Ukraine, Russia war has brought threat of nuclear war even closer

A self-propelled howitzer fires during artillery drills at a shooting range in eastern Ukraine, 2021. [Reuters]

The world came seriously close to a nuclear war during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Soviet Union infamously shipped its intercontinental ballistic missiles to the vicinity of the southern border of the United States. Thankfully, the cold war soon eased and the possibility of a nuclear conflict became considerably remote.

Related conversations were conveniently swept beneath the carpet of the world’s collective thinking. Nuclear-armed nations were expected to become rational actors, exercising self-control in appreciation of the principle of mutually assured destruction (MAD). The fear of a repeat of Hiroshima’s unthinkable horrors was also enough deterrence for anyone.

Then came Russia’s sudden irredentist invasion of Ukraine on February 24, which shattered the deceptive facade of a pleasant and tranquil world, probably for good. The spectre of nuclear war suddenly returned to haunt us in the 21st century.

A really dangerous phase in international relationships was ushered in after Moscow’s foolhardy attempt to quickly overrun Kyiv was resoundingly thwarted by brave Ukrainian resistance, inspired by the indefatigable president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. According to United Kingdom’s defence ministry, Russia has already lost as much as one-third of its pre-war invading ground combat forces.

Buoyed by this surprising Ukrainian ability and willingness to defy the aggression of the Russian Goliath, NATO, and particularly the US, proceeded to flood Ukraine with modern hi-tech weapons, much to Vladimir Putin’s chagrin. It seems that the goals of the West were also hastily upgraded from assisting Ukraine’s self-defence, to ‘removing Putin’ or ‘weakening Russia’, as has been publicly proclaimed by various senior US officials including Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin.

Ukrainian tanks move into Mariupol after Russian forces came ashore in the port city, February 24. [Reuters]

Russia’s huge battlefield operational setbacks increasingly frustrated and embarrassed Putin and his senior officials, who then started evoking the destructive capabilities of their country’s nuclear arsenal, in particular the eponymous Satan 2 hypersonic weapon. They also began casually making public formerly classified military data.

For instance, it is now public knowledge that the Satan 2 bomb needs only about 10 seconds to reach Finland and 200 seconds to annihilate Britain! Unflinching, French foreign minister Yves Le Drian promptly reminded Russia that NATO is no less nuclear-tipped.

The climax of this burgeoning brinkmanship was the brazen threat by the popular pro-Kremlin TV anchor Dmitry Kiselyov to “plunge Britain into the depths of the sea” with a 1,500 feet tsunami generated by the Russian underwater Poseidon nuclear bomb.

Many fear that this escalating sabre-rattling by the two superpowers is fertile ground for an accidental strategic confrontation. What we are hearing are no doubt the proverbial drums of war at their scariest. And we are talking of a nuclear war here.

Yet here at home, these dangerous global developments seem to have been lost in the din of Kenya’s furious political campaigns. So far, neither of the two leading presidential aspirants has shown any concern about such an important topic! Even as the final stretch of  their campaigns approaches, the topic of nuclear war is yet to enter the lexicon of their speeches.

This  is very telling of our country’s disaster unpreparedness. Instead, Raila Odinga and William Ruto keep us serenaded with pleasant hopes of our future of improved net worths, a nice prospect which, unfortunately, would be utterly useless in case – God forbid – of a nuclear war.

It may be argued that geographically, much of Africa is a long way from the probable ground zero of a nuclear conflict and therefore relatively safe. While that may be true, studies, among them the much-quoted ‘Casualties due to the blast, heat, and radioactive fallout from various hypothetical nuclear attacks on the United States’ graphically detail the grim prospects for every ‘global villager’ in case of a nuclear conflict. If Russia were to launch only about a tenth of its nuclear weapons at the USA, for example, about 100 million people would die in the first afternoon alone.

Service members of the 92nd Separate Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. [Reuters]

Far-flung places like Kenya, even if not directly hit, would still, as Matthew R. Francis warned, receive enough punishment in the form of “prolonged dust and smoke, a precipitous drop in Earth’s temperatures and widespread failure of crops, leading to deadly famine” in case of a more prolonged clash, as one study affirms, a billion earthlings would expire in the first day.

There is a huge lesson in the way in which the coronavirus ambushed the current presidency, becoming the most vexing and unpredictable challenge in our nation’s history. This lesson is that our next leaders must prepare the country for the possibility of more non-conventional global hardships, foremost among them a  possible nuclear incident.

We could start by by bench-marking with Russia’s edgy neighbours. Finland, for instance, has a law requiring buildings of a certain size to have underground bunkers. There are over 50,000 bunkers spread across the country, and the main city Helsinki’s reinforced tunnels can reportedly shelter its entire population. Thanks to a system of nuclear-proof underground system underneath their now famous steel mill, Ukraine’s outnumbered Mariupol’s defenders were able to ward off the Russians for a whole month.

And, yes! Polish preparation for nuclear war has included stocking iodine pills. They are said to be good for radiation.