Lessons from the past on the threat of a nuclear war - Hindustan Times
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Lessons from the past on the threat of a nuclear war

Aug 23, 2022 08:47 PM IST

The Russia-Ukraine war is one symptom of a changing international system, with a public nonchalance toward nuclear weapons. That disregard is in contrast to 40 years ago.

As Russian tanks moved into Ukraine on February 24, President Vladimir Putin warned the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that any attempt to intervene could lead to “consequences they have never seen”. Days later, Russia changed the alert status of its nuclear forces in a symbolic yet ominous move.

A Russian serviceman patrols the territory of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in Energodar. (AFP) PREMIUM
A Russian serviceman patrols the territory of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in Energodar. (AFP)

The Russia-Ukraine war is one symptom of a changing international system, with a public nonchalance toward nuclear weapons. That disregard is in contrast to 40 years ago. On June 12, 1982, half a million people protested in New York as part of a pushback from citizens in North America and western Europe, who did not wish to be pawns in the Cold War nuclear strategy.

In the four decades since, much about nuclear weapons has changed. The Russian and American arsenals shrunk dramatically. However, the computing and signals revolutions have potentially made nuclear weapons more dangerous. But this time, a public movement is missing.

The “nuclear freeze” movement of the 1980s was a response to renewed Cold War tensions. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and in 1983, accidentally shot down a South Korean airliner, killing 200 passengers, including a United States (US) congressman. That same year, US President Ronald Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which promised a system of space and ground-based defences. While SDI proved too fanciful, the resources pouring into it alarmed the Soviets. Also, alarming were the US nuclear-tipped cruise and ballistic missiles being deployed in Europe to counter the Soviets.

Western Europeans tracked these developments. They were aware that American missiles would become prime targets for Soviet nuclear strikes in the event of a war, which would engulf their communities in the radioactive fire. Demonstrations soon erupted across Europe. Not every charge the protesters levelled was accurate. The missile deployments were no mindless gambit. They were part of a strategy that sought to reassure allied governments and bring the Soviets to the negotiating table. However, the protesters grasped how dangerous the Cold War confrontation had become. The extent of which would only come into public light years later.

On September 26, 1983, a Soviet early warning system suddenly indicated multiple American (intercontinental ballistic missile) ICBM launches. However, the officer in charge, Lt Colonel Stanislav Petrov, correctly assessed the warning as false and decided not to alert the chain of command. A few weeks later, the Soviets misinterpreted NATO’s Able Archer military exercise as a sign that a nuclear launch may be imminent.

Nuclear fears began to ebb in the late 1980s. A 2007 New York-based Simons Foundation survey indicated that most of those polled in Germany, France, Israel, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the US supported eliminating nuclear weapons. In 2019, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons commissioned a poll of four European states that host US atomic weapons. It found sizeable majorities favoured the abolition of nukes.

Attitudes to nuclear weapons appear to depend on the strategic climate. For example, in a 2015 Internet poll of 1,000 Indians, 90% of participants agreed that India should not use nuclear weapons first. However, when told of a scenario in which Lashkar-e-Taiba was building a nuclear bomb, about half of the respondents supported a nuclear strike that would destroy the bomb and kill 1,000 Pakistani civilians.

Yet popular opinion alone does not suffice. In between a state’s leadership and the population lies a crucial middle layer of academic and policy analysts. Take, for instance, the debate over India’s no first use policy in 2019. After defence minister Rajnath Singh suggested the policy might be subject to change depending on circumstances, an ill-informed debate followed. While India’s no-first-use policy must be subject to periodic review, it is not, as some alleged, a sign of weakness. Indeed, no-first-use frees up cash for India’s conventional forces, and reduces nuclear escalation risks.

India now faces a growing Chinese nuclear arsenal, but there is little public debate about it. India will need an informed and engaged public, joined by experts and a vibrant popular culture to remind that nukes never went away. To leave the fate of many in the hands of a few is neither democratic nor wise.

Adya Madhavan is a sophomore at Ashoka University. Aditya Ramanathan is with Takshashila Institution

The views expressed are personal

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