CNN reports April 26 of a "perilous face-off" as Russian state news complained that Ukraine has mobilized 15,000 troops in the suburbs of Slavyansk in the country's east "in order to wipe out the city and its residents." A Defense Ministry source said the number of Ukrainian troops put the pro-Russian militants who control the city at a disadvantage, as the latter are "armed only with small amount of pistols and shotguns." Of course, Russia's military massively outweighs Ukraine's and the Defense Ministry's statement is a barely veiled threat of intervention. Meanwhile, USA Today reports that Russian warplanes have entered Ukrainian airspace several times in the last 24 hours, according to the Pentagon. The violation of Ukraine's airspace follows war games that have moblized some 40,000 Russian troops to the Ukrainian border. Earlier this week, the Pentagon deployed 600 paratroopers to Poland and the Baltic states "to reassure NATO allies in the region about the US commitment to their defense." Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk charged that Moscow "wants to start World War III" by seeking to take over Ukraine.
Of course, we argue that the next world war would actually be World War 5, the Cold War having been World War III, and the post-9-11 "war on terrorism" World War 4. But perhaps Yatsenyuk can be forgiven, as Cold War scenarios are playing themselves out again…
The Cold War deja vu is not lost on Loren Thompson in Forbes, who lists "Four Ways The Ukraine Crisis Could Escalate To Use Of Nuclear Weapons." These are: "Bad intelligence," "Defective signaling," "Looming defeat," and "Command breakdown." This last category is the most frighteningly plausible:
Strategic nuclear weapons like intercontinental ballistic missiles are tightly controlled by senior military leaders in Russia and America, making their unauthorized or accidental use nearly impossible. That is less the case with nonstrategic nuclear weapons, which at some point in the course of an escalatory process need to be released to the control of local commanders if they are to have military utility. U.S. policy even envisions letting allies deliver tactical warheads against enemy targets. Moscow probably doesn't trust its allies to that degree, but with more tactical nuclear weapons in more locations, there is a greater likelihood that local Russian commanders might have the latitude to initiate nuclear use in the chaos of battle. Russian doctrine endorses nuclear-weapons use in response to conventional aggression threatening the homeland, and obstacles to local initiative often break down once hostilities commence.
Of course, the USA is the only nuclear-armed nation to have never adopted a "no first-use" policy. Russia abandoned its "no first-use" doctrine in 1993—ironically, after the end of the Cold War. Thompson concludes:
When you consider all the processes working to degrade restraint in wartime — poor intelligence, garbled communication, battlefield setbacks, command attenuation, and a host of other influences — it seems reasonable to consider that a military confrontation between NATO and Russia might in some manner escalate out of control, even to the point of using nuclear weapons. And because Ukraine is so close to the Russian heartland (about 250 miles from Moscow) there’s no telling what might happen once the nuclear “firebreak” is crossed. All this terminology — firebreaks, ladders of escalation, extended deterrence — was devised during the Cold War to deal with potential warfighting scenarios in Europe. So if there is a renewed possibility of tensions leading to war over Ukraine (or some other former Soviet possession), perhaps the time has come to revive such thinking.
In which case, we (meaning progressives and anti-war activists in the West) may have to revive a Neither East Nor West position—and build solidarity both with anti-war activists in Russia, and anarchists and others in Ukraine who oppose both Russian imperial designs and Ukraine's own reactionary nationalists…
We've already noted the threat of nuclear escalation in the Ukraine crisis.