The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 suggested that one day the only remaining nuclear risk would come from electricity production.
Perhaps it was the whistling, soothing introduction of the Scorpio winds of change that led my naïve 18-year-old brain to believe that some nations could resolve differences through diplomacy without the restraint of deterrence.
Russian President Vladimir Putin put his ‘nuclear deterrents on high alert’ amid his invasion of Ukraine, however, reminds us that the threat of nuclear weapons has never gone away (despite best efforts) and faith in deterrence (avoiding the use of nuclear weapons to avoid mutually assured destruction) persists.
My exposure to Cold War-induced anxieties came primarily from television and film. While I saw nuclear in Matthew Broderick’s 1983 film War gamesI have never lived through a time when I was on the edge of the abyss.
Or so I thought.
In the same year, we saw Broderick teaching a NORAD supercomputer that when it comes to global thermonuclear war, “the only winning move is not to play”, another war game that supposedly brought us closer to the edge of the abyss for real.
In November 1983, NATO conducted a training exercise dubbed “Able Archer”. The simulation involved an escalation of the conflict that began when Russian tanks rolled into the former Yugoslavia and then into Scandinavia.
The West finally launched a nuclear missile on the Ukrainian capital, Kiev (Ukraine left the Soviet Union to become an independent state in 1991). The answer was not the end of the war, but the destruction of most of the world. Again, this was a simulated conflict. But in 1990, declassified documents were released indicating how close things were to reality.
“There is little doubt in our minds that the Soviets were genuinely worried about Able Archer… It appears that at least some Soviet forces were preparing to anticipate or counterattack a NATO strike launched under cover of Able Archer,” former U.S. Ambassador Arthur Hartman said in a report to President Ronald Reagan.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine appears to have prompted a global reassessment of military capabilities. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called the invasion a “turning point” and proposed a 100 billion euro fund to modernize the country’s military and bolster defence. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government must ensure the Canadian Armed Forces have the equipment they need. Finland seems to be considering NATO membership.
It is assumed that there are currently more than 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world, the majority held by Russia and the United States. It is possible that the invasion of Ukraine will lead to further proliferation.
The fact that we have nuclear weapons suggests that we have evolved little as a species. However, disarmament efforts continue. The United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force in January 2021, is one of them. Canada has not yet signed the treaty. Neither the United States nor Russia. The effort may seem futile, but the same could be said of the Russian residents who bravely protest the invasion (thousands of people have reportedly been arrested). Or those revolutionaries in East Germany who were the winds of change that helped bring down the Berlin Wall.
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