Ukraine and Nuclear Risk

The Ukrainian crisis and Putin’s annexation of Crimea badly soured Russian-American relations. But an even more dangerous situation would result should Putin move Russian troops into additional portions of the eastern Ukraine. Certain events that are almost unknown in America increase the chance that will happen. In its own small way, this post hopes to combat that lack of information and thereby reduce the risk that the Ukrainian crisis will escalate further –  potentially even to nuclear threats.

My March 6 post covers a February 26 phone call in which the Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet – no friend of Russia – states that “there is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind [the] snipers, it was not Yanukovych, but it was somebody from the new coalition.”

The new coalition is now the interim Ukrainian government so, if Paet’s allegation is correct, Putin may have a point that some citizens of Ukraine need protecting from their own government. If that is the case, and if we continue to act as it were not, we risk escalation of an already dangerous Russian-American crisis.

Another fact that has escaped most of the American public, and which adds to the risk of this crisis escalating, is that the current Ukrainian government has used deadly military force against unarmed pro-Russian protesters – the same kind of action we warned Yanukovych not to do. This information comes from TIME magazine’s May 26 issue, which had a two page spread shown below on pages 6-7. The picture doesn’t look too bad until you read the small text box in the upper right (emphasis added):

On May 11, on the steps of the town hall in Krasnoarmeysk, Ukraine, a man falls backwards after being struck in the face with a rifle but by a member of Ukrainian national guard. Guardsmen were blocking voters from entering the hall, a polling place for an unauthorized referendum on self-rule in eastern Ukraine. Soon after, guardsmen shot dead two unarmed civilians – including the man in the blue tank top.

140511 Unarmed Protester Shot Dead by Ukrainian National Guard PS small

TIME’s online edition has more pictures from this May 11 disaster, including several of the man in the blue tank top being shot dead. The most relevant are #15, #17, and #19 (shown below) with the following sequence of captions:

15: The man feels the impact of a gun shot while aiming to throw an unknown object at the armed guards

17: The man collapses to the ground after being struck by a bullet.

19: The man flails his arms moments after being struck by a bullet as a man in the background points to draw attention to him

Referendum in Donbass

And then, today, I came across a CNN article which concludes that, despite denials from the Ukrainian government, its Air Force killed eight civilians – five women and three men – during an attack  on the headquarters of the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine. In reaching its conclusion, CNN noted:

But [despite denials by the Ukrainian government] a CNN investigation in Luhansk has found clear evidence that whatever detonations hit the building and the adjoining park came from the air. The tops of trees were splintered, and a series of small craters — about a dozen — had been blasted in a straight line, starting in the park and reaching the walls of the building, blowing out many of its windows and spraying the area with jagged shrapnel. That’s what appears to have killed most of the victims and injured 20 more.

The pattern of the craters clearly indicated some sort of strafing, according to a munitions expert at the scene with CNN. Their size suggested 30-millimeter ordnance, he said, which is standard equipment on the Su-25, a ground attack fighter, and the Su-27 — both combat aircraft operated by Ukraine.

The Special Monitoring Mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe came to a similar conclusion, releasing a statement late Tuesday that said: “Based on the SMM’s limited observation, these strikes were the result of non-guided rockets shot from an aircraft.”

Adding to the danger that this crisis will escalate further, yesterday President Obama announced a plan to provide an additional $1 billion in military aid to Eastern Europe, including Ukraine. That same article noted:

Obama called upon Russia to use its influence to urge militants in eastern Ukraine to support peace, and to help prevent the flow of weapons and fighters into the region.

But, unless we also use our influence to urge the interim Ukrainian government to seek peace, Putin is unlikely to unilaterally comply. As I’ve said before – and as Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock has also said – we need to stop seeing the civil war in Ukraine in terms of an East-West struggle. Ukraine is not a football game where, if we win, Russia loses. Rather, we need to start being concerned for the safety and dignity of all residents of Ukraine, no matter what their ethnicity. Doing that would also reduce the risk that the Ukrainian crisis might escalate out of control to involve nuclear threats, and therefore possibly nuclear use.

Martin Hellman

Note added later on June 4: A Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty dispatch echoes much of the CNN article, and has a link to what it describes as a “graphic video” of the carnage.  If, as the RFE/RL dispatch seems to imply, this video is authentic, then the Ukrainian government appears to be guilty of a heinous act. This does not excuse the violent actions of the separatists that Kiev is fighting, but does tend to lend credence to Putin’s concerns.

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, for almost 30 years, 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 with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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