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Columbia Missourian

GUEST COMMENTARY: Without disarmament, nuclear conflict a permanent concern

By Steven Starr, David Krieger and Daniel Ellsberg
October 26, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

This is the second part of a commentary published earlier.

ICBMs remain out of the sight and the minds of most Americans, yet all the necessary military ingredients for Armageddon remain in place. And despite past presidential announcements that another Cuban missile crisis is “unthinkable,” it certainly remains possible.

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It is naive to assume that we will never again be in a military confrontation with Russia — particularly when U.S./NATO forces and U.S. nuclear weapons remain stationed near Russian borders in Europe, and we continue to surround Russia with missile defense facilities in the face of military threats against these facilities from the Russian president and top Russian military leaders

In March 2012, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wrote to one of us (in a personal letter), “One cannot help agreeing to the conclusion that the deployment of (a) missile defense system at the very borders of Russia, as well as upbuilding (the) system’s capabilities, increase the chance (that) any conventional military confrontation might promptly turn into a nuclear war.”

What happens if NATO collides with Russia somewhere in Georgia, Kaliningrad or perhaps Ukraine, shots are fired and Russia decides to carry out its threats to take out U.S./NATO missile defense installations? What happens if the U.S. should have a president who considers Russia to be America’s No. 1 geopolitical foe?

For many years, it has been standard Russian military planning to preemptively use nuclear weapons in any conflict where it would be faced with overwhelming military force — for example, against NATO. The Russians oddly call the policy nuclear “de-escalation,” but it would be better described as “limited nuclear escalation. It was developed and implemented after the U.S. broke its promise not to expand NATO eastward (following the reunification of Germany) and NATO bombed Serbian targets.

The Russian “de-escalation” policy presumes that the use of nuclear weapons against the opposing side will cause them to back down; it is essentially a belief that it is possible to win a nuclear war through the “limited” use of nuclear weapons. But in the case of NATO, the war would be fought against another nuclear power. 

Suppose that NATO responds instead with its U.S. tactical nuclear weapons now based in five European countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey)? Once an exchange of nuclear weapons takes place, what are the chances that the war will remain “limited”? 

U.S. and Russian strategic war plans still contain large nuclear strike options with hundreds of preplanned targets, including cities and urban areas in each other’s nation. As long as launch-ready ICBMs exist, these plans can be carried out in less time than it takes to read this article. They are plans that spell disaster for both countries and for civilization.

Cooperation, rather than conflict, still remains possible. Lavrov writes, “Despite the growing hardship, we do not close the door either for continuing the dialogue with the U.S. and NATO on missile defense issues or for a practical cooperation in this field. In this respect, we find undoubtedly interesting the idea of a freeze on U.S./NATO deployments of missile defense facilities until the joint Russian-U.S. assessment of the threats is conducted.”

This could be an important step toward lowering U.S.-Russian tensions, which continue to revolve around their more-than-60-year nuclear confrontation. Ending this confrontation can prevent the next missile crisis. Another important step would be the elimination of first-strike ICBMs that continue to threaten the existence of our nation and the human race. This would increase the security of the American people, even if it were done unilaterally.

The U.S. and Russia remain obligated under terms of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons to pursue negotiations in good faith on nuclear disarmament in all its aspects. Fifty years after the Cuban missile crisis, it is well past time to conclude these negotiations. No issue confronting humanity is more urgent than bringing such negotiations to a successful conclusion and moving rapidly to zero nuclear weapons.

Steven Starr is an associate of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, a board member and senior scientist for Physicians for Social Responsibility, and director of the Clinical Laboratory Science Program at MU. His website on the environmental consequences of nuclear war is nucleardarkness.org.

David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He is the co-author of the recent book, “The Path to Zero: Dialogues on Nuclear Dangers.”

Daniel Ellsberg is a distinguished senior fellow at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and a former strategic analyst for the Department of Defense. He released the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

This commentary was originally published on truthdig.com.