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Not A Bluff: Negotiate to Prevent Nuclear War

Susan Banaszewski

Oct 18, 2022

Photo: People hold flags of the Russian Federation and Donetsk People's Republic, along with a banner reading "We do not abandon our own" during a rally in support of the Donbass region joining the Russia in Moscow, Russia, 23 September 2022.

Last week, the Russian Federation Council voted unanimously to accept the outcome of referendums by the citizens of Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson, and Zaporozhe, which had voted overwhelmingly to become parts of Russia. According to the Russian TASS news agency, residents of these regions have until the end of October to reject, if they so please, their new Russian citizenship, the first stage in a gradual transition slated to stretch until January 1st, 2026. On October 6th, Konstantin Vorontsov, head of the Russian Delegation to the UN, reiterated that Russia considers the referendums legitimate under UN principles.

RELATED: Ukraine Referendum To Join Russia Ends In Donetsk

Prior to the referendums, Russian officials had warned that Russia remains committed to protecting all of its territories and citizens. Putin promised that Russia would "use all the means at our disposal" to these achieve these ends. The governor of Ukrainian-occupied Lugansk explained, "if this is all declared Russian territory, they can declare that this is a direct attack on Russia so they can fight without any reservations." Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev agreed, stating on Telegram, "encroachment onto Russian territory is a crime which allows you to use all the forces of self–defense. This is why these referendums are so feared in Kyiv and the West."

Putin's statements in particular were viewed as a nuclear threat by Western media outlets and diplomats. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that such "nuclear rhetoric" would result in "severe consequences for Russia." He later declared that a Russian victory in Ukraine would also be a defeat for NATO, expecting to aid Ukraine for "the long haul." National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has continued to escalate the nuclear rhetoric, telling Meet the Press: "If Russia crosses this line, there will be catastrophic consequences for Russia. The United States will respond decisively." Secretary of State Anthony Blinken meanwhile, has announced new sanctions that the US State Department says will "hold to account any individual, entity, or country that provides political or economic support" for recognition of the new Russian regions.

President Biden quickly rejected the referendums as fraudulent and in violation of international law. Biden addressed Putin directly, telling the Russian president that the United States would "defend every single inch of NATO territory" (a cryptic remark, given Ukraine is not part of NATO, nor was any NATO member state threatened). Was Biden referring to Ukraine as an unofficial NATO territory? Was he promising a counterstrike should Russia choose attack a NATO state that has been arming and aiding Ukraine's Kiev regime? Biden compared today's elevated threat of nuclear war to that of the Cuban Missile Crisis and spoke of "the prospect of Armageddon."

In May, the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) issued a memorandum addressed to President Biden regarding the potential for nuclear war posed by the Ukraine conflict, drawing a "direct parallel" between it and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The memorandum characterizes Russia's special military operation (SMO) in Ukraine as a response to the existential threat posed to Russia by US and NATO meddling in Ukraine. In this context, according to VIPS, Putin's warning about Russia's nuclear capability should be viewed as a means of deterrence, not a sign of bellicosity. The writers compare American and NATO military infrastructure in Ukraine to the Soviet Union's deployment of nuclear missiles to its ally Cuba in 1962.

At the onset of the SMO, many Western anti-imperialists or anti-war voices found ourselves caught off-guard, having ignored Russia's serious warnings over their security concerns with Ukraine in favor of criticizing Western media's coverage of the tension as demonizing Russia for their own war agendas. While Western media and politicians of course demonize Russia by presenting the SMO as "unprovoked", Moscow has shown that it is extremely serious about the security concern posed by Ukraine and Kiev's utilization by the US and NATO for a proxy war. We cannot again take lightly Putin's resolute comments about Russia's intent to defend its citizens.

While the Pentagon has stated they have no reason to believe Russia is mobilizing for a nuclear attack, these exchanges are alarming to peaceful working people who would prefer to live their lives without the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging overhead. However, it is important to look back farther than recent weeks to contextualize the nuclear discussion as it relates to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia's Special Military Operation (SMO). Before the SMO began, on February 21st, the Kremlin Security Council discussed the situation in the Donbass. At that time, Defense Minister Shoigu expressed concern about Ukraine's nuclear desires and abilities, referencing a statement by Zelensky from two days earlier.

Zelensky told the Munich Security Council, "Ukraine has received security guarantees for abandoning the world’s third nuclear capability [in 1991]. We don’t have that weapon. We also have no security." He lamented that Lugansk and Donetsk have been "lost" from Ukraine's territory, seeming to imply that this was due to Russian aggression and the lack of a nuclear weapon or security guarantees, rather the regions choosing to secede after the 2014 Euromaidan coup. He continued, "therefore, we have something. The right to demand a shift from a policy of appeasement to ensuring security and peace guarantees." While perhaps not a blatant request for nuclear weapons, it certainly presents them as an option for Ukrainian security.

According to Minister Shoigu, as part of the Soviet Union, the USSR established resources to build nuclear weapons within Ukraine, while other Soviet weapons and infrastructure left in Ukraine could be used to launch such a weapon. Russia has estimated that Ukraine has the equipment and technology to create a nuclear weapon, but also specialists capable of doing so. Shoigu advised that Ukraine's nuclear specialists' capabilities are "far greater than those of Iran and North Korea – the countries which are discussed at all levels in the context of agreements on their de-nuclearisation."

The desire for Ukraine to regain nuclear status is not a new proposal, but one that was expressed on the website of the Azov Battalion - an explicitly neo-Nazi, anti-Russian military regiment responsible for war crimes and human rights violations, as documented by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In an interview archived on the WayBack Machine, Vladyslav Sobolevsky, a former chief of staff of Azov battalion was asked about his ultimate political ambition. His response: "I want Ukraine to have nuclear weapons," adding, "and I want to return Crimea." He called nuclear capability "the shield and the sword that will allow our state to develop in any version of the foreign policy situation."

Photo: Members of Ukraine's explicitly neo-Nazi National Guard regiment, the Azov Battalion, pose with NATO and Nazi flags.

In March, European media outlet Modern Diplomacy analyzed the risk posed by these violent ultranationalist forces. They report, "from the very beginning of the special operation, the Kyiv regime has been strategically utilizing this threat to nuclear facilities, done for the purpose of creating anti-Russian propaganda in the eyes and ears of a global audience." After Russia took control of the Zaporozhe nuclear power facility in early March, Kiev and Moscow blamed each other for a fire that broke out there due to shelling. As it is not clear why Russia would target a plant it had control over or why they would want to create a nuclear emergency in an area they were bringing their troops into, Ukraine seems to be the actual culprit. As the SMO continued, more reports surfaced of Ukrainian forces, particularly but not exclusively Azov, using civilians as human shields and occupying civilian infrastructure in order to create the perception that Russia was targeting civilians. Modern Diplomacy recaled that Adolf Hitler repeatedly stated that if the Nazi regime is defeated, Germany and its people should also be destroyed. "If the German people are not ready to make efforts for their own survival, fine: then they must disappear," he told his confidants in January 1942. In March 1945, when it was clear that he would soon be defeated, he ordered that all German infrastructure should be destroyed. Modern Diplomacy concluded, "there is real concern in Russia that a threat of 'last resort' by right-wing radicals cannot be ruled out in Ukraine. [...] That the West refuses to acknowledge this even as a potentiality does not mean Russian concern should be disregarded."

In August, Igor Vishnevetsky, Russia's Deputy Director of the Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control, continued to express Russia's concerns about a nuclear threat to the UN Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. He warned that NATO poses a nuclear threat to Russia, as, "US nuclear weapons are stationed in non-nuclear NATO countries and training activities aimed at practicing the use of these weapons involve the bloc’s non-nuclear members." He called for the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons to US territory, the dismantling of nuclear deployment infrastructure in Europe, and an end to NATO nuclear missions. Of course, the US and NATO have not complied.

As Putin announced the mobilization of Russia's military reserves to defend the annexed regions, he reiterated that this conflict began with US and NATO aggression, deliberately turning Ukrainians into "cannon fodder" for their proxy war against Russia. He affirmed that Russia will use all weapons systems to defend its territorial integrity, stating clearly, "This is not a bluff."

In his letter to President Kennedy to initiate secret negotiations that would end the Cuban Missile Crisis, Khrushchev wrote:

Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied. And a moment may come when that knot will be tied so tight that even he who tied it will not have the strength to untie it, and then it will be necessary to cut that knot, and what that would mean is not for me to explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly of what terrible forces our countries dispose. Consequently, if there is no intention to tighten that knot and thereby to doom the world to the catastrophe of thermonuclear war, then let us not only relax the forces pulling on the ends of the rope, let us take measures to untie that knot. We are ready for this.

It seems that the only representative from the US who has yet reached out to steer the world away from this escalating crisis by initiating negotiations is Elon Musk, who reached out to Putin before tweeting a suggestion for a peace proposal between Ukraine and Russia. Vice reported that Musk told Ian Bremmer that "everything need to be done" to avoid a nuclear outcome. His proposal was not to accept the referendums, but to redo them under UN supervision. Russia praised Musk for looking for a peaceful solution, in contrast to the other "professional diplomats" in the West, and has continued to encourage Ukraine to negotiate.

Instead of instilling fear in the hearts of civilians by continuing to declare their intention to continue the war while refusing to consider any Russian demands as legitimate, Biden and US officials must stow their power-hungry egos and follow Musk's lead to "untie the knot." A refusal to recognize these territories as Russian and to encourage Ukraine's forces to attack them is another sharp pull on the rope closer to nuclear conflict. It is time to enter negotiations with Russia to recognize the referendums of the Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporozhe, stop arms shipments and diplomatic support for a continued war, and end the sanctions ravaging Europe.

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