A Very Dangerous Ukrainian Development

Three months ago I explained why, somewhat paradoxically, the possibility of Ukraine’s joining NATO would create significant additional risks for Ukraine’s security – as well as US and world security. So I was very concerned today when Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty had an article stating that NATO membership is the “major goal” of Ukraine’s newly formed government.

Normally NATO membership would not be open to a nation, such as Ukraine, which does not control all of its territory. But anti-Russian emotions are running so high in the US that they may trump reason and cause our government to pressure the more realistic Europeans to accept Ukraine into NATO.

Here’s hoping reason will trump emotion. If you agree, it would help to let your elected representatives know of your position.

Martin Hellman

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: https://anewmap.com.
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7 Responses to A Very Dangerous Ukrainian Development

  1. Oleg says:

    “reason will trump emotion”. Reason would have trumped emotion in 1938 if European powers had stopped Hitler in Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately it didn’t happen, which resulted in long and bloody WW2. Appeasing dictators and ostrich policies simply do not work, dear Martin. Why you don’t see it this way is a big question for me.

  2. Nuclear Risk says:

    Oleg: I understand that this is a very personal issue for many people and don’t mean to minimize the fears that people such as yourself have. But I see 2014 as very different from 1938 for a number of reasons.

    First, I don’t believe Putin is a modern-day Hitler. Ironically, we may turn him into that if we keep ignoring his legitimate concerns – see some of my past posts for examples of far-right Ukrainian nationalists effectively murdering ethnic Russians. (Of course, the same goes on on the other side. But you and the West already understand that. It is these other atrocities that we don’t see and need to. I’ve said many times, my concern is for the safety of all residents of Ukraine, of all ethnicities.)

    Second, there weren’t nuclear weapons in 1938. That really changes things.

    Third, there is strong evidence that we could have prevented Hitler from ever coming to power if we had not humiliated Germany in 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles. Yet we have humiliated Russia time and time again. We shouldn’t humiliate any nation, but doing that to one with roughly 10,000 nuclear weapons is insanity of the first order.

    Thank you again for your comment, and for reminding me that I needed to take people like you into more account in how I stated things.


  3. pahaloalto says:

    Martin: Would the Baltic states be more or less secure if they were excluded from NATO? Was Estonia, admitted to NATO in 2004, protected by NATO from the Russian cyber attacks of 2007? In your opinion, would all of Europe be more or less secure if NATO were dissolved?

  4. Nuclear Risk says:

    Pahaloalto: Good questions. Because they are now in NATO, the Baltics are more secure against a Russian attack, but if they were not in NATO now, working to admit them in the current tense climate of Russian-American relations would probably increase the short-term risk that they would be destabilized in some way with Russian support to prevent that from happening.

    There are additional risks from their being in NATO: It encourages them to be more provocative toward Russia.

    Most fundamentally, we need to re-examine the whole concept of “national security.” In the nuclear age, I would argue that that term is becoming somewhat of an oxymoron, with national security depending on global security – at least in the long run. The old concept that having a bigger army or more destructive weapons ensures national security has been trumped by the nuclear card. So, the fact that the US has more advanced conventional weapons than the Russians doesn’t really give us all that much advantage. Just as with nuclear weapons, it’s largely a matter of bluff and bluster … and hoping that the bluff is never called. Similarly, if the North Koreans or Iranians feel threatened by larger powers (as they do), that will encourage them to build a nuclear capability or increase it.

    Nuclear weapons have overturned the old equations of survival, but our thinking has not caught up.

  5. Oleg says:

    Dear Martin,

    Unlike in Russia (just check information about two Russian wars in Chechnya) there was no any ethnic cleansing where Ukrainians would kill Russians or vice versa until Russian militants led by former KGB (now FSB) colonel Strelkov/Girkin occupied Ukrainian city Slavyansk. This is how the bloodshed has started. If you don’t believe me, check the recent Girkin’s interview – that’s exactly what he was publicly boasting about just a few days ago. Now, if you look closely at the battle for Eastern Ukraine, you’ll be surprised to find that it’s about Russians killing other ethnic Russians more often than not.

    I’m not sure what sources of information you use, but if this is coming from Russia Today or any other major Russian media outlet, I would not even argue any more – believe to what you want to believe. In general, our positions on the Russian/Ukrainian conflict that you call “civil war” are so different that I would not even try to reconcile them. As somebody who studied and lived in Kiev for two decades, I think that I know how the residents feel there. I clearly understand why 1.5 millions of them came to Maidan and eventually ousted marginal, extremely corrupted Putin’s stooge Yanucovych. Their message for the world (and Putin) was very clear – they wanted to stay away from USSR 2.0 carefully resembled by a former KGB colonel from what has left of USSR 1.0 after its collapse in 1991. They feel like they are a part of Europe (and rightly so).

    What you’re saying can be formulated really short: “It’s all cool Ukrainians, but we (the West) don’t care much, you’re on your own in your fight with Mordor, we will sit around and watch, because it’s safer for us this way”.

    Leaving moral aspect of it alone (after all, moral is not a very essential consideration when it comes to geopolitics and state’s interests), I doubt that it will be safer for you, because you make the opponent stronger and more ambitious this way. I actually do not consider the current situation more dangerous than it was during the first cold war when USSR possessed more resources and was more powerful than Russia today. I can tell you even more and it’s not a secret for Russians – all current Russia’s military “might” including its nuclear power is just remnants of what has been created in USSR. If West could successfully oppose USSR, it can definitely do the same with Russia. Nuclear age didn’t start in 1991, so I don’t see why it’s different now.

    I think your approach is not original, it’s dictated by “common sense” and short term goals. I catch myself on a though often that I don’t want my family that lives here in the U.S. to be involved in any global conflict either, but it’s me, an ordinary person solving my day-to-day problems such as lack of trust to NIST, IETF and CFRG. You are not an ordinary person though and should demonstrate a strategic thinking to all of us. Sorry, but I didn’t find any of that in your posts related to Russian/Ukrainian crisis.

    I would love to see you fixing CFRG problems instead. Lars needs to be replaced after the latest scandal around requested Kevin Iogoe resignation, which has never happened. I would love to see you leading this organization and I would trust to each and every word you say in a new capacity if you decide to do so..

    As about Ukraine, sorry, it doesn’t make too much sense to me.


  6. Didier Lefebvre says:

    Dear all,

    Year 20xx. Imagine the US fragmenting along ethnic lines after an economic collapse. After several decades of Hispanic majority in Southern California, a separatist movement grows with political backing from influential Mexicans. A regional referendum, although illegal from the US standpoint, gives the majority to the separatists. Feeling humiliated, patriotic Americans elect a president to save the Union. Question: Would this new president allow Mexico to gain control of the San Diego Naval Base and the Quantico Marine base?

    The purpose of the above” thought” experiment is to attempt to convince the reader that no side of this debate can claim, in good faith, to hold a higher moral ground. Current events, as well as history, remind us that borders tend to eventually readjust along national, religious and ethnic majorities (especially when imperial or authoritarian central power is weakened). At great cost to both treasure and human lives, the US seems to have been totally oblivious of this fact in its policies towards Iraq, Syria and Libya.

    This author posits that border adjustment should be peacefully negotiable to reflect realities on the ground according to the principle of self-determination. If this does not work, a regional power reasserting authority in its cultural/ national perimeter of influence, although not ideal, remains better than chaos, lawlessness and civil war. Finally, at a larger geographical scale, a suitable balance of power should always be maintained to deter any side from conquering or dominating another. Provided that the cost of prolonged aggression / occupation is rendered unsustainable by the use of proper resistance tactics and defensive weapons, such deterrence should not require nuclear weapons (but it requires time and patience).

    Options for resolving the Ukrainian conflict:
    1) Ukrainian federation or confederation that would allow local regional political autonomy and trade with Russia, minimally for the Donbass area
    2) Finlandization of Ukraine (Neutrality)
    3) Secession and independence of the Donbass
    4) Negotiated annexation of the Donbass by Russia with land swap / suitable compensation + strong incentive for Russia to stay out of the rest of Ukraine by developing a credible defensive deterrent (fear of Stalingrad in reverse)

    Note that none of the above options are achievable by isolating and demonizing Russia, as is currently the case.

    Finally, the prevailing utopian position by the West, that it is possible and desirable to “freeze” history in the post cold war status-quo is the perfect recipe for a global conflict, because this policy requires maintaining western military dominance well beyond its geographical space, a posture that will never be accepted by emerging economic powers.


  7. Nuclear Risk says:


    Thanks for your comment. Even better than adjusting borders to accommodate ethnic divides would be to heal those divides. I’ve argued that we need to stop seeing Ukraine as a kind of football game which either the West or Russia will win, and the other lose. Instead, we need to start being concerned for the well-being of all residents of Ukraine – ethnic Russians, ethnic Ukrainians, Tartars, and a number of other groups. If we had done that a year ago, I believe Crimea would still be a part of Ukraine, though a very different Ukraine from the one represented by the current, highly nationalistic government. Studying the situation last year, it seemed clear to me that any threat to Sevastopol remaining the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet would not be tolerated – much as you note with your San Diego and Quantico analogies.


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