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Scott Ritter on NATO’s “Steadfast Noon” Operation

Now is the time for Biden to clarify U.S. nuclear doctrine. But he remains silent.
U.S. President Joe Biden  in July 2021. (White House, Adam Schultz)

By Scott Ritter / Consortium News

On Monday, Oct. 17, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization kicked off Operation STEADFAST NOON, its annual exercise of its ability to wage nuclear conflict. Given that NATO’s nuclear umbrella extends exclusively over Europe, the indisputable fact is that STEADFAST NOON is nothing more than NATO training to wage nuclear war against Russia.

Nuclear war against Russia.

The reader should let that sink in for a moment.

Don’t worry, NATO spokesperson Oana Lungscu reassured the rest of the world, the purpose of STEADFAST NOON is to ensure that NATO’s nuclear war-fighting capability “remains safe and effective.” It is a “routine” exercise, not linked to any current world events. Moreover, no “real” nuclear weapons will be used — just “fake” ones.

Nothing to worry about here.

Enter Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general, stage right in the nuclear theater. In a statement to the press on Oct. 11, Stoltenberg declared that, “Russia’s victory in the war against Ukraine will be a defeat of NATO,” before ominously announcing, “This cannot be allowed.”

To that end, Stoltenberg stated, the STEADFAST NOON nuclear drills would continue as scheduled. These drills, Stoltenberg said, were an important deterrence mechanism in the face of Russian “veiled: nuclear threats.”

But they weren’t related to any current world events.

Enter Volodymyr Zelensky, stage left. Speaking to the Lowy Institute, a nonpartisan international policy think tank in Australia, the Ukrainian president called for the international community to undertake “preventative strikes, preventive action” against Russia to deter the potential use of nuclear weapons by Russia against Ukraine. 

While many observers interpreted Zelensky’s words to imply a request for NATO to carry out a preemptive nuclear strike against Russia, Zelensky’s aides were quick to try and correct the record, saying he was simply asking for more sanctions.

Enter Joe Biden, center stage. Speaking at a fund raiser on Oct. 6, the president of the United States said that, “For the first time since the Cuban missile crisis, we have a direct threat of the use of a nuclear weapon if in fact things continue down the path they are going.”

Biden went on: “We’ve got a guy I know fairly well. He’s not joking when he talks about potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons because his military is, you might say, significantly underperforming.”

Biden concluded: “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily use a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”

While it has been made abundantly clear by the White House that Biden’s comments were his personal view, and not based on any new intelligence regarding Russian nuclear posture, the fact that a sitting U.S. president was speaking about the possibility of a nuclear “Armageddon” should send chills down the spine of every sane individual in the world.

No Kremlin Talk of Tactical Nuclear Weapons

March 31, 2011:  Russian nuclear submarine crews drill in the Murmansk region. (RIA Novosti archive, Mikhail Fomichev, CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

First and foremost, there has been zero talk about the employment of tactical nuclear weapons from the Kremlin.

Zero.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated that Russia would use “all the means at its disposal” to protect Russia. He said this most recently on Sept. 21, when in a televised address announcing partial mobilization, he accused the West of engaging in “nuclear blackmail,” citing “statements of some high-ranking representatives of the leading NATO states about the possibility of using nuclear weapons of mass destruction against Russia.”

Putin was alluding to a statement that Liz Truss made prior to her election as British prime minister, when, in response to a question on whether she was ready to undertake the responsibility of ordering the use of the U.K.’s nuclear arsenal, she replied, “I think it’s an important duty of the prime minister and I’m ready to do that.”

“I want to remind you,” Putin said, 

“that our country also has various means of destruction and in some components more modern than those of the NATO countries. And if the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people.”

Putin’s statements were consistent with that of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who in an address to the 10th Moscow Conference on International Security delivered on Aug. 16, asserted that Russia would not use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. According to Shoigu, Russian nuclear weapons are authorized for use under “exceptional circumstances” as described in published Russian doctrine, none of which apply to the Ukraine situation. Any talk of the use of nuclear weapons by Russia in Ukraine, Shoigu said, was “absurd.”

Apparently not to Biden, who despite his claim to know Putin “fairly well,” got it all wrong when talking about the potential for nuclear conflict.

The risk isn’t that Russia would start a pre-emptive nuclear war over Ukraine.

The risk is that America would.

Biden’s Pledge of ‘Sole Purpose Policy’

Biden came into office in February 2021 promising to enshrine in U.S. nuclear doctrine a “sole purpose policy,” under which “the sole purpose of our nuclear arsenal should be to deter — and, if necessary, retaliate against — a nuclear attack.”

It is now the middle of October 2022, and America finds itself in a situation where the president himself fears for a potential nuclear “Armageddon.”

If ever there was a time for Biden to make good on his pledge, now is it.

But he remains silent.

The danger inherent in Biden’s silence is that Putin and other Russian officials who are concerned about Russian national security must rely upon existing published U.S. nuclear doctrine, which continues to enshrine a policy of nuclear pre-emption promulgated during the administration of President George W. Bush. Under this doctrine, nuclear weapons are but another tool in the military’s toolbox, to be used as and when needed, including occasions where the destruction of battlefield targets for the simple purpose of gaining an operational advantage is the objective.

Nuclear-biological-chemical warfare practice in 1987 at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. (U.S. National Archives)

One can argue that this sort of non-nuclear preemption has its own inherent deterrence value, a sort of “madman” kind of vibe that makes an opponent question whether the president could act in such an irrational manner.

“I call it the Madman Theory,” former U.S. President Richard Nixon reportedly told his assistant, Bob Haldeman, during the Vietnam War. “I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I’ve reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ — and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

Madman Theory 

Former President Donald Trump breathed new life into Nixon’s “madman theory,” telling North Koreathat if it continued to threaten the United States “[t]hey will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” Trump went on to have three face-to-face meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jung-Un in a failed effort to bring about the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

It was under the Trump administration that the U.S. Navy deployed the W-76-2 low-yield nuclear warhead on its Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles, giving the president a greater range of options when it came to the employment of nuclear weapons.

“This supplemental capability,” John Rood, the then-under secretary of defense for policy, declared, “strengthens deterrence and provides the United States a prompt, more survivable low-yield strategic weapon; supports our commitment to extended deterrence; and demonstrates to potential adversaries that there is no advantage to limited nuclear employment because the United States can credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario.”

One such threat scenario that was tested involved the theoretical employment of a W-76-2 low-yield warhead in a Baltic European scenario in which targets from the actual wartime contingency were used as a point of illustration. In short, the U.S. trained to preemptively use the W-76-2 to compel Russia to back down (deescalate) less they risk a nuclear escalation resulting in a general nuclear exchange — in short, Armageddon.

Which brings us to the present time. As this article is being written, U.S. nuclear-capable B-52 bombers are flying to Europe from their U.S. bases, where they will practice delivering nuclear weapons against a Russian target. Dozens more aircraft, flying from Volkel Air Force Base in the Netherlands (home to an arsenal of U.S. B-61 nuclear bombs), will practice employing NATO nuclear weapons against…Russia.

Russia has responded to the NATO nuclear drill by going forward with its own annual nuclear exercise, “Grom” (Thunder). These drills will involve the large-scale maneuver of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces, including live missile launches. In a statement unmatched in its hypocrisy, a U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said “Russian nuclear rhetoric and its decision to proceed with this exercise while at war with Ukraine is irresponsible. Brandishing nuclear weapons to coerce the United States and its allies is irresponsible.”

Physician, heal thyself.

Oct. 22, 1962 — nearly 60 years ago to the day, President John F. Kennedy delivered a dramatic 18-minute television speech to the American people during which he revealed “unmistakable evidence” of the missile threat. Kennedy went on to announce that the United States would prevent ships carrying weapons from reaching Cuba and demanded that the Soviets withdraw their missiles.

At the same time, the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, Foy Kohler, delivered a letter from Kennedy to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, saying

“the one thing that has most concerned me has been the possibility that your government would not correctly understand the will and determination of the United States in any given situation, since I have not assumed that you or any other sane man would, in this nuclear age, deliberately plunge the world into war which it is crystal clear no country could win and which could only result in catastrophic consequences to the whole world, including the aggressor.”

Joe Biden would do well to reflect on that letter, and all that transpired after that, and understand that if you replace “United States” with “Russia,” one gets an accurate assessment of the current world view of Russia when it comes to NATO and nuclear weapons.

Now is not the time for drama, or theatrically inflammatory rhetoric. Now is the time for maturity, sanity…restraint. A sage leader would have recognized the possibility of misperception on the part of Russia when NATO, a mere week after being encouraged by the Ukrainian president to initiate a preemptive nuclear strike on Russia, carries out a major exercise where NATO practices dropping nuclear bombs on Russia. A sober leader would have postponed these drills and encouraged similar action from Russia regarding its nuclear exercises.

Instead, America gets an unscripted, off-the-cuff reference to a nuclear Armageddon from a narcissistic egomaniac who uses the horror of nuclear annihilation as a fund-raising mantra.

It would take but one miscalculation, a single misunderstanding to turn STEADFAST NOON into “High Noon,” and “Grom” (Thunder) into “Molnya” (Lightening).

We’ve seen this scenario before. In November 1983 NATO carried out a command post exercise, codenamed ABLE ARCHER ’83, designed to test “nuclear weapons release procedures.” The Soviets were so alarmed by this exercise, which they believed could be used to mask a preemptive nuclear strike by NATO against the Soviet Union, that they loaded nuclear warheads onto bombers, bringing NATO and the Soviet Union to the brink of a nuclear war.

Later, upon receiving intelligence reports about the Soviet fear of a U.S. preemptive nuclear strike, President Ronald Reagan commented that,

“We [the U.S.] had many contingency plans for responding to a nuclear attack. But everything would happen so fast that I wondered how much planning or reason could be applied in such a crisis…six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to unleash Armageddon! How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?”

This revelation led to a change in attitude on the part of a president who, until then, was known for labeling the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire” and joking about launching nuclear missiles against the Soviet target.

A little more than four years after ABLE ARCHER ’83, Reagan sat down with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, a landmark agreement which, for the first time in arms-control history, eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons from the arsenals of both the U.S. and Soviet Union.

One can only hope that the current nuclear crisis will result in a similar arms control breakthrough in the not-so-distant future.


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Scott Ritter
Scott Ritter

Scott Ritter is a former U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD. His most recent book is Disarmament in the Time of Perestroika, published by Clarity Press.

11 comments

  1. Wall Street, Raytheon et al of its ilk, the corporate fraternity and the oligarchs care not one literal wit for the humanity of the people of the USA or elsewhere nor for Earth so obsessed and captured they are by their own addictions. The terrible thought is their bottom (like all addicts hitting bottom) marks the catalyst for mass nuclear incineration. Remarkably, we, the people, are harnessed to the illusion, it could never happen, “they’d” never really do it. How else to explain the passivity of the citizenry? As though we – you and I – are just standing there waiting, arms hanging down, helpless and powerless watching Biden and Putin playing bully talk games threatening the end of life as we know it while the sky loads black with bombers just “testing” readiness. What in the heck is the matter with us? How dis-connected from our own survival instincts are we? Does a wolf, bear, lion or elephant just stand and watch as their predator moves towards them plotting their demise? Why have a voice? eyes? ears? hands? legs? feet? an amygdala?

  2. One has to ask himself that since the Ukrainians are winning the war– by NATO’s account–why should NATO even consider the use of nuclear weapons? I’m sure Russia’s Putin is afraid. And I’m also sure that behind that feigned fear is a wry smile. Nuclear weapons are obsolete; they are good for a scare only. The world has decided to do all its business on radio waves. Jamming radio signals is an old device. If it were done on a large enough scale it can topple governments and no one has to die.

  3. 100 SECONDS TO MIDNIGHT

    Steadfast Noon?! Are the creators of such events THAT oblivious to anything not in their immediate world? Especially given that this one involves nukes.

    The clock on the cover of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was moved today to 100 seconds to midnight.

    “Send not to to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

  4. Kinda left out the annexation of the territory Russia just conquered. So now the Ukrainians are in the same position as the Palestinians, except that Russia acknowledges having nuclear weapons, and the Palestinians have no body with any interest in them succeeding in getting their territory back.

    Given this oversight (not addressing how the annexation changes your argument completely), I can only conclude that it’s not an honest analysis.

    1. I conclude mani is dishonest or rather stupid—to compare Palestine to ukraine one must be both racist and a moron

  5. Riter is correct—Russia wins in Ukraine; USA is a desperate paper kitty with fake slogans—democracy etc—rarely in USA will fascists altey, dga mention or comprehend justice, freedom prosperity…”Americans have no imagination. the poet paints images, the musician sounds—the American paints numbers”. Antonio Gramsci
    the impoverished american mind worshipping money cannot think qualitatively—best examined by George simmel in his famous ‘the philosophy of Money’

  6. I personally find Mr. Ritter’s article about the use of nuclear weapons more than a little biased.

    Where he duly reports that Putin explicitly stated that Russia would use “all the means at its disposal” to protect Russia he neglects to mention that, at least according to Russian law , the four Ukrainian provinces that Russia has illegally occupied are Russian territory.

    The inescapable conclusion is that Putin has arranged matters so that, again according to _Russian_ law, he would be legally justified in using nuclear weapons if he finds that his military is incapable of ‘protecting Russia’ (i.e. holding on to those four occupied provinces).

    Mr. Ritter’s statement that there is the risk of the US starting a nuclear war in / over the Ukraine is so far-fetched as to be used in a positively partisan way. It is _Russia_ that is having its arse kicked in the Ukraine, not the US. It is therefore Russia and not the US which emerges as the party who could have any kind of motive for using nuclear weapons. Neglecting to mention this is a serious omission and shows bias.

    Mr. Ritter’s bias furthermore shows in that he neglects to mention that US allusion to nuclear weapons follows (and indeed was _caused by_) Russian acts and statements that make Russia’s use of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine (at least according to Russian law) _legal_ . It is this development that ought to worry us, not US mention of a nuclear holocaust.

    The third point where Mr. Ritter’s bias shines through is that he makes no mention at all of the fact that Mr. Putin’s actions are currently irrational and can only be explained by recognising that his ideology on the matter (which asserts moral justification for claiming jurisdiction over any territory that harbours Russian native speakers (the “But und Boden” idea) or was part of the USSR) is irrational, inflammatory, and in fact has imperialistic overtones. Let’s not forget that this “But und boden” ideology is a copy of Hitler’s justification for annexing the Sudentenland.

    Taken seperately and taken together those facts are very very worrying in a politician who has a nuclear arsenal at his fingertips (and who has proven to have criminal instincts and Zero regard for human life). By neglecting to note this Mr. Ritter skews the entire article.

    There is yet another thing that Mr. Ritter fails to mention and that is that Russia (and the USSR) throughout their history have taken a very calculating approach to taking political and military risks. A calculation that was always based solely on risk and reward and never on any ethical considerations. It was this calculation (specifically plausible deniability until it was too late) that prompted Russia to annex the Crimea in 2014, and it was this calculation that prompted Russia’s “special military operation” to invade the Ukraine. It expected things to go smoothly byt received a rude surprise when they didn’t. It was never any ethical consideration that deterred Russia from invading earlier.

    For that reason it is absolutely essential that it is made clear to Russia’s leaders, no matter the ideological filter they employ, that the cost-benefit ratio of preventing a rout of their conventional army through the use of nuclear weapons is entirely negative. That (and only that) can ensure that nuclear weapons are not used.
    Not mentioning this is the fourth instance of Mr. Ritter’s partisanship (as I can no longer consider it bias).

    1. I would like to live in your world, where NATO does not exist, the 90s did not happen, and color revolutions are not a thing.

    2. goldoh disgusting apologies for nazism is expected–there is nothing illegal about liberating nazi occupied territories—your lies are despicable. there is nothing american fascists can do to deter Russian victory….what is obvious is that bias and truth are irrelevant for you—you are dripping w nazi ideology and racism

  7. @Giligan
    Too bad you cannot be bothered to even provide a semblance of discussion of the points I raised in my post. Instead of arguing you resort to abuse. And not even creative, insightful abuse. Just routine smears of ‘facism’, ‘nazi ideology’ and ‘racism’. You must have those programmed in a keyboard macro or something, and I really really ask myself if you have any clue about what those words you bandy about actually mean.

    I would like to point to my response to the article as an example of how people might argue when they fundamentally disagree. As you can see, I find large parts of the article terribly biased (if not outright of a teleological nature). I listed them and explained why.

    If you disagree, what sensible people would do is itemise areas of disagreement and argue their point. Your response is disppointing and rather a waste of space on this forum. What is the purpose of this forum if not to provide room for argument? To provide an excho-chamber for the US-bashing faithful?

    I can only conclude that you have absolutely no comeback to what I wrote.

  8. I don’t think there’s any doubt that of NATO intervenes, Russia will use some of its 2,000 tactical nukes, along with chemical and biological weapons to obliterate the invasion force. Deployment of the 101st Airborne division to Romania is a clear beginning of the buildup that would be necessary to support such an invasion. If more forces are gradually added, the invasion and subsequent nuclear war becomes a done deal. The only question is whether Russia will act preemptively. There will be no court left in existence to judge who actually fired the first shot, anyway.

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