It’s now clear that Putin is out to ‘Balkanise’ southern/eastern Ukraine into Russia-friendly republics, besides making Ukraine primarily land-based by taking away Mariupol and pulverising Odessa port, the main Western logistics base for arms supplies. Also, connecting Crimea/its Black Sea Sevastopol port by a land bridge with the ‘Cossack’ Donbas part of eastern Ukraine, traditionally claimed as Russian, will severely circumscribe Ukraine.
Stalemate: Russia flexed muscles during the Ukraine visit of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres (right) last week. Reuters
On August 6, 1945, America dropped a 16-KT (16,000-tonne TNT) atomic bomb, codenamed Little Boy, on Hiroshima, followed by a 20-KT bomb on Nagasaki, codenamed Fat Man, on August 9. Besides the six-figure deaths that occurred instantly, the mental, genetic and psychological trauma the bombs caused is still felt. Now, 77 years later, the spectre of a nuclear war has been flagged by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister. They have warned America, EU, NATO and Ukraine of nuclear consequences if their perceived red-lines in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war are crossed.
To underscore to a shocked world Russian capability and resolve to cross the nuclear threshold, the Russians deliberately fired two “high-precision, long-range air-based weapons”, probably hypersonic Kinzhal nuclear-capable glide missiles at the Kiev Artyom missile facility in close proximity of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres during his April 28 talks with Ukraine President Zelenskyy. Largely extracted from American RTI responses, this writer has summarised nuclear accidents since 1950 to illustrate that no country is above making mistakes, which if handled impulsively, may lead to a nuclear Armageddon.
A ‘Broken Arrow’ is defined as an unexpected event involving nuclear weapons resulting in accidental launching, firing, detonating and theft or weapon loss. Since 1950, there have been 46 nuclear weapon accidents of which 32 were ‘Broken Arrows’. Also, to date, six nuclear weapons have been irretrievably lost. Incidents have occurred involving aircraft carrying nuclear weapons, technical defects, human error, safety violations, careless nuclear war simulation, poor bunker storage and maintenance lapses. In erstwhile USSR, accidents have involved nuclear-powered ships (reactor meltdown); sinking of two Soviet nuclear submarines and a collision between US, Soviet nuclear submarines in the White Sea. Three incidents involving megaton thermonuclear weapons have occurred in American Strategic Air Command (SAC) bases while transiting with B-52 bombers across Europe.
Two such incidents have occurred in America. In 1979, operator displays at North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) under Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, displayed a full-scale Soviet ICBM attack leading to fully armed SAC B-52 bombers scrambling as also the US President’s Airborne Command Post. Fortunately, it was found six minutes later that a training programme had been accidentally loaded in NORAD computers. A second Nucflash incident occurred at Duluth, Minnesota, when a bear climbed over an SAC base security fence, setting off “intruder alarms” in other SAC bases. Additionally, a wiring error at an SAC base illuminated a “Nuke Russia now” directive. Armed B-52 bombers were stopped from take-off just in time.
These involve non-weapon civil nuclear reactors and include Chernobyl-Zaporizhzhia-type incidents in Ukraine, Three Mile Island in the USA and Fukushima in Japan. The consequences of a reactor meltdown accidentally or deliberately can cause considerable human and capital losses.
India maintains an enviable safety record on nuclear issues but accidents can take place anywhere, anytime. As per Pakistani Air Force reports of March 10, PAF “picked up a high-speed (Mach 2.5-3) flying object near Sirsa at 18:43:43 hours on March 9, 2022, which crossed the Indo-Pak border and crashed near Pakistan’s Mian Channu after a flight time of 6 minutes 46 seconds”. India initially accepted “technical malfunction of an unarmed missile during routine maintenance and inspection’, later admitting human error. An IAF inquiry is underway. While international media speculates that the missile flying profile matches the nuclear-capable BrahMos, India hasn’t commented. That the incident was unintended has been accepted worldwide. Mature handling by both countries prevented a crisis, a part of it being the presence of several civil passenger flights in proximity of the missile’s flight path.
With current land, sea and air nuclear munitions tonnage ranging from 1 KT Atomic Demolition Munitions (ADMs) to monster 10-MT thermonuclear bombs (10 million tonnes of TNT), such a scenario, whether accidental or deliberate, is possible. It can range from tactical ‘demonstration’ of intent; a desire to punish or demoralise Ukraine for Russian loss of face or an inexplicable compulsion to bolster Putin’s macho/unpredictable image or warn NATO/EU and thereby America against extending the ‘historical injustice’ against Russia by inveigling a willing Ukraine into NATO. These including an adverse situation are the Russian red-lines which may manifest in tactical nuclear fallouts.
A hardcore ‘intelligence’ (KGB) man, perplexed analysts sweated over an inscrutable Putin announcing “special operations”. It’s now clear that he is out to ‘Balkanise’ southern/eastern Ukraine into Russia-friendly republics, besides making Ukraine primarily land-based by taking away Mariupol and pulverising Odessa port, the main Western logistics base for arms supplies. Also, connecting Crimea/its Black Sea Sevastopol port by a land bridge with the legacy ‘Cossack’ Donbas part of eastern Ukraine traditionally claimed as Russian will severely circumscribe Ukraine.
It is in this context that though under long development, the successful full-test launch of the Russian Sarmat ICBM on April 20 from Plesetsk Cosmodrome invited global attention. Carrying 15 nuclear warheads or a mix of warheads/Avangard hypersonic glide missiles flying unpredictably to spoof anti-missile defences, Putin’s ‘boastful’ post-launch remarks about how this super-heavy successor silo-based ICBM to the vintage cold war SS-18 “Satan” ICBM couldn’t be countered by Western anti-missile defences were flippantly dismissed as “nuclear sabre- rattling”. In reality, they demonstrated deep and well-planned Russian preparedness. Western cynicism about Russia’s nuclear threats has the ‘cold war’ mutually assured destruction (MAD) as its backdrop. Much water has however flown down the Dnieper and Moskva rivers since the cataclysmic 1991 break-up of USSR and single-minded Western pursuit of marginalising Russia by weaning away the erstwhile Warsaw Pact East European states into NATO — notwithstanding solemn Western assurances to Russia to stop an eastward expansion of NATO “by even an inch”.
Former Naval Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba remarked at a recent Panjab University defence department seminar on Ukraine where this writer participated that there was speculation about what Putin could announce at his forthcoming Victory Day (May 9) speech — culmination of special operations or escalation.
The world hopes that Putin will announce culmination.