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OPINION | ART HOBSON: As the planet remains on high alert, does it make sense to risk global destruction to preserve Ukraine’s option to join NATO?

Pondering the effects of nuclear war by Art Hobson | March 15, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.

On Feb. 8, during a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave an alarming answer to a reporter's question: If Ukraine joined NATO, and if war erupts between Russia and Ukraine, then NATO will join with Ukraine against Russia. In this case, Russia would be unable to match NATO's military might, and would need to resort to nuclear weapons.

As outlined in several recent columns, a certain segment of Russian culture, including Putin, is paranoid about attack from the West. It's an obsession born of such terrifying experiences as invasions by Hitler and Napoleon.

If this all seems bizarre, you aren't alone. Will we really risk the end of civilization so that Ukraine can retain the option to possibly, at some uncertain future date, join NATO?

It's time for all of us to note a few realities:.

In 1979, the U.S. government published "The Effects of Nuclear War." Among other things, it reported on the effects of a single one-megaton nuclear bomb dropped on the center of a typical city such as Detroit. There would be over one million immediate casualties, half of them fatalities, in this city of 4 million (in 1979). This excludes longer-term casualties due to radioactivity on the ground and in dust lofted into the mushroom cloud that later falls out downwind. Nothing significant will be left standing out to two miles (in all directions) from the central point on the ground. At five miles out, 50 percent of the people suffer casualties and most structures, such as the automobile plants, are destroyed or severely damaged. There is significant damage and casualties out to 10 miles from the center.

Starting about an hour after the blast, radioactive fallout begins in some areas, depending on wind speed, wind direction and rain. In these areas, and during at least the first week, fallout is fatal within a few hours of outdoor exposure. Nuclear radiation will remain dangerous out to 10 miles from the center for about 10 years, after which it will slowly decay to lower levels comparable to the natural radiation we all receive daily from our environment.

A one megaton nuclear fusion bomb or "hydrogen bomb" packs the energy of 60 fission bombs, or "atomic bombs," of the type that destroyed the city of Hiroshima in 1945, killing 200,000 -- 50 percent of the city's population. Today's nuclear weapons are somewhat smaller than one megaton. Russia, for example, has 2,565 nuclear weapons including 500 in the 0.5-0.8 megaton range and most of the remainder at 0.1 megaton (six Hiroshimas) or less. The U.S. has a similar arsenal.

For further perspective, consider a single U.S. Navy Trident submarine. It can carry 24 intercontinental ballistic missiles, each packing eight hydrogen bombs ("re-entry vehicles") that can be directed to different locations. Each bomb releases 0.12 megatons of energy. Thus one Trident submarine can destroy 192 targets, each target receiving the equivalent of seven Hiroshima bombs.

The United States has 18 missile-launching submarines, of which 14 are Tridents. Generally, four are deployed underwater at any one time, although more would be deployed under high alert. They are essentially invulnerable.

Russia and the U.S. both have a "strategic triad" of nuclear-weapons vehicles: Land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles and bombers. Russia and presumably the U.S. have now put their triads on high-alert -- a kind of hair trigger that is dangerous even if there is no war.

War between the U.S. and Russia could destroy much or all of what we are pleased to call "civilization." Humankind is treading perilous territory. Right now, the greatest danger lies in the skies above the battlefield. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has appealed to NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, and strongly criticized NATO's rejection of this request. A no-fly zone would bring NATO, and hence the United States, into battle with Russia.

Alarmingly, on Sunday, Russia began shelling an airbase in western Ukraine only 15 miles from Poland's (and thus NATO's) border. Although NATO supplies a steady flow of weapons to Ukraine, U.S. Security Advisor Jake Sullivan warned America would respond if Russia's strikes traveled outside Ukraine and hit any NATO members, even accidentally.

There is one ray of sunshine. Zelensky recently told Germany's Bild newspaper "We are ready to discuss security guarantees for Ukraine ... and, of course, for the security of Russia." This touches on what Russia has asked for all along but we have foolishly ruled a "non-starter": a Ukrainian pledge of neutrality.

Print Headline: A planet on high alert


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