Topol M nuclear ballistic missile launcher on a Moscow street. Photo: Andreas Meyer /

Beyond all the rhetoric, and the sanctions, Washington had better clear its head and start to think straight.  That’s not happening right now but it is essential for our future security and well-being.  At all costs, the United States has to do its very best to calm the Russians down and avoid a war that will spread rapidly if it is not contained, its underlying causes not ameliorated.

The worst specter of all is a war with Russia that will, and with utmost certainty, involve nuclear weapons. Russia is bristling with both strategic and so-called tactical nuclear weapons, and Russian military operations contemplate their use, perhaps in stages, perhaps all at once. No one can be sure.

The US and its NATO partners have arrogantly pushed for Ukraine to be part of NATO, saying in the Bucharest Declaration in April 2008 that they intended to add Georgia and Ukraine to the NATO system.

NATO was set up as a defensive alliance against the Soviet threat. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist, NATO – which should have been discontinued – reemerged as a guarantor of the newly independent states in Eastern Europe, from the Baltics all the way down to Romania and beyond.

Logically, one supposes, throwing in Georgia and Ukraine would make sense – except there was a war in Georgia and Russia came close to ending Georgia’s independence. Russia settled for taking two provinces away from Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia). That war was triggered by NATO’s push south and west and Russia decided it needed a buffer against Natoization. It could have been even worse.

Instead of re-thinking NATO’s enthusiasm for expansion, NATO continued, now in Ukraine, training and building up Ukrainian forces with Washington’s encouragement.

Washington and Europe have played a leading role in pushing Ukraine into the West and building hostility to Russia. This has steadily worsened the situation and exacerbated conditions under which the geopolitical balance of power was being negatively altered, against Russia’s national security interests.

Russia took Crimea in 2014 and its vital Black Sea port of Sevastopol.  Russia also encouraged the heavily Russian area of Donbas to separate from Ukraine and declare themselves (Donbas and Luhansk) as “People’s Republics.” These moves were in part the first reactions to NATO expansion activity – the only surprising thing is it took Russia six years from the Bucharest Declaration to do it.

But even that did not stop Natoization, in fact instead of diminishing it escalated, again heavily encouraged by Washington, which refused to accept Russian demands that NATO stay out of Ukraine.

From Russia’s point of view, it anticipated both NATO bases and nuclear weapons on its border and found that circumstance threatening and unacceptable.

A defense alliance is supposed to provide defense for its members by entering into what are known as collective security arrangements. NATO does that with Article 5 of the NATO treaty. Yet with NATO’s expansion, NATO is very badly stretched. This is no doubt understood by the Russians, who think that NATO – meaning the Americans – plans to compensate conventional ground forces and tactical air power by putting nuclear weapons on the Russian border.

Russia says that the US decision to unilaterally cancel the INF treaty and the installation of Mk-41 launchers in Poland and Romania pose a direct threat to Russian security. The Russians argue that the US can launch Tomahawk nuclear cruise missiles from MK-41 launchers.

Mark-41 vertical launch system. Photo: Wikipedia

The Tomahawk was originally designed with a nuclear warhead.  It was supposed to fly very low following the contours of the land so that it could evade Soviet radar coverage, and strike Russian forces with high precision.

Tomahawk’s nuclear warhead, designated as the W-80 (yield up to 150 KT; Hiroshima was around 18 KT), was supposed to be retired between 2010 and 2013. In 2018 there were stories that the US Navy might revive a Tomahawk with a nuclear warhead, but apparently that did not happen.

But it does not really matter, because the Russians don’t believe the US did anything more than put the W-80 warheads in what is called the “enduring stockpile,” keeping them around for future use. Meanwhile, in 2018 it was reported that the Russians got an intact Tomahawk that failed to explode in Syria.

While this was not a nuclear warhead-equipped weapon, the acquisition certainly raised Russian anxiety about this weapon. The Russians, naturally, also see a US plot: Getting rid of the INF treaty lets the US re-nuclearize the Tomahawks. The appearance of the Mk-41 launchers in Poland and Romania is evidence, in Russia’s view, that this is the case and defines the newest threat.

For the record, the US enduring stockpile of nuclear weapons consists of the following: 5,886 strategic warheads and 1,120 tactical weapons. The strategic weapons at last count included 1,490 ICBM warheads; 2,736 submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads; 1,660 bomber weapons such as strategic B61 and B83 gravity bombs, AGM-86 ALCM and several hundred spare warheads.

The tactical weapons consist of 800 tactical B61 gravity bombs and 320 nuclear warheads for Tomahawk missiles.

What this means on the Russian side is that if there is a war in Eastern Europe, it will include nuclear weapons since Russia can’t risk being preempted by NATO.

Neither Washington nor NATO appears to understand the gravity of the challenge in taunting the Russians with putting NATO in Ukraine.

Instead, we get a lot of nonsense coming out of the mouths of Western leaders.  The UK Defense Minister, with historical imprecision, said the UK Scottish Guards are ready to repeat today what they did to the troops of Russian Emperor Nicholas I in Crimea in 1854, forgetting of course about the decimation of the Sutherland Highlanders red-coated 93rd (Highland) Regiment at the Battle of Balaclava on October 25, 1854.

People making such foolish statements forget what modern weapons are and how nuclear weapons are part of war planning by Russia, the US and probably others (for example the UK and France in Europe, China in the Pacific).

The only way to prevent war from spreading beyond Ukraine is for NATO, led by the United States, to find a way to accommodate Russia.  This would have been infinitely easier before Russian forces crashed into Ukraine, but it is urgent to try and do so.

Accommodation is not the same as appeasement. Washington and NATO don’t have to give away European security or territory; they have to help assure Russian security. That means pulling back nuclear weapons and missiles, halting NATO’s furtive expansion, and working out mutual rules of behavior to assure future stability. 

This is in the realm of the doable and possible, but it takes leadership and not absurd platitudes (such as reiterating NATO’s so-called right to expand and the right for anyone to join the alliance who wants to do so and who meets NATO’s rather fluid requirements).

It would be useful if Washington and NATO stopped making accusations, largely because they don’t achieve anything worthwhile and because Washington and NATO bear heavy moral responsibility for the mess we now have.

Stephen Bryen is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy. Follow him on Twitter @stevebryen.