberg.

On the Russian side, we appear to have in President Putin a megalomaniac who believes that in any nuclear showdown with Barack Obama he would win, hands down.

Neither Putin nor Obama seems to understand, or to be taking active steps to mitigate, the risks of accicdental nuclear war. Putin and his prime minister, Dimitry Medvedev, have over the last several years engaged is careless and dangerous talk of nuclear war.

According to press reports, the famous “red telephone” may not be in working order, or able to be used within the 10 minutes or so a president might have to decide whether a radar image of an incoming ICBM warrants the launching of a nuclear counter-strike. Even if Obama is ready to take or make a call at 3:00 a.m., the “red phone” line may be dead or there may be nobody on the other end.


(1) Markus Becker (München), “Nato-Russland-Krise: Das nukleare Gespenst kehrt zurück; Die Ukraine-Krise hat die Nato und Russland in den Kalten Krieg zurückgeworfen. Die Zusammenarbeit bei der nuklearen Sicherheit wurde eingestellt, ein “Rotes Telefon” gibt es nicht mehr. Experten halten das für extrem gefährlich,” Der Spiegel, 8. Februar 2015 (18:06 Uhr).

(2) Michael Stürmer, “Die Welt ist heute gefährlicher als im Kalten Krieg; Hegemonie oder Gleichgewicht braucht Die Welt, sagte Kissinger;. Also eine Supermacht – wie die USA vorübergehend – oder zwei Supermächte – wie im Kalten Krie.;Der tGlobus ist von beidem weit entfernt, “Die Welt, 6. Februar 2015.

(3) “The Elephant in the Room: Reflections on the nuclear deterrent and the Ukraine,” The Trenchant Observer, December 1, 2014.

The world stumbled into World War I a century ago, and 75 years ago the world was thrown into the maelstrom of World War II due to the military aggression of Adolf Hitler, the West’s response of appeasement, and Hitler’s alliance with the Soviet Unuin (1939-1941) and his alliance with Japan, which led to Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Putin stated recently that he approved of the 1939 Von Rippentropp Pact of alliance between Germany and the Soviet Union, which also provided for the partition of Poland between the two signatories.

The U.S. and NATO are on a collision course with Putin and Russia.  Continued appeasement is likely to only embolden Putin and heighten, not lower, the risks of more direct conflict.

The next time Angela Merkel wants to say, “There is no military solution to the Ukraine conflict,” she should engage her brain before she speaks.

Putin believes there is a military solution that will help him resolve the conflict the way he wishes, achieving his goals.  He is avidly–and successfully–pursuing this military solution every day.

He does so even by signing peace agreements he will not honor, if he imagines that they will help him avoid some immediate countermove, such as third-round economic sanctions by the EU (agreed upon the day he signed the Minsk Protocol), or the U.S. deciding to send defensive weapons to Kiev to assist them in their own self-defense (which he may hope to avert by appearing to be cooperative at the forthcoming Minsk summit on February 11, 2015).

Yet given Putin’s duplicitous nature and his record of breaking agreements on the Ukraine, the upcoming summit in Minsk on Wednesday with François Hollande (Mr. Mistral), Angela Merkel (Mrs. coalition partner of the SDP appeasers and pacifists including her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Vladimir Putin (Mr. military aggression), and Petro Poroshenko, the valiant leader of the Ukraine whose toughness depends on that of Hollande, Merkel, Obama, and the West, holds little promise for more than a brief respite from the killing.

The Minsk Protocol of September 5, 2014 was an agreement that was about as balanced and reasonable as you could get, given ongoing Russian military advances on the ground.

Russia simply didn’t abide by its provisions, and decided to go for more military advances.

While the West frets over angering the aggressor if it sends arms to Kiev, Putin is not at all worried about sending troops, tanks, artillery, advanced air defense systems and highly sophisticated electronic equipment across the international frontier with the Ukraine, in flagrant violation of article 2 paragraph 4 of the U.N. Charter. He is not afraid of angering the West, because to date they have proven to be utterly spineless.

Have American leaders forgotten that it is Putin who is violating the most basic norms of international law prohibiting the use of force, while sending lethal arms to Kiev is fully in compliance with Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes measures of collective self defense, up to and including the use of force, in response to an “armed attack”?

There can be no doubt that Russia has committed an “armed attack” against the Ukraine, first in the Crimea and then in the eastern Ukraine. As we write, Russian regular troops and other military forces are fighting against Ukrainian government forces, within the Ukraine.

However, the real issue, which no one is discussing in public, is the urgent need to impose crippling economic sanctions on Moscow.

The EU appears paralyzed, and is fighting merely to re-authorize the sanctions already in place. That leaves the heavy lifting to the United States, which should impose crippling economic sanctions now, while working to help the EU catch up as soon as possible.

Only such action might forestall further military advances by Russia in the Donbas, and progressive consolidation of its position.

The West is in for a long and formidable struggle with Russia, and should be implementing long-term policies that might contain its current military aggression while bringing Russia back into the international community that supports the U.N. Charter and international law. Its actions should be principled, and aimed not only at Putin and his coterie, but also at the new leaders who will follow him.

In this new struggle with Russia, the West’s greatest weapons are steadfast defense of its values through economic sanctions, including denial of access to technology which would otherwise permit Russia to advance to the first rank of nations.

Military and financial aid to Kiev, as well as other moves by NATO, may also be required.

Immediate steps that can be taken would be to block Russia’s access to the SWIFT international payments system, to impose much broader sectoral sanctions on the Russian economy, to organize a boycott of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia (militating for a change of venue to a non-aggressor state), and to add Vladimir Putin himself to the sanctions list, including the freezing of all of his assets abroad.

These steps would be likely to influence Russia much more than a mere decision to send arms to Kiev, however important that action may be.

It is not logic that is lacking in Washington, Brussels, Paris and Berlin, but political courage and steadfastness of purpose.

Someone had better start thinking seriously about these issues, including both the risks of nuclear war and the risks of further appeasement of Putin and Russia.  Then Western leaders must start acting forcefully to address the challenges presented, in an effective manner.

The Trenchant Observer


About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.