With Russia and Ukraine embroiled in a war that has caught the world’s attention, would it be a good idea for the United States to get involved to help Ukraine? A lot of talking heads seem to think so, hoping for anywhere between arming the Ukrainians to declaring a no fly zone and even up to boots-on-the-ground military involvement. Are these the wise words of our foreign policy intelligentsia or the saber rattling of demagogues and warmongers?
Albert Einstein is the quintessential smart guy. His appearance has become synonymous with the brilliant scientist. If us normal people want to look smart, we quote Einstein. If you want to call someone stupid, you invoke Einstein with sarcasm. And as if to drive the point home just how smart Einstein was, the vast majority of people don’t really understand his most famous work: the special and general theories of relativity. But most people know that he’s the guy who came up with E = mc2, even if people don’t really know what it means.
What it means for the typical average person is that atomic weapons are unbelievably powerful.
The equation E = mc2 is showing the equivalence of mass and energy. E is energy and m is mass. Then what is c? That’s the speed of light. A very big number. 300,000,000 meters per second, or just over 186,000 miles per second. And that little two above it means it is being squared, or in other words we take the speed of light and multiply it by itself:
300,000,000 x 300,000,000 = 90,000,000,000,000,000
That’s 90 quadrillion m2/s2 or
186,000 x 186,000 = 34,596,000,000
Which is 34 billion miles2/s2
This means that 1 gram of mass (0.001 kg) contains:
90,000,000,000,000,000 m2/s2 x 0.001 kg = 90,000,000,000,000 kg*m2/s2
Where kg*m2/s2 = Joules (units of energy, denoted J)
That is 90 trillion joules, or 90 terrajoules, of energy from 1 gram of mass, which is on the order of 1013 J. For comparison, that would be on the order of 20 kilotons of TNT, or 20,000 kilograms of TNT, or 44,000 pounds of TNT.
Atomic weapons, both the “traditional” and the thermonuclear varieties, use this mass to energy conversion to drive their destructive explosions. The equivalent of 20 kilotons of TNT is about how much energy the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki released.
The most powerful U.S. fission bomb was 500 kilotons of TNT, an order of magnitude greater. The most powerful U.S. thermonuclear bomb, called Castle Bravo, was 15,000 kilotons (15 megatons) which is three orders of magnitude greater than the two originals.
The “standard” U.S. thermonuclear gravity bomb is 1,200 kilotons (1.2 megatons) of TNT. Then there are the submarine-launched ballistic missiles (between 100 and 500 kilotons) of which a single submarine can carry up to eight.
The Tsar Bomba, developed by the Soviet Union, was the most powerful, clocking in at a whopping 50,000 kilotons (50 megatons) of TNT.
To make all this somewhere more concrete, here is the fireball radii (i.e. where those lucky enough to die instantly are located) for a few different types of nuclear warhead:
And here is a comparison of mushroom clouds:
Russia has the largest known nuclear arsenal in the world, with over 6,200 total weapons— roughly 1,458 strategic warheads on 527 ballistic missiles; 4,500 other warheads; and another 1,750 awaiting decommissioning.
By comparison, the U.S. has about 5,500 [total weapons], and the remaining global powers combined only hold about 1,300, for a total of about 13,000 globally. Of the other seven nuclear powers, only 3 of whom are legally recognized under the 1968 nuclear nonproliferation treaty, two are members of NATO (France and the United Kingdom), the others are not.
The U.S. also has nuclear weapons stationed in five other NATO countries: Germany, the Netherlands, Turkey, Italy, and Belgium.
To be clear, what makes Russia’s arsenal so concerning is not just the sheer number of weapons, it’s also their capacity to deliver these weapons to targets all over the world. They have the requisite delivery systems—short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and aircraft bombers.
Like the United States, it has been working on modernizing its existing arsenal and delivery systems. Putin has also said that Russia has been working to develop new delivery systems.
So, what’s the point of all this? It’s to remind ourselves that nuclear war is not something to take lightly. People who are calling for greater U.S. involvement in the ongoing (as of writing this) Russo-Ukrainian War have to keep this in mind. The misguided U.S. forays into Iraq and Afghanistan were both costly in lives and resources. But neither of those conflicts – even 20 years in Afghanistan – would hold a candle to what would happen in a nuclear exchange. We are in July of 1914 right now, but with the benefit of hindsight, we should know not to let August of 1914 happen again. Especially now that we have weapons that Czar Nicholas II or Kaiser Wilhelm II or Herbert Asquith could never have imagined in their wildest nightmares.
The Ukrainian government has called for the U.S. to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine. This might sound like something relatively benign. But a no-fly zone isn’t some magic force field that would prevent Russian planes from continuing to pummel Ukraine. It means that the U.S. would fire upon and shoot down Russian planes. That would be an overt act of war. A casus belli for Russia to deploy the nukes.
What is happening to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people is terrible. It’s heartbreaking to have to sit and watch what is happening. There is even an argument to be made, though not one I particularly subscribe to, that Ukraine’s heroic defense is misguided. Similar to the argument that things might have been better had Great Britain not gotten involved in WWI, or that if France had not fought back so heroically, that a lot of lives could have been saved. That in the long run it might be better if they didn’t fight back, since that is what has provoked Russia’s inhumane response. I would not expect the Ukrainians to do this, nor would I advise them not to fight back – they are perfectly, 100% justified in defending themselves. Certainly I would do the same if I were in their shoes. But that doesn’t change the facts: the casualties (civilian and military) that Ukraine is sustaining in this war would not happen (at least on as large a scale) if they weren’t resisting. Of course, it is easy to imagine that things could turn out worse for them once they’re under the heel of Russia, and thus continuing to fight is in their best interest.
My point here is that it is not always as simple as people like to believe. Yet this simple way of thinking has prompted outside observers here in the west, in our feelings of impotence, to lash out in other ways, or to elevate Zelensky up as some kind of savior. But regardless what is in the best interests of the Ukrainians to do, a shooting war between the U.S. and Russia would be orders of magnitude worse than what is happening to them now. It could potentially do more than what Hitler and Stalin did to their people between 1941-1945 in a matter of minutes.
People have taken the fact that Putin was willing to invade Ukraine, despite how stupid of a move this is, as a sign that he’s an expansionist megalomaniac that must be stopped at all costs. Even if we ignore that Putin had been eyeing Ukraine for decades, and that Russia had viewed NATO expansion up to its borders as an unacceptable risk to its national security since before Putin, perhaps the real lesson we should be taking from this is how irrational Putin is willing to act. If he was willing to invade Ukraine, much to the chagrin of other Russian government officials and droves of Russian citizens, and plunge his country into isolation and economic free-fall, what else is Putin willing to do? A first strike with nuclear weapons?
This of course is all part of game theory. Both the nuclear strike and the acting like a madman. In a nuclear strike there is always the issue of who will strike first. It’s similar to the prisoners dilemma: if neither prisoner rats out the other, they both sustain minimal punishment, and similarly, if neither country uses nuclear weapons, both will only come out bruised but still standing. But if prisoner A rats out prisoner B, then prisoner A gets off free while prisoner B is harshly punished; analogously, whoever strikes first with nuclear weapons will (in theory) come out unscathed while the other is absolutely devastated.
Obviously, if one strikes first, they are likely to face retaliation and will probably not go unscathed, but depending how brutal their initial attack is, they could potentially cripple the enemy, disabling their capacity to make a significant retaliation.
The madman strategy is pretty much what it sounds like: make it appear as if you are willing to do anything, even a nuclear strike, at the slightest provocation, and people will be wary about pushing their luck with you. Whether Putin is doing this on purpose or not I don’t know, but one does have to wonder how far he is willing to go. In other words, is he bluffing that he’s a madman, or is it real?
Even if Putin (or the U.S. for that matter) didn’t resort to nuclear weapons in a shooting war against one another, it would still likely turn into a much worse bloodbath than it already is. Putin has shown he isn’t afraid of racking up tons of collateral damage (and even purposely targeting civilians). That would make him somewhat like the Taliban in that regard, but with bigger guns. And even if the U.S. won the conflict, you can bet the episode would only stoke the flames of Russian resentment. Regardless what happens, nobody is going to come out of this better than they were before it began.
The popular retort to calls like mine for the U.S. to stay out of this situation militarily (the economic sanctions against Russia are almost certainly a necessary evil, though no less tragic for the Russian people who will suffer most from it) is that the person must be a stooge of the Kremlin. Well, if I’m a stooge, then I’m a particularly stupid one, because I’m receiving absolutely zero kickbacks from trying to take a sober, realistic look at the situation.
If Putin was ousted (or even assassinated) right now, I wouldn’t lose one iota of sleep over it. But for now he is somebody we have to put up with in a realistic way. Keeping this war as small and contained as possible should be of paramount importance for all parties involved, and then work toward a better outcome for everyone (especially the Ukrainians) once the guns have gone quiet. As I said in my last post on this subject, no matter who wins, the Ukrainian people lose (nor are the Russians or anyone else going to be winners in all this, either). Another sad chapter for a part of the world whose story is already characterized by tragedy.
Edit: this video is a good argument about why the U.S. doesn’t really need to become militarily involved: