The threat of nuclear weapon use is rising with the war in Ukraine. Image: Twitter

NBC has reported that the US provided targeting intelligence enabling the Ukrainians to shoot down a Russian troop transport over Kiev, killing over 100 Russian soldiers onboard. 

This is certainly not the only example of the so-called intelligence partnership between the US and Ukraine. It is part and parcel of an intense US effort to assist Ukraine and bait the Russians. 

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin says that the US intends to weaken Russia so it can’t fight another war. In his latest press conference, Austin said that the US wants Russia “completely defeated.” 

If Austin is serious, he is demanding virtually the same outcome the Allies demanded of Nazi Germany: unconditional surrender.

Right now no one can predict the outcome of the war in Ukraine. The latest information is that the Russians are forming up for a major offensive. 

One of the better observers of the Ukraine conflict, Jouni Laari, an experienced military officer and now security advisor and political officer at the EU’s External Action Service, says that the current focus for Russia is in the Izium-Horlivka region.

He writes “a new strong direction of attack is forming either in Donetsk or from Velyka Novosilka in the direction of Zaporizhia.” The Russians seem to be taking their time, organizing carefully, and are aware that all their moves are shadowed by US satellites and intelligence operatives.

But the Russians are also feeling a lot of pain and increasingly believe they are at war with NATO, not just Ukraine. So much so, in fact, that Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, has said that the threat of nuclear war “should not be underestimated” and that the danger is serious.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Moscow’s nuclear threats are real. Photo: Ekaterina Chesnokova / Sputnik via AFP

For some weeks, the US has been warning that Russia might use nuclear weapons if the war in Ukraine continues to go badly. Adding to the incendiary mix, the Russians have been warning that NATO is on the brink of introducing nuclear weapons into Eastern Europe. 

Focusing on the new AEGIS-Ashore missile defense system in Poland and Romania, the Russians are fretting over the interceptor missile launching platform known as the MK-41 vertical launching system. AEGIS at sea and now ashore uses the MK-41 to launch interceptor missiles (for example the SM-2, SM-3 and SM-6). 

However, the MK-41 is also a launch tube for the Tomahawk cruise missile, a long-range, all-weather, jet-powered, subsonic cruise missile that was originally designed to evade Soviet air defenses.

It had a nuclear warhead called the W-80 that could deliver a nuclear blast ranging in scale from 5 to 150 kilotons (KT). Comparatively, the Hiroshima atomic blast was somewhere between 13 KT and 18 KT. The warheads were retired between 2010 and 2018, although they were retained and are kept in active storage. 

There is no indication of any kind that the US plans to re-equip Tomahawks with nuclear warheads or even introduce the Tomahawk into the AEGIS-Ashore missile defense package in Poland and Romania. 

But the lack of intelligence, from the Russian angle, is proof the US is plotting to do exactly what is hidden from view and extremely risky to Russia. In this topsy turvy world, Russian intelligence is no doubt interpreting US warnings about Russia’s introduction of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war as concrete evidence of the US’ own malevolent designs.

During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union did their best (most of the time) to avoid confrontations that could risk a nuclear exchange.

Most notoriously, when the Russians introduced intermediate-range nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962, along with nuclear-capable Il-28 bombers, the US successfully challenged the Russians and demanded their withdrawal – although in exchange the US had to secretly remove nuclear-tipped Jupiter missiles from Turkey.

The second confrontation was in 1973 during the Yom Kippur war. When it looked like the Egyptian army was about to be routed, the Soviets began assembling a nuclear strike force. In response, the US declared a nuclear emergency (DEFCON-3), and then-newly appointed US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger began what became known as “shuttle diplomacy.” 

The lesson: negotiate with your nuclear adversary and avoid fatal confrontations. (Kissinger must be appalled by what he sees going on now.)

These lessons appear inapplicable to either Secretary of Defense Austin, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, or President Joe Biden. Instead of understanding past experience with the Soviet Union, these officials appear bent on baiting the Russians and stoking more conflict.

Russians are fretting over the interceptor missile launching platform known as the MK-41 vertical launching system. Image: Twitter

The worst part of it all is that the Ukraine war could have been avoided if the US had pushed Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky to seriously negotiate with the Russians under the provisions of the Minsk II agreement. 

Minsk II was signed by Ukraine and the two breakaway republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, and was overseen by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Instead, the US and its mouthpiece NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg did the opposite. The US and NATO were planning a war in Ukraine and starting around 2014 began training Ukrainian special forces in order to take back Ukrainian territory held either by Russian proxies (Donetsk and Luhansk) or taken over by Russia (Crimea). 

Along with the training and real-time intelligence support, the US planned on moving US Navy and British warships into Ukraine to challenge Russia in the Black Sea and Azov Sea region. Accordingly, the US paid for deepening Ukrainian harbors to accommodate US and British military vessels.

None of these steps were lost on the Russians who made furtive proposals to find a negotiated solution in Ukraine under the Minsk II accords and to consider new security arrangements in Eastern Europe, especially regarding nuclear weapons. 

The US, however, assertively rejected all these overtures. NATO kicked out most of the Russian delegation in NATO, so the Russians pulled out altogether and shut down NATO’s offices in Moscow. 

Ukrainian soldiers use a launcher with US-made Javelin missiles during military exercises in Donetsk region, Ukraine, on December 23, 2021. Photo: Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Service

Instead of working toward viable solutions and proposing terms that worked out arrangements to protect Ukrainian sovereignty and Eastern European security, US policy went fully in the other direction.

Thus, US policy is on the brink of recklessness over Ukraine and, more broadly, over security in Europe. Sadly, there is no domestic pushback on these moves in the United States where, unfortunately, most of the focus is on Ukrainian victories and Russian military setbacks. 

No time is spent worrying about what destabilizing Russia might mean for global peace and security. And there is no sign the US will become more sensible before a nuclear disaster happens.

Follow Stephen Bryen on Twitter at @stevebryen