More on the Georgian Crisis

The war between Russia and Georgia has quieted down and so has American interest in that issue. But we neglect potential armed conflict with Russia at our peril. Once any serious shooting starts, the danger of escalation to nuclear war is far too high because the side that was losing would be sorely tempted to play the nuclear card. In light of that risk, both sides have been behaving extremely recklessly.

The danger is brought into sharp focus by an article in this morning’s Wall Street Journal [page A6] that noted, “Sarah Palin said Thursday that Georgia and Ukraine should be admitted to NATO and that the U.S. should be prepared to go to war if Russia invades Georgia again.” This is not a partisan issue and the problem began under Bill Clinton, when Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were admitted to NATO in violation of assurances the Russians are convinced they were given earlier.

In their book, “At the Highest Levels”, Michael Beschloss and Strobe Talbott report a conversation in1990, between Gorbachev and then-Secretary of State James Baker: “The Secretary of State knew that Gorbachev and his colleagues were worried mainly about a recurrence of Germany’s historical ambition to seize territory to its east. He asked Gorbachev, ‘Would you prefer to see a united Germany outside of NATO and with no U.S. forces, perhaps with its own nuclear weapons? Or would you prefer are a united Germany to be tied to NATO, with assurances that NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position?'”

On pages 85-86 of their book, “Wilson’s Ghost,” Robert McNamara and James Blight quote the above passage and then write: “‘Not one inch eastward,’ Baker said. Did Gorbachev misunderstand him? Perhaps. But the Russian interpretation was and remains that the United States had pledged not to expand NATO even to deployments in the territory of the former East Germany. Thus the decision in favor of NATO ‘enlargement’ was considered a U.S. betrayal, one that directly threatened Russian interests.”

German Vice Admiral Ulrich Weisser (Ret.) has a similar perspective: “[Putin] quoted directly from a speech by NATO’s former General Secretary Manfred Wörner, given in Brussels on May 17, 1990: ‘The very fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee.’ ‘Where are these guarantees now,’ [Putin] asked. … Moscow also feels provoked by the behavior of a number of newer NATO member states in central and Eastern Europe. Poland and the Baltic states use every opportunity to make provocative digs at Russia; they feel themselves protected by NATO and backed by the U.S.”

If you found this email helpful, I hope you will share it with others, visit the associated website (, and sign up for future such updates in the JOIN US box in the left margin. I also encourage you to take a look at emails #4 and #5 on the Resources Page (, which spotlight other risky behavior. Thank you.

Martin Hellman
Member, National Academy of Engineering
Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering
Stanford University

Links to the complete articles referenced above:

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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