Can China help end the Ukraine war? Nuclear fusion and the tools of war and more
UKRAINE UPDATE: MILITARY ESCALATION, DIPLOMACY, AND A ROLE FOR CHINA?
Today we first consider a Russia Matters (RM) staff article about Henry Kissinger’s speech to the World Economic Forum (WEF) via Zoom on 17 Jan 2023 entitled Kissinger’s Post-War Vision Puts Ukraine in NATO but Also Has an ‘Opening to Russia’
In a welcome, and rare, mainstream discussion of when diplomacy might actually be undertaken, Kissinger argues for continued American military support for Ukraine “until the ceasefire lines are reached or accepted.” By this he means:
when the pre-war line is reached….
In the view of RM this implies:
a status quo ante, in which Russia abandons all its land grabs since re-invading Ukraine, but not Crimea or parts of the Donbas controlled by separatists prior to the launch of the invasion on Feb. 24, 2022.
Kissinger has elaborated further elsewhere on the peace process, including the possibility that
[i]nternationally supervised referendums concerning self-determination could be applied to particularly divisive territories which have changed hands repeatedly over the centuries.
Kissinger also argues that western sanctions should remain in place “for the entirety of the peace negotiations” and he has abandoned his pre-war belief that Ukraine should be kept out of NATO.
At the same time he has prioritised two goals:
preventing the war from escalating [and from] becoming a war against Russia.
Destruction of Russia as a state … will open up the vast area of its 11 time zones to internal conflict and to outside intervention at the time when there are 15,000 and more nuclear weapons on its territory.
For a more detailed exploration of a possible peace process, see Kissinger’s 17 December 2022 article in The Spectator entitled How to avoid another war, where he writes:
The goal of a peace process would be twofold: to confirm the freedom of Ukraine and to define a new international structure, especially for Central and Eastern Europe.
Eventually Russia should find a place in such an order.
The conclusion to that article is also worth repeating:
The quest for peace and order has two components that are sometimes treated as contradictory: the pursuit of elements of security and the requirement for acts of reconciliation. If we cannot achieve both, we will not be able to reach either.
The road of diplomacy may appear complicated and frustrating. But progress to it requires both the vision and the courage to undertake the journey.
For the audio and a transcript of Kissinger’s WEF conversation, click HERE.
Rideau Institute President Peggy Mason comments:
Surely it is a sign of the desperate times we find ourselves in that one of the few mainstream voices urging diplomacy is former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
China–US Cooperation over Ukraine and beyond?
Robert A. Manning, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and its Reimagining Grand Strategy Program, and Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, have written an important, forward-looking article, most inaptly titled Washington Is Missing a Chance to turn China Against Russia (foreign policy.com, 19 January 2023).
Despite that title, the article explores select opportunities for the US and China to collaborate, including in support of a possible mediation role for China to end the Ukraine war (which, in turn, would mean China would have to continue to be on at least reasonable terms with Russia or it could not mediate).
Manning begins by explaining that the Sino-Russian entente is not so much
a “simple ideological sympathy between two revisionist autocracies”… [as a] pragmatic, somewhat transactional union.
On China’s stance regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Manning notes:
Since the start of the war, China has offered rhetorical support to Russia and demonized NATO’s actions—but avoided any actual commitments to aiding Moscow.
Indeed, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in September 2022, Manning writes,
Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly and unprecedentedly acknowledged China’s “questions and concerns” over the war in Ukraine.
This follows other actions by China, including:
- Abstaining, rather than voting against, UN resolutions condemning the invasion
- Joining India in calling for an end to the war
- Dropping blaming NATO for the war from its EU talking points
- Telling EU officials that China views Russian nuclear use as unacceptable.
Manning acknowledges many links between China and Russia, including:
their shared views about the international order being unfairly dominated by liberal democracies as well as the primacy of the United States.
But he argues that,
China, like other nations, puts its own interests first. And those interests are increasingly divergent from Moscow’s with regard to Ukraine.
China has been quite embarrassed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a country with which it had a robust relationship, especially in agricultural trade, cooperation on military technology, and Belt and Road infrastructure projects.
The Russian invasion has not only left China unable to “square the circle of its “no-limits” cooperation with Russia and its fundamental foreign policy principles on sovereignty and territorial integrity, but the war also
has hit Chinese economic interests at a time when its own economy is in trouble.
He elaborates further:
The war’s disruptions to the world economy have had a toll on some of China’s largest overseas markets. As China is the largest lender to troubled developing nations, the rise in energy, food, and fertilizer prices spurred by the fallout from the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions has complicated China’s efforts to get loans repaid, thus worsening its own massive debt problem.
He then enunciates a key difference between Russia and China that is too often missed:
Where Putin is a disrupter, viewing chaos that harms the US-led order as in his interests, Beijing is more interested in reshaping global institutions to favor Chinese interests.
In Manning’s view:
This is an important distinction that should be factored into US policy.
A mediation role for China in the Ukraine war?
Manning also sees a potential diplomatic role for China in the Ukraine crisis, writing:
As one of the few parties that still possess critical influence over Russia’s decision-making, China’s early offer to mediate in the Ukraine crisis should be probed.
In his view,
A possible entry point to U.S. – China dialogue on Ukraine is mutual concern about Putin’s public threats of nuclear use and the consequences of breaking the 77-year-old nuclear taboo.
A Chinese role in future Ukraine economic reconstruction
Anticipating the enormous coordination difficulties that can be expected among the United States, European Union, Japan, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development as they seek to mobilize the staggering economic resources that will be needed to rebuild a post-war Ukraine, Manning warns:
if China, the world’s leading lender, is not offered an opportunity to be included in that discussion or to coordinate efforts, a separate Chinese reconstruction effort may complicate or obstruct Western efforts.
He therefore recommends:
Dialogue on China doing its fair share in a coordinated and global [reconstruction] campaign should be explored.
In Manning’s view, to enable this US-China dialogue to proceed,
The challenge is how to suspend, or at least compartmentalize, the mutual grievances on both sides to open political space sufficient enough to explore areas where interests may overlap with regard to Ukraine.
Manning cautions this will not be easy:
There should be no illusions about the degree of difficulty involved in this despite signals from Beijing of a softer approach. But given how dire the Ukraine situation has become, necessity may well be the mother of invention.
The Rideau Institute comments:
It is surely worthwhile for the US to use a “quiet backchannel approach to Beijing to gauge interest,” but for this to happen the Biden administration will need to overcome its own well-documented ambivalence about a negotiated end to the Ukraine war.
In its newly-minted Indo-Pacific strategy, Canada has labelled China as an “increasingly disruptive global power,” thereby missing the important distinction that Robert Manning has laid out in his article between the disrupter, Russia, and the arguably more traditional great power approach of China, working within the established international order while seeking to reshape it to favour its own interests.
We call upon the Government of Canada to refine its ongoing approach to China to allow — rather than foreclose — productive dialogue and cooperation wherever possible.
Escalation dangers in the Ukraine conflict
We have outlined ruminations by Henry Kissinger and Robert Manning on facilitating a negotiated end to the Ukraine war.
What is happening on the ground, however, is an inexorable escalation of the conflict, with a recent Quincy Institute article containing this observation:
NATO governments are increasingly painting the conflict to their publics not as a limited effort to help one country repel an invasion from a larger neighbor, but rather as an existential battle for the survival of the West, mirrored in the Russian leadership’s own evolving view of the war as a battle for survival against hostile Western powers.
The latest step up the escalation ladder is the provision by many NATO members, including Canada, of German-built Leopard 2 tanks, a decision which Germany held up for weeks precisely because of fears that
the tank deliveries would escalate the conflict to a new level and lead to “permanent escalation”.
For a harrowing discussion of the escalation dangers, see Mission Creep? How the US role in Ukraine has slowly escalated (Branko Marcetic, responsiblestatecraft.org, 23 January 2023).
NUCLEAR FUSION AND THE TOOLS OF WAR
a technology that has the potential to accelerate the planet’s shift away from fossil fuels and produce nearly limitless, carbon-free energy.
We turn now to yet another harrowing article, this one entitled Nuclear Fusion Won’t Save the Climate But It Might Blow Up the World (Joshua Frank, tomdispatch.com, 26 January 2023).
Award-winning California-based journalist and co-editor of CounterPunch Joshua Frank demolishes the message blasted around the world on 13 December past — that net-energy-gain fusion was a “genuine global warming game-changer” — and reveals what these fusion experiments are really all about.
The big announcement on 13 December was that
Net-energy-gain fusion, a long-sought-after panacea for all that’s wrong with traditional nuclear-fission energy (read: accidents, radioactive waste), had finally been achieved at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
In particular, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory used the world’s highest energy laser system to crush tiny pellets containing a form of hydrogen fuel. Through the application of enormous temperatures and pressure, the aim was to get the hydrogen nuclei to fuse together into helium atoms, releasing energy.
This undoubted technological breakthrough was heralded for its
potential to accelerate the planet’s shift away from fossil fuels and produce nearly limitless, carbon-free energy.
Joshua Frank first explains why this fusion milestone is most decidedly not a green energy game-changer:
- A tiny amount of energy was produced by 192 gigantic lasers blasting a “hydrogen-encased diamond”, with those lasers requiring 100 times more energy to charge than the energy they ended up producing, meaning fusion energy will not be viable at the scale needed within the next decade – the time frame in which carbon emissions must be reduced by 50% to avoid catastrophic warming of more than 1.5°C.
- The secretive and heavily secured National Ignition Facility where that test took place is the size of three football fields, raising the obvious question of how much space would be required to carry out fusion on a commercial scale.
- The isotope, tritium, needed to help the fusion reaction is in extremely short supply and costs around $30,000 per gram. It would need to be produced through “tritium breeding”, involving yet more expensive chemicals and raising serious concerns over radioactive waste.
- As for that radioactive waste, tritium is the radioactive form of hydrogen. Its little isotopes are great at permeating metals and finding ways to escape tight enclosures, with a very real risk of cancer from humans ingesting tritium, given the need to “continuously breed tritium in a fusion reactor.”
For a more dispassionate assessment of the potential future climate change benefits of fusion technology, see Why the nuclear fusion breakthrough won’t prevent catastrophic climate change (sas.upenn.edu, 14 Dec 2022).
Instruments of Death
All of these problems led Joshua Frank to ask:
if tritium, vital for the fusion process, is radioactive, and if they aren’t going to be operating those lasers in time to put the brakes on climate change, what’s really going on here?
He responds by discussing the history of the fusion reaction and the vital role it has played in the development of nuclear weapons. In short, it was a fission explosion that initiated a fusion reaction in the first full-scale US test of a thermonuclear device in the Marshall Islands in 1952.
One thing should be taken for granted: the American government is interested not in using fusion technology to power the energy grid, but in using it to further strengthen this country’s already massive arsenal of atomic weapons.
Frank cites the Department of Energy’s undersecretary for nuclear security, who stated that, in achieving a fusion ignition, researchers had
opened a new chapter in NNSA’s science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program. [NNSA stands for the National Nuclear Security Administration.]
The role of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — where the fusion experiments took place — is further explained:
Because it is the only facility that can create the conditions that are relevant to understanding the operation of modern nuclear weapons, NIF is a crucial element of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program.
The scope of the “stockpile management” role is made clear in this excerpt from the National Nuclear Security Administration website:
One of NNSA’s core missions is to ensure the United States maintains a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear stockpile through the application of unparalleled science, technology, engineering, and manufacturing.
The Office of Defense Programs carries out NNSA’s mission to maintain and modernize the nuclear stockpile through the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program. [emphasis added]
The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s website explains what these fusion experiments at the $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility (NIF) are really all about:
NIF’s high energy density and inertial confinement fusion experiments, coupled with the increasingly sophisticated simulations available from some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, increase our understanding of weapon physics, including the properties and survivability of weapons-relevant materials…
The high rigor and multidisciplinary nature of NIF experiments play a key role in attracting, training, testing, and retaining new generations of skilled stockpile stewards who will continue the mission to protect America into the future.
In Frank’s view, this “rare yet intentional admission” on the website, is surely meant as a message to China and Russia.
Sadly, fusion won’t save the Arctic from melting, but if we don’t put a stop to it, that breakthrough technology could someday melt us all.
The Rideau Institute comments:
What is particularly alarming is the almost complete failure of mainstream media to even mention the role of net-energy fusion — and indeed of the National Ignition Facility — in the modernization of nuclear weapons.
How to roll back the Doomsday Clock
On January 24th the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced:
The Doomsday Clock was set at 90 seconds to midnight, due largely but not exclusively to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the increased risk of nuclear escalation. The new Clock time was also influenced by continuing threats posed by the climate crisis and the breakdown of global norms and institutions needed to mitigate risks associated with advancing technologies and biological threats such as COVID-19.
The Doomsday Clock’s time is set by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board with the support of the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors, which includes 10 Nobel Laureates. Previously, the Doomsday Clock had been set at 100 seconds to midnight since 2020.
One positive result of this extremely sobering development is the outpouring of expert ideas for rolling the clock back.
See for example the European Leadership Network’s Network reflections: What one thing could the world do to turn back the Doomsday Clock (Commentary, 24 January 2023), in which former UK Ambassador to the UN Lord David Hannay, to choose one expert of many, responded with this recommendation:
A commitment by all nuclear weapon states — not just signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but those that are not — that the sole purpose of their possession of these weapons was to deter their use by others, and that in no circumstances would they be the first to use them.
We call once again on the Government of Canada to exercise a leadership role within NATO on urgent steps to reduce nuclear risks.
We end with this overarching recommendation from Olamide Samuel, a member of the Younger Generation Leaders Network and a Research Associate in Nuclear Politics at the University of Leicester:
Humanity must collectively reconsider its obsession with war, and its complicity in oppression. We have the tools to attain sustainable peace and equity — what we lack, is the political will.
Photo credit: Wikipedia (1991 fusion experiment)
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