Where the war in Ukraine might be going and how the war could impact Philadelphia

Commentary

Mark Thomas, Professor of political science

Header Image: phillyhistory.org

As the war in Ukraine enters its fourth week, the lingering questions are whether the Russia-Ukraine War could expand into a war between NATO and Russia; and, if it did expand, could a NATO-Russia war escalate into a nuclear war. But more poignant and salient is how could a nuclear exchange between Russia, the U.S. and its NATO allies impact Philadelphia and the surrounding area. 

To the first point of whether the Russia-Ukraine war could expand into a NATO-Russia war, Dr. Mitchell Orenstein, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has contended such a war is unlikely. Such thinking is either delusional or wishful thinking. There are three possible outcomes for the current war in Ukraine: 1) The war becomes a quagmire for Russian forces and remains confined to Ukraine; 2) Russian forces turn the tide of war and gain control of Ukraine or 3) Russian forces withdraw either completely, or, more likely partially, enough to create a land bridge between the Donbas to the Crimean Peninsula. Of the three possible scenarios, only the third, e.g. a Russian withdrawal, excludes the possibility of a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia. Scenario one likely will entail Russian bombardment of NATO and NATO member-state logistics-supply routes from the west to the east. In the second scenario, buoyed by its success in Ukraine, Russia invades southern Lithuania based on its geo-strategic need to (re)establish a land-bridge between Russia and Kaliningrad, the headquarters of Russia’s Baltic Fleet and of the Russian Army’s Kaliningrad Military District. Scenario three, which may not occur immediately but is surely a matter of when, not a matter of if, could also include incursions into Latvia and Lithuania so Russian can regain control of the Baltic Sea, where it has one of three warm-water ports, the other two at Sevastopol (Crimea) on the Black Sea, and Vladivostok on Russia’s Pacific coast.   

In either the first or second scenario, NATO has two options: Respond with sanctions, essentially appeasing Russia for its new aggression or resort to the tried-and-true logic of nuclear deterrence and Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Given NATO’s Article 5 commitments and the risk of losing its credibility of defending democracy as well as national sovereignty if it does not respond militarily; and given Putin’s mindset; and basic tactical tenets of Russian military doctrine, NATO must respond and the prospect of nuclear war becomes more likely than even in the most tense days of the Cold War, minus the strategic miscalculations which almost led to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) and Able Archer (1983). 

So, what is the likelihood Philadelphia will suffer during a nuclear war? First, we must distinguish between the two types of nuclear attacks: a counter-force strike and a counter-value strike. A counter-force strike is one in which the attacker seeks to destroy the opponent’s ability to wage war, both conventional and nuclear. A counter-value strike is one in which the attacker targets the civilian population in an attempt to eliminate the popular will to wage war.  Given many counter-strike targets are often collocated to highly populated areas, the difference between a counter-strike and counter-value attacks blurs considerably. 

In any case, for better or worse, Philadelphia is likely not high on the Russian nuclear target list.  Why for the worse? To be ranked high on the target list, a location has to have either a significant military presence, or a technological or industrial base which contributes substantially to the national defense. Due to poor decisions by federal, state and local officials over the past several years, Philadelphia has neither. That is the good news insofar as Philadelphia will likely not be hit by a nuclear warhead in a counter-force strike.

The fact that Philadelphia is not a counter-force strike target belies the fact that destruction of property is the least of the types of damage which nuclear weapons cause. Given its central location between New York and Washington, its close proximity to significant military bases and logistics hubs in outlying areas of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and its general proximity to one of three of the U.S. government’s major underground continuity of operations sites, all of which are viable counter-strike targets, depending on whether or not the Russians want to allow the U.S. leadership to survive after the first strike so they can stop the war, Philadelphia will mostly likely suffer from the two most deadly and most long-lasting sources of death and mayhem following a nuclear strike. The most well-known of the two is radiation poisoning, which will decimate plant and animal life across Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey depending on the wind direction and whether the nuclear fallout reaches the jet stream. 

The third type of damage is the technology-killing effect of the high energy electro-magnetic pulses (EMP) which a nuclear blast emits. Such an after-effect only requires a single well-placed strike or a high enough altitude blast. With one such blast, either close to any city within a 500-mile radius of Philadelphia will disable any appliance or device which does not rely on vacuum-tube technologies, or which is hardened against EMP, making them into high-cost paper-weights. In layperson’s language, the EMPs will knock out all devices upon which U.S. society and economy depends to do its day-to-day functioning: computers, cell phones and I.T. networks will fail, with the catastrophic ripple effects across any sector of the U.S. critical infrastructure which relies on digital technology. Briefly, there is not a single sector of society which does not rely on digital technologies. The EMP will essentially disable the emergency service sector, the communications sector, the financial sector, the commercial facilities sector, the transportation sector and the agriculture and farming sector. A single, low-radiation nuclear blast would essentially catapult Philadelphia from the 21st Century to the 17th Century. 

Is such a scenario avoidable? Yes, as long politicians remember the Cold War tenets of MAD, despite a successful pre-emptive counter-force strike, the other side still retains sufficient capability to destroy countervalue targets in retaliation. The crazy logic behind MAD is what many believed deterred Russia and the U.S. from launching nuclear weapons during the tensest days of the Cold War.  It is also the fear of NATO escalating the war and respecting its Article 5 commitments which could end the conflict now.  First, it would give Russian leaders a moment of pause to consider the consequences of Putin’s aggression.  Second, a critical tenet of Russian military doctrine is protecting the Russian homeland from destruction, a tenet to which the Russian military leaders and intelligence leaders have closely abided since 1953. The last Russian leader who placed the Russian homeland at risk was Nikita Khrushchev, whom the Russian generals and intelligence chiefs, in collaboration with Communist Party leaders, e.g. Brezhnev, quietly removed from power. I think Putin is catching a cold. Perhaps a bad case of COVID-19 is in his near future.

International sanctions decimate Russian economy

Business

Enrique Carrasco, Editor

As Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine goes on, various different countries across the world have decided to place sanctions on Russia, and oftentimes, refusing to do any business with anything Russian-related. Several companies, such as: Apple, ExxonMobil, Ford and many others, have decided to shut down all of their operations in Russia, something that has had detrimental effects on the Russian economy and the Ruble. 

According to various Kremlin officials, including spokesman Dmitry Pskov, “Russia’s economy is taking serious blows… But there is a certain margin of safety, there is potential, there are some plans, work is underway.”

Sberbank, Russia’s biggest lender, has decided to stop all operations within Europe, as various regulators and sanctions across Europe have caused depositors to withdraw all their money, in order to try and avoid the sanctions placed by the West on Russia. These sanctions only prove to be a bigger part of the response by the West in order to slow Putin’s plans of Ukraine’s invasion. Global experts have estimated that nearly $1 trillion of Russia’s assets have been frozen as a response to the invasion. As the invasion of Ukraine continues, so do the international sanctions placed on Russian businesses, banks and assets. Russian banks have been cut off from international trade, further tanking the economy and the price of the Ruble. At the time of writing this, the Russian ruble is valued at .0099 U.S dollars. That is to say, one Ruble is the equivalent to $.0099, less than a penny. Weeks ago, the Ruble was trading at $.013 per Ruble, a significant decrease in price. Experts have estimated that the Ruble has fallen by approximately 40 percent since the invasion started. In fact, the Ruble has gotten so low, that various other currencies are valued at a much higher price. Take for example, the “Robux.”Robux is an in-game currency for the kid’s game “Roblox. Robux, although having no use or value outside of the video game, is valued at approximately $.0125. One can buy 400 Robux for $4.99. This comes to show how decimated the Russian economy has become because of the invasion. Many experts believe that many more sanctions are to come to Russia if the invasion continues, and these sanctions will do anything but help the already struggling Russian economy.

Oil nears $100 a barrel amidst Russia-Ukraine tensions

Business

Jason Ryan, Staff

Header Image: Financial Times

On Monday evening, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered forces into two regions of Eastern Ukraine. The rising tensions have sent jitters through markets. Oil, natural-gas and agricultural prices rose as pressures threatened to disrupt flows of natural resources from Eastern Europe to world markets.

Russia was the largest supplier of natural gas and oil to the European Union last year, and one of the world’s largest producers of oil and natural gas, accounting for 17 percent of the world’s natural gas and 12 percent of its oil. These tensions are contributing to increases in oil prices.

Crude prices recently crossed $90 per barrel, representing an increase of more than 20 percent this year and a pickup of more than 80 percent since the beginning of 2021. These gains, however, can also be credited to other factors such as tight supply. For instance demand for oil has surged since the early pandemic lows. Production, however, has not kept pace.

Moreover, U.S. crude surged more than three percent at one point to a high of $96. The contract ended the session 1.4 percent higher at $92.35 per barrel. Brent traded as high as $99.50, before settling at $96.84 per barrel for a gain of 1.52 percent.

Wall Street’s benchmark S&P 500 ended the day down one percent to its lowest closing level since late 2021, led lower by energy and consumer discretionary stocks. The decline on Tuesday brought the index into a correction, or 10 percent below its recent peak in January. Surging oil prices will benefit oil producers, but those producers will raise costs for everyone else. This will certainly depress economic activity, as consumers and companies alike respond to higher prices by cutting back. Gasoline prices in the U.S. are averaging more than $3.50 a gallon, the highest average since 2014. If crude prices should rise higher, gasoline prices would almost certainly climb more.The biggest burden for Americans would fall on lower-income families, since they spend a larger percentage of their household budget on gasoline (American Council for Energy Efficient Economy). In addition, rising natural gas prices could raise electricity and home heating bills. The increasing costs for transportation, power and heat would all contribute to inflation, which is already at its highest rate in 40 years in the U.S., though there is debate about how long the impact would be. All and all, it is clear that any rise in oil prices will affect the world markets in a negative manner.