The Nuclear Threat

Mike Minehan
22 May, 2023

The world is closer to nuclear Armageddon than ever before.

Russia has the world's largest nuclear arsenal estimated at 5,977 warheads (the USA comes in second, with an estimated 5,457 warheads.) And ominously, Russia  has issued a number of nuclear threats since it invaded Ukraine in February, 2022.

But Putin is just rattling his sabre, isn't he? Putin wouldn't really use nuclear weapons on Ukraine, right on the edge of Europe, would he?

Well, Putin is already backed into a corner, where his conventional weapons haven't achieved much success. He has suffered humiliating losses, his dreams of empire are in tatters, he's facing charges of war crimes, and he's trying to deal with rising opposition to his war inside Russia. His problems only seem to be getting worse.

It must be galling for one of the richest men in the world, with the world's biggest nuclear arsenal at his disposal, to be seen as a loser. Especially when only a single, small, tactical nuke might offer such a simple military solution.

Is it Putin's frustration and rage we can sense in his current targeting of civilian, rather than military targets? Is he trying to punish Ukrainians, instead of trying to defeat them in a military context? It must be intolerable that the people of a much smaller former vassal state of the mighty USSR are putting up such a spirited and successful resistance (albeit with international assistance) and making a fool of Putin.

Accordingly, perhaps it's the unspoken aspects of Putin's threat that are most dangerous.

And yet another ominous threat is the positioning of Russian nukes in Belarus. This is also where the Wagner mutineers have been quarantined. The Wagner group have a history of terror, murder and extortion, and the juxtaposition of Wagner mercenaries and tactical nukes raises terrifying porribilities. Not only of a Wagner takeover, but also the possibility of Russia launching these nukes, and then trying to blame the Wagner group for being responsible. 

Russian instability is bad enogh, but there's even more to worry about in the rest of the world. There are two other nuclear powers, Pakistan and Israel, that are in the process of raising the nuclear risks even higher. Both countries are experiencing crises that seriously question their ability to control their nuclear arsenals.

Firstly, Pakistan. Pakistan has an alarming history of instability. In the country's 75 year existence, not a single premier has been able to complete a five-year term. Leaders have been removed by military coups, assassination, and in one notorious case, was executed by the military regime that replaced him.

This history is bad enough, but the current combination of crises in Pakistan are even more threatening. Politically, the country is being torn apart by riots in favor of the deposed President Imran Khan. This is a showdown between a populist politician and the all-powerful military.

At the same time, the country is on the edge of collapse after being unable to pay its foreign debt, or even being able to feed its people. Crippling natural disasters have destroyed local food supplies and are threatening starvation.

And it gets even worse. Terrorist groups are taking advantage of this upheaval to attack the government, including the police and military. There have been nearly 200 terrorist attacks in the first 3 months of 2023.

The Pakistani government also has a murky history of state-sponsored terrorism. The terrorists who carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks were trained and funded within Pakistan. 175 people died and over 300 were wounded.

In July 2019, the then Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, on an official visit to the United States, acknowledged the presence of armed terrorists, some 30-40,000, operating on Pakistani soil. He further stated that previous administrations had been hiding this truth, particularly from the United States during the War on Terror. 

Notoriously, Pakistan was also the country that harbored Osama Bin Laden for five years. There is no smoking gun pointing directly at the Pakistani government for having been complicit in this sheltering of the world's most wanted terrorist, but the government's subsequent  investigation was held in secret, and the results were never released. 

In addition, Pakistan offered a safe haven during the Afghan war to senior Taliban leaders, including the 'lethal' Haqqani network, members of which now hold positions of power in the present Taliban government. This was partly for ethnic reasons, because the Taliban is mostly Pashtun, as are the so-called Tribal Areas within the Pakistani border. The boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan is also called the Durand Line, after the British colonel who arbitrarily imposed it to suit then British colonial interests. The Taliban Pashtuns have never recognized this border, and consider the Pashtun area within Pakistan as part of their rightful home. 

The Pakistan Secret Service, the ISI, also found it convenient to selectively support terrorist groups within Afghanistan in an attempt to curb suspected Indian influence that might have assisted anti-Pakistan fighters in Kashmir. The motives of the ISI have been just as murky as overall Pakistani politics.

More alarmingly, at the same time as trying to deal with terrorists, Pakistan has been in charge of a nuclear arsenal estimated at 165 nuclear warheads. Pakistan has also stockpiled 3-4 tons of weapons-grade uranium and about 280kg of plutonium. Only a few kilos of either are necessary to make a nuclear explosive device.

Not surprisingly, the American nonproliferation advocate, author, government advisor and nuclear weapons expert, Joseph Cirincione, has described Pakistan as the most dangerous country on earth. 

Questions arise now, more than ever, about Pakistan's ability (and willingness?) to safely keep control of its nuclear arsenal.

Israel is another nuclear power going through a dangerous period of instability.

Israel is the sole democracy in the Middle East, or at least it has been, pending attempts by the present government to restrict the judiciary in the interests of removing restrictions on its (the government's) power.

And the stability of the Israeli government? This is questionable now, more than ever, following the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's alliance with the extremist anti-Arab Jewish Power party that gave him the votes to regain the leadership of his country in late 2022. This government-of-convenience has been described as a 'coalition government of tyrannical fascists and fanatics'.

The tradeoff for Netanyahu's Faustian deal with the anti-Arab and religious extremists was that in return for their support, he agreed to appoint the far-right Itamar Ben-Givr as Minister of Seurity (including Police and Prisons.)

This Minister of Security has the unusual qualifications of having been convicted of incitement to racism, destruction of property, possessing a "terror" organization's propaganda material and supporting a "terror" organisation, the Meir Kahane's outlawed Kach group.

A legislator from the centrist Yesh Atid party likened this new Israeli government to the rise of Adolf Hitler, saying "I am not comparing this to anything, but Hitler also rose to power in a democratic manner."

Not surprisingly, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have marched in protest against the proposed changes to limit the oversight of the legislature, so far with no indication that the government will back down.

And a backdown would not be in the interests of Netanyahu, who is facing corruption charges (he denies them), because another change is to limit ways in which a sitting Prime Minister could be declared unfit for office. Significantly, the judiciary would be removed from this process.

Former Prime Minister, Yair Lapid, described this move as a "corrupt and personalized" law, and said Netanyahu is "looking out only for himself."

So  what has this got to do with nuclear threats?

Well, firstly, would you trust a leader who is facing corruption charges, who will do whatever it takes to avoid a reckoning, and who will form an alliance with anyone, no matter how extreme, to become Prime Minister again? And how about appointing a Security Minister who has been convicted of terrorist-related offences?

And secondly, and most alarmingly, these are the leaders in charge of a nuclear arsenal. Israel has never publicly acknowledged its nuclear capability, but it's the worst-kept secret in the Middle East that Israel has approximately 90 warheads at its disposal.

Israel's arch-enemy is Iran, and Iran is, itself, on the brink of a nuclear breakout of its own. Israel regards Teheran as an existential threat because Teheran has frequently declared it wants to obliterate Israel. Accordingly, Israel has conducted at least two dozen targeted attacks against Iran's nuclear program, including cyberwarfare, assassination and military strikes.

Iran is widely considered to be capable of assembling nuclear warheads, with a production line of underground processing plants hard at work to produce many more. Iran's nuclear processing facilities are now thought to be so far underground that they're out of reach of bunker-buster bombs.

It's unlikely, but not impossible, that Israel and Iran might try to nuke each other. But what's much more likely would be an attack on each country's nuclear infrastructure.

It's sometimes overlooked that using conventional weapons to bomb nuclear facilities can cause some of the same results as detonating a nuclear weapon. The radioactive dispersion caused by bombing a nuclear power plant, or nuclear storage site, would create lethal fallout.

Iran has already threatened to hit Israel's nuclear infrastructure, starting with the Dimona reactor and waste storage site. Iran has already held simuated military excercises to practice such an attack. Israel could then retaliate by striking Iran's much larger Bushehr nuclear power plant, 'risking radioactive fallout that could spread across the Persian Gulf. This would radically curtail oil exports, potentially triggering a global economic crisis'.

An accelerant in such a potential conflict is Iran's announcement that it now has a hypersonic missile capable of reaching Israel in 7 minutes. This speed would seriously challenge the defensive capability of Israel's Iron Dome system

Overall, the current instability of nuclear powers has never been so threatening.

Then there's North Korea. North Korea has the fourth largest army in the world, and it's a nuclear power. It's leader, Kim Jong Un, runs one of the world's most repressive, and secretive regimes.

North Korea's nuclear capabilities keep growing and threaten not only neighboring countries, but even the west coast of the USA. What to do about North Korea is one of the big, unanswered questions of our time. How do you deal with an unpredictable dictator, with a nuclear arsenal, inside the sealed borders of the Hermit Kingdom? A nuclear retaliatory strike would create massive loss of life and also threaten neighboring South Korea, China and Japan.

And the USA? Is America's nuclear arsenal a bastion of stability and responsibility? Well, no. This is according to America's own Energy Department, in charge of nuclear weapon safety. The Energy Department has identified shortfalls in being able to prevent "insider threats". These are threats from 'lone wolf' internal dissidents and the  need to identify, isolate and neutralise such threats. Also, the department warns that America's nuclear guardians have not "identified and assessed" the resources necessary to implement its safety program.

And what about former Presidents who walk out of the White House with  top secret documents and then try to keep them? Are any of these documents about nuclear weapons, or strategic details about retaliatory strikes on other nuclear powers? Might any of these, or copies of them, have found their way into the hands of wealthy Middle East interests, or have otherwise been peddled for influence? Which, of course, is not to suggest malfeasance involving America's former leaders. But, are subsequent court cases about non-compliance sufficient? What if these are too late?

Accordingly, where are the guardrails at the very top of America's structure of nuclear command and control? And where is the transparency? What were the contents, exactly, of the top secret documents that ex-President Trump removed from the White House? Who else had access to them?

There are a lot of loose nuclear cannons around. Too many, for far too many different reasons.

So what do we do? This could now be a critical question about our own survival, and the world we live in. Do we need to rush out and build a nuclear survival bunker? Maybe not. But at the very least, those living in South Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe might find it prudent to read the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) nuclear explosion fact sheet. This should be a priority for populations in NATO and Ukraine, now that Russia has announced it's moving tactical nukes into Belarus.

Finding out more about the worldwide effects of nuclear war might also be beneficial for the rest of us. Statistics here worth remembering include the temperature of a thermo-nuclear explosion (H-bomb). This reaches the temperature at the interior of the sun - about 100,000,000 degrees Celcius. Also, the trigger of a fusion weapon (an H-bomb) is a fission explosion (A-bomb). Modern warheds are therefore two different nuclear explosions combined - far more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagazaki versions dropped during World War 11.

This is just the initial blast. The radioactive fallout from stratospheric winds that circle each hemisphere, is another story. 

But other, less documented factors include the economic and environmental impacts, including refugee problems. Not to mention the ripple effect caused by destruction of food, transport and fuel supplies. And how far does contamination spread, and for how long, and how much will global climate be affected? A nuclear winter would change, if not threaten the existence of civilization.

It's difficult to come to a conclusion here that isn't alarmist.

And if anyone tries to claim that those currently in control of the world's nuclear arsenals are all rational, responsible and restrained - well, would you believe them?

I wouldn't.