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Viewpoint: Putin’s play at brinksmanship disarmed by Russian resistance

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 gave reason to believe a day might come when the only remaining nuclear risk related to the production of electricity.
A woman reacts as she waits for a train trying to leave Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Russian troops have launched their anticipated attack on Ukraine. Big explosions were heard before dawn in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa as world leaders decried the start of an Russian invasion that could cause massive casualties and topple Ukraine’s democratically elected government. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 gave reason to believe a day might come when the only remaining nuclear risk related to the production of electricity.

Perhaps it was the soothing whistled introduction to the Scorpions’ Wind of Change that led my naive 18-year-old brain to think certain nations could resolve disputes diplomatically without the restraint of deterrence.

Russian President Vladimir Putin putting his “nuclear deterrence forces on high alert” amid his invasion of Ukraine, however, reminds us the threat of nuclear weapons never went away (despite efforts), and faith in deterrence (avoiding use of nuclear weapons to avoid mutually assured destruction) persists.

My exposure to Cold War-induced anxieties came primarily from TV and cinema. While I saw nuclear brinkmanship play out in the 1983 Matthew Broderick movie WarGames, I never lived through a time when were on the brink.

Or so I thought.

The same year we saw Broderick hack a payphone with a beverage can pull tab and teach a NORAD supercomputer that when it comes to global thermonuclear war, “the only winning move is not to play,” another war game played out that supposedly brought us close to the brink for real.

In November 1983, NATO conducted a training exercise dubbed “Able Archer.” The simulation involved an escalating conflict which began when Russian tanks rolled into former Yugoslavia and then Scandinavia.

The west eventually launched a nuclear missile at the Ukraine capital, Kyiv (Ukraine left the Soviet Union to become an independent state in 1991). The response wasn’t the end of the war, but the destruction of most of the world. Again, this was a simulated conflict. But in 1990, declassified documents were released indicated how close things came to the real thing.

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“There is little doubt in our minds that the Soviets were genuinely worried by Able Archer… It appears that at least some Soviet forces were preparing to preempt or counterattack a NATO strike launched under cover of Able Archer,” explained former U.S. ambassador Arthur Hartman in a report to then president Ronald Reagan.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine appears to have prompted a global reassessment of military capabilities. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has called the invasion a “turning point,” and has proposed a 100 billion euro fund to modernize the country’s military and ramp up defence. Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stated the government needs to make sure the Canadian Armed Forces have the equipment they need. Finland appears to be considering becoming a member of NATO.

Supposedly there are currently more than 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world, the majority owned by Russia and the U.S. It’s possible the invasion of Ukraine may prompt further proliferation.

The fact we have nuclear weapons at all suggests we’ve evolved little as a species. Regardless, efforts to disarm continue. The United Nations’ Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which went into effect in January 2021, is one of them. Canada has not yet signed the treaty. Nor has the U.S. or Russia. The effort may seem futile, but the same could be said of Russian residents bravely protesting the invasion (thousands have reportedly been detained). Or of those revolutionaries in East Germany who were the wind of change that helped bring down the Berlin Wall.
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Lachlan Labere

About the Author: Lachlan Labere

Editor, Salmon Arm Observer
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