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Are we in a new Cuban Missile Crisis?

Ng Qi Siang
Ng Qi Siang • 5 min read
Are we in a new Cuban Missile Crisis?
While no overt nuclear posturing has been made, any engagement between the US and Russia raises the spectre of nuclear war.
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In 1962, Washington and Moscow stood at the brink of nuclear armageddon. Fortunately, saner heads prevailed and both sides backed down to the relief of all humanity. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis was relegated to the history books as a relic of a bygone age.

Yet once again, as Russia amasses conventional troops on the Ukrainian border, the shadow from the episode 60 years ago casts a long shadow over these manoeuvres. Washington and Moscow still command the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals at 5,600 and 6,257 warheads respectively. While no overt nuclear posturing has been made by either side, any engagement between the US and Russia raises the spectre of nuclear war.

“We … understand that Russia is one of the world’s leading nuclear powers and is superior to many of those countries in terms of the number of modern nuclear force components,” warned Russian president Vladimir Putin in a Feb 8 press conference. The “West”, he hinted, would be risking nuclear war by opposing Russia in Ukraine.

Armageddon averted
Yet experts are sceptical that nuclear escalation will occur. Matthew Bunn, professor of the practice of energy, national security and foreign policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, notes that given that the US and Nato have made clear that they will not be deploying troops to aid Ukraine, US and Russian troops “will not be shooting at each other”. Russian military superiority in Ukraine is so overwhelming that there is no real need for nuclear weapons to be brought into play.

“Russia claims to be concerned that the United States will put offensive weapons into Ukraine. The United States has no such intention, and has not done so with other Nato countries that are on Russia’s borders, such as the Baltic states,” says Bunn, a former adviser to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He tells The Edge Singapore that it should be possible for both sides to commit via diplomatic channels not to deploy missiles in locations close enough to each other’s borders to pose an immediate threat.

See also: Russia resumes Ukraine grain-export deal in abrupt reversal

But while there seems to be no immediate risk of nuclear armageddon, an outbreak of hostilities could lead to a more tense nuclear security environment in the long run. “If Russia does attack, and the West imposes harsh sanctions, US-Russian relations will go into a very deep freeze,” cautions Bunn, who says that such a level of hostility would increase the risk of conflict between the US and Russia. And that level of hostility between rival nuclear powers would ultimately result in a higher risk of nuclear war.

Chilly ties between Washington and Moscow could also create obstacles to the important task of arms control. Bunn notes that a souring of ties between the US and Russia could prevent both sides from completing a new arms control agreement before the current one expires in February 2026. Extended by five years at the start of the Biden administration, the New START, as this agreement is called, caps the number of strategic warheads deployed by both countries.

Failure to renew or replace this pivotal arms control deal would leave US and Russian nuclear forces entirely unlimited for the first time in half a century. “That would be bad news for everyone,” Bunn warns.

See also: Russian Odesa missile strike tests Ukraine grain export deal

Chernobyl redux
But perhaps the real historical analogy to worry about in the near term is Chernobyl. Bennett Ramberg, former foreign affairs officer in the US State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, says that a Russian strike could damage 15 nuclear power reactors that generate half of Ukraine’s energy. Aside from the humanitarian crisis, this could cause in Ukraine itself, radioactive debris could blow back onto Russian soil, affecting the health of Russian citizens.

“Power plants are common targets in modern conflict because destroying them inhibits a country’s ability to carry on fighting,” Ramberg writes for Project Syndicate. “Aerial bombing or artillery fire, for example, could break a reactor’s containment building or sever vital coolant lines that keep its core stable. So, too, could a cyberattack that interrupts plant operations, as would a disruption of offsite power that nuclear plants rely on to keep functioning.”

According to the UN Chernobyl Forum, the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl is estimated to have caused 5,000 excess cancer deaths over half a century. And this is just a conservative estimate, with thousands of thyroid cancer cases emerging in the years following the incident. Moscow could find itself spending significant resources to relocate and compensate Russian citizens affected by such an incident, with the hundreds of billions that Japan spent cleaning up the less severe Fukushima disaster in 2011 presenting a cautionary tale.

With a moribund economy, Putin can ill afford to take on the extra financial burden of cleaning up the collateral damage from a nuclear reactor fallout. While he remains popular in Russia with a 69% approval rating as of January 2022, his position could potentially be weakened if he is blamed for the resulting radioactive fallout through his military intervention.

Amid the fog of war, the risk of a tragic accident taking place in the heat of battle cannot be discounted. And according to Ramberg, avoiding civilian nuclear fallout will be the last thing on the minds of the Russian Army. “In the Afghan, Chechen, and Syrian wars, Russian forces acted with scant regard for conventional boundaries,” he remarks.

Photo: Russian T-72B3 battle tanks take part in a live demonstration at arms expo in Kubinka, Russia, in 2018 / Bloomberg

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