Aleksandr Podrabinek on bombs and missiles: The dark side of progress

14 November 2022

by Aleksandr Podrabinek

Source: Radio Svoboda

Scientific-technical progress cannot be stopped. In the history of humanity, many have tried, but none have succeeded. The thirst for knowledge has been stronger than the Inquisition’s trials, society’s ridicule, and the bans on research. Even harder to stop are trans-border trade and economic cooperation. Since ancient times, people have exchanged what they have made, grown, or taken from others. They have not been stopped by brigands attacking caravans, or by pirates, or by trade duties, or by economic sanctions. Sometimes it’s been easier, sometimes harder, but alternate routes and secret loopholes have always been found. There are no serious grounds for thinking the situation is going to change substantially in the near future. In our era, the exchange of scientific experience and international trade have been deemed to be public assets and have been encouraged in every possible way in the absolute majority of countries. The successes of and prospects for international cooperation are well seen in the example of space exploration.

By no means do progress in science and the economy go hand in hand with progress in the sphere of politics and law, though. Those  rates of transformation are completely different. There remain on the planet a significant number of countries that happily take advantage of the fruits of scientific-technical progress and even themselves make some contribution to it, but whose state system lags behind present-day standards by a couple of centuries or are at the level of the Middle Ages altogether. This gap is dangerous for these countries themselves and creates threats for the entire world.

The obvious problem is that scientific achievements can be used in authoritarian-type countries not for the good of society but in the interests of the ruling clans that hold power. Here I return to where I began: neither progress nor trade can be stopped. Authoritarian countries’ regimes are going to get around sanction bans, steal scientific achievements, smuggle in valuable equipment, and use world experience for their own utilitarian objectives. They will create a new weapon through their own efforts. There’s nothing to stop them, and sanctions can only slightly slow this process. It will be harder for them than others and they will lag behind, but in the end they will be technically equipped at a level that will create threats for the whole world. Unfortunately, time works in their favour, not peaceloving countries’. Even before, tolerance for authoritarianism led to dramatic consequences, as it is doing right now, and the longer this goes on, the more tragic those consequences will be.

Attempts to appease the Nazi regime in Germany led to a world war, at the end of which the Nazis were two steps away from creating an atom bomb. And this despite the depletion of their resources and despite military actions. What Hitler failed to do, Stalin succeeded at. Partially at the expense of espionage and theft of scientific-technical secrets from the United States, and partially with the help of homegrown atomic physicists in the Soviet Union who were devoted to the cause of communism, they created an atom and then a hydrogen bomb. This determined the fate of the world for the next few decades. At the time, Soviet expansion reached unprecedented proportions specifically due to the universal fear of the possibility of nuclear war. Moreover, the ruinous fruits of the “heroic labour” of Soviet scientists to this day remain a threat to the whole world and a means for blackmailing other countries. Look at the war against Ukraine and the West’s reaction to Vladimir Putin’s regime’s readiness to use a nuclear weapon. And now new generations of Russian scientists are creating for the current dictatorship new examples of modern weaponry, driving away the thought of how and against whom these weapons are going to be used.

Such is the situation not only in Russia. North Korea has acquired its own atomic weapon and is working hard on its delivery methods. It is constantly improving its ballistic missiles, increasing their capacity, accuracy, and range. For now, the North Korean Communists only threaten the Asian-Pacific region, but the day is not far off when other continents as well will find themselves under the threat of an atomic strike.

Iran is aggressively developing its space and missile programs.  That country has already managed to launch several satellites into space and has sent an ape into suborbital flight and then returned him to Earth. This means that Iran has already created or is close to creating intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear weapon. The work in Iran on the atom bomb is already sufficiently well known. China, too, remains an official member of the nuclear club, and although it isn’t rattling its nuclear sabre, that doesn’t make the situation any less dangerous. A regime not elected or controlled by society may at any moment decide on a military step that no one can avert or parry.

In the near future, the general accessibility of scientific achievements and technologies will lead to relatively poor regimes with despotic forms of governance being able to get their hands on means of mass destruction. At that point, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, International Atomic Energy Agency oversight, UN resolutions, and belated and therefore ineffectual sanctions will be no help. The international community has one single means of averting the mounting threats: react swiftly and ruthlessly to systemic human rights violations in countries where the regime is not under society’s control. Consistently and without delay, apply the full arsenal of available means, from diplomatic pressure and a regime of sanctions to an economic blockade and humanitarian intervention. Otherwise the collapse of our civilization is not far off.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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