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


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.