Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
As the crisis in Ukraine reaches new levels, the tension between Russia and the United States is rising dangerously.
After Putin’s moves to take over the Crimea, the United States sent six 5-15 fighter jets on NATO air patrols over the Baltic and delivered 12 F-16 fighters to Poland. It also deployed a U.S. destroyer to the Black Sea.
On Monday, a Russian jet came near that destroyer.
“Officials at the Pentagon on Monday protested what they described as a provocative flyover by a Russian attack aircraft that flew at close range for 90 minutes over a U.S. Navy ship that had been sent into the Black Sea,” the Washington Post reported.
These maneuvers raise the question as to whether U.S. or Russian leaders have put their nuclear weapons systems on higher alert, as happened during tense periods of the Cold War.
The Pentagon won’t confirm or deny whether U.S. nuclear forces have been placed on higher alert.
“In general, we don't discuss our force posture,” said one defense official. “DoD is closely monitoring the situation and remains in close contact with the State Department and interagency, along with our Allies, Partners and NATO.”
Nor would the U.S. Strategic Command confirm or deny any change in nuclear war-fighting posture.
"As a matter of policy, we do not discuss operational procedures, to include changes in alert status,” said a U.S. Strategic Command spokesperson. “U.S. Strategic Command conducts global operations and one of its priorities is to partner with the other Combatant Commands, Services and appropriate U.S. Government agencies to defend the interests of the United States and its allies at the direction of the President."
Experts who monitor U.S. nuclear policy doubt that Washington or Moscow would be foolish enough to put their nuclear weapons systems on higher alert.
“It would be just mind-blowing if these guys did something like that,” says Winslow Wheeler, who is the director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.
“I would be shocked if they were,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
And Bonnie Urfer at Nukewatch says she has seen no reports of heightened activities at the nuclear weapons sites.
But if the crisis escalates further, there is the possibility that Washington or Moscow might rattle their nuclear sabers, and that’s a highly risky game to play.
As Noam Chomsky warned, early in the Ukraine crisis, it “could lead to a nuclear missile confrontation.”