John Hallam and Prof. Peter King are members of the Human Survival Project. Hallam is also a member of People for Nuclear Disarmament and Prof. King is with the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies

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Wanted in Ukraine Dialogue: Commonsense and Restraint

Nuclear Threats Potentially Jeopardise Human Survival

What the Ukraine crisis above all requires, on all sides of the conflict is restraint and balance. Russia as well as Ukraine has genuine security concerns. A Russia-NATO clash could all too easily escalate to the use of nuclear weapons.

A large-scale US/Russia nuclear exchange would destroy the structures of what we call civilisation in milliseconds, while the ensuing nuclear winter could threaten human survival.

It was Putin who warned darkly last Friday that it ‘should be remembered that Russia is a nuclear power.’ Indeed so. But both the US and Russian missile forces regularly practice for the apocalypse. And while the nuclear threat has long been relegated in the public consciousness to the terrors and errors of the cold war the fact is that it never went away. Russia and the US between them hold over 90% of global nuclear arsenals. Each of them maintains just under 1000 warheads in a status in which they can be launched in less than a minute. False alarms in both the US and Russia have come close to bringing about accidental nuclear war on nearly a dozen occasions.

Russia has always had deep and clear historical and strategic interests in the Ukraine. A Ukraine dominated by NATO or by an anti-Russian government is absolutely bound to provoke a strong negative reaction in Moscow, right or wrong. Russian attempts to ‘interfere’ in what was in the tenth century the very birthplace of the Russian state, are less surprising than US interference in Cuba in the 1960s. Russia, rightly or wrongly will always regard what takes place in Ukraine as affecting a core strategic interest, just as the US would see what takes place in Mexico and Canada as of central strategic importance.

Sanctions are therefore guaranteed to fail, and likely to backfire. Russia is sure to bear whatever cost it deems necessary to protect what it sees as a core security interest. And it is Russia, not the West, that determines what Russia sees as a core security interest.

What is astonishing about the entire Ukrainian crisis is that little attempt is made by the NATO powers, with the exception of Germany, to envisage what it might look like to Russian eyes, and anyone who does so is deemed a Russian sympathiser. Yet to do so is surely common sense. To understand what things look like to Russia does not make Russia 100% right, but it might provide essential information that would enable realistic and commonsense-based negotiations to take place.

Barring President Putin from the G20 meeting in Brisbane in November is singularly unhelpful. Putin’s presence in Brisbane amongst the G20 must be seen as absolutely essential. How else is rational dialogue to take place?

The repeated calls for ‘firm action’ in the face of so-called ‘aggression’ are worse than unhelpful: they are downright dangerous, and verge on the lunatic.

Meeting threats with threats in the name of ‘firmness’ merely serves to escalate the crisis. And escalation could lead inexorably to an utterly catastrophic outcome. Surely it does not take genius (or Russophilia) to see this, but, again, rationality and common-sense are lacking thus far.

It is not simply Putin who is playing nuclear roulette with the entire planet. Both sides of the conflict are complicit in doing so. And any attempt to get Putin to see things ‘our’ way without us seeing things his way is calculated to fail, potentially catastrophically.

Common-sense negotiations leading to a diplomatically neutral Ukraine, with or without its troublesome eastern sector, and that (above all) recognise and truly meet Russians deep security concerns (more or less as Russia defines them) over its all too real semi-encirclement by NATO, would provide an obvious way out. Context-blind calls for ‘firmness,’ larded with threats and sanctions, will likely lead either nowhere or, rather worse, to the abyss.

 

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