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Let Me Turn You into Ashes

Russia, Novaya Gazeta

By Leonid Mlechin

Politicians, the military, journalists are boldly threatening the enemy with an incinerating blow. If we get used to such talk, it will no longer be hard to push the nuclear button.


Translated by Viktoria Lymar

Edited by Steven Stenzler


3 January 2017


The fear of weapons of mass destruction has disappeared. The world has returned to the old days, when a nuclear war was believed to be quite possible. What’s the danger in that?


“The threat of nuclear war, in our common opinion, is real,1 one outstanding Russian diplomat, former foreign minister Igor Ivanov, said at a meeting of the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe.

The general public has remained unaware of why President Putin at the time suggested that Igor Sergeyevich [Ivanov] switch his ministerial chair to the seat of secretary of the [Russian Federation] Security Council. Ivanov cleverly and carefully set up partnerships with key Western countries. During the years he headed the foreign policy administration, the country got along with the surrounding world and had the opportunity to develop successfully.

He had occupied an office in the [Foreign Ministry] skyscraper on Smolenskaya Square until the country’s foreign policy line changed.

The strategic partnership with the West was found unnecessary. As a result, we usher in the year 2017 encircled by enemies, and looking for a response to their evil machinations from morning to evening, while allocating increasingly more money for military programs.

The International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe has existed for ten years through the endeavors of its president Viatcheslav Kantor, philanthropist and prominent public figure. He has managed to unite the efforts of the world’s most respected experts in the field of nuclear non-proliferation, arms reduction and limitation -- ministers of defense and of foreign affairs, heads of international organizations, generals and academics. I don’t know of any other world-class organization, where the dangers facing us would be openly discussed at such a high level.

The president of the Luxembourg Forum, Viatcheslav Kantor, pointed out the frightening lack of progress in the talks between Russia and the U.S. on the reduction of nuclear weapons. Both countries are abrogating their mutual obligations to each other, which hasn’t happened for several decades. The absence of information on the opposition’s weaponry pushes both to exaggerate the strength and capabilities of the other side, while striving to build one’s own arsenal. And this is the avenue to an uncontrolled arms race and the loss of strategic stability.

Is It Feasible to Win a Nuclear War?

Mankind calmly welcomed the advent of the atomic bomb. The liberation of nuclear energy confirmed the universal belief in progress. It seemed that history, like a well-trained army, was on a march from a lower past to a higher and happier future. A few days after the nuclear bombardment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, The New York Times newspaper enthusiastically wrote: “The atomic bomb was perfected for war, but the knowledge which made it possible came out of … the deathless yearning to know and to use the gifts of nature for the common good. … This new knowledge … can bring to this earth not death but life, not tyranny and cruelty, but a divine freedom.”2

Nuclear tests appeared to be something mesmerizing, extravagant, and even amusing. A new, quite revealing, for those days, women’s swimsuit was named ‘Bikini’ -- after the atoll in the Pacific Ocean, where nuclear explosions thundered.

The Soviet military maintained that a new war would inevitably grow into a nuclear one. Is it possible to gain a victory in such a war? There existed different points of view in this respect.

Georgy Malenkov who succeeded the government after Stalin’s death, abandoned the prior ideas that war would play a good role -- by destroying world imperialism. On March 12, 1954, when speaking before the voters on the eve of elections to the Supreme Council, he said that a new world war ‘with the modern means of waging it means the destruction [death] of civilization.’3

His words became a welcome occasion for comrades who wanted to get rid of the opponent. Foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov pounced at Malenkov:

-- It is not about the ‘destruction of world civilization’ nor the ‘destruction of the human race’ that a communist must talk about, but instead, about [how] to prepare and mobilize all forces for the destruction of bourgeoisie.4 How can we really set up the expectation of the nations that in case of war, all are supposed to perish? Then why would we need to build socialism, why worry about tomorrow? Indeed, it would be better for everybody to stock up with coffins now.  

Nikita Khrushchev used to talk about the use of nuclear weapons as about something quite real. His son-in-law, chief editor of Izvestia [newspaper] Alexei Adjoubei recalled Khrushchev’s reception of the editors of West German newspapers. One of them asked: How many missiles are needed to destroy West Germany? Right away, Khrushchev called the General Staff. Having heard the answer, he said:

-- Seven pieces only.



The seminal work, “Military Strategy,” published under the editorship of the chief of General Staff Marshal Sokolovsky, held that a nuclear war can be won.

A privileged and influential class had taken shape in the country -- military industry leaders and the command of the armed forces. For them, the Cold War was the happiest time of life. They are needed! And they never get no for an answer!

At that time, the American military, as well as the Soviet one, considered a nuclear war possible. The commander of the U.S. Air Force SAC General Tommy Powers mocked scientists warning about the consequences of nuclear radiation for human gene pool:

-- No one has yet proven to me that two heads are worse than one.

General Powers was driven mad by the talk that if war bursts out, only military targets should be struck, while the civilian population must be spared.

-- To restrict ourselves? -- the General resented. -- Why are you so concerned about the preservation of their lives?! The task is to kill these sons of bitches. If at the end of the war, one Russian and two Americans remain, then we have won.

They Won’t Have Time to Make It to Safety

A special culture of the Cold War was born, when school kids were told how to run for their life in the event of a nuclear attack, and bomb shelters were built everywhere. That terrifying prospect did a tremendous job in our consciousness.

Nuclear weapons, in the shadow of which we had grown up, weren’t able to change us completely. Humankind did not lose the desire to survive. But people got scared of the bomb for real only when they realized that everyone can become its victim. In March 1969, the Fifteenth Directorate was created within the KGB with a single task: to save the lives of the country’s leadership in case of nuclear war.

But in the early 80s, it became clear that even the Politburo [Communist Party’s executive committee] members and their families wouldn’t make it to the bomb shelter in time.



The creators of the Soviet nuclear weapons -- academicians Yuli Khariton and Andrei Sakharov came to Brezhnev. He exclaimed: “Ah, bomb men [bomboviki] have come!”

Leonid Ilyich [Brezhnev] cheerfully told them that his father had regarded those who create new means of annihilation of people as the main villains, and used to say: these evildoers should be brought on a big hill for all to see, and hanged.

-- Now, -- Brezhnev noted, -- I myself am engaged in this black deed, just like you, and with a good purpose, too.

It is not in words, but in practice, that he tried to do everything possible to avoid a nuclear war breaking out. He made the military negotiate with the Americans limitations on the nuclear arms race. The generals opposed any limitations.

Deputy foreign minister Vladimir Semyonov told how he had set about negotiating on nuclear issues. Defense minister Marshal Grechko said in a Politburo meeting that the very idea of ​​an agreement with the Americans is criminal. And, having turned to the diplomat, he added:

-- If Semyonov is determined to agree on something, let him decide where he intends to stay -- at the Lubyanka [former KGB HQ and prison] or in the military detention [‘gauptvachta’] of the Moscow Military District.

The Marshal had no idea that something like that was pronounced in Washington, too. The U.S. military were saying that the U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, ‘plainly goes on the Soviets’ leash,’ the agreements achieved by him are ‘a farce, unfavorable to America,’ and as for himself, ‘Kissinger lost his mind.’

Generals are known to favor a reduction of a foreign army only.

Gorbachev and Reagan

When there is no trust between the great powers, nuclear weapons themselves beget danger at every whipstitch. War may flare up due to an accidental launch of a single rocket.

What is the head of state to do, when he or she is told that the other side has shot a rocket which is flying in the direction of their country? To give the order to counter strike? But what if it’s an accidental discharge? What if, on the contrary, it is a war?

In such a situation, the head of the state has only a few minutes to ponder over it.

The ability to instantly strike back is considered the major deterrent. Should you have time to fire your missiles before the enemy’s explode over your territory, then the enemy won’t get to celebrate.  Your adversary is going to be in just as much trouble as you.

Cases are known in the United States when real orders to unleash missiles were given by mistake during training sessions. In 1979, in the course of a training, the U.S. air defense system gave the alarm: the training assignment authentically simulated a Soviet nuclear attack. Something similar happened in 1983 in the Soviet Union, when a solar storm blinded early warning satellites, and there arose a situation of a massive American attack.

At a meeting of the Luxembourg Forum, William Perry recalled that just during the years when he was the defense secretary of the United States, his staff  managed to avert the threat of an accidental outbreak of war between our countries three times.

We were delivered from the fear of nuclear war by Mikhail Gorbachev. The Americans -- by President Ronald Reagan, who sincerely wished for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. His secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger would say:

-- This notion [that atom war is winnable] has no place in our strategy.5

The U.S. bet on a disarming strike on the Soviet nuclear arsenals by long-range precision-guided conventional weapons. This was the main threat to our [Russian] military. For so many years, [we’d] been creating huge arsenals of ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, capable of destroying the United States! Would the Americans be really able to easily bring them down in space, so that the long-standing efforts would turn to ashes?

A whole system of agreements was signed in the years of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. It seemed like the great powers ended the nuclear arms race, and we could breathe a sigh of relief.

You’re Allowed, but We Are Not?  

But the WMD non-proliferation system crumbles. No nuclear state is going to give up weapons of mass destruction. While newcomers are knocking at the door of the nuclear club. No one is invited here. All take their places on their own.

In 1968, the United States, the U.S.S.R, Britain, France and China, who granted entry tickets to the nuclear club to themselves by themselves, tried to consolidate their monopoly in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The meaning of the agreement is as follows: we have the right to nuclear weapons, the rest of the world -- does not. But they failed to maintain a monopoly. Four more countries have joined the nuclear club de facto -- India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea.

Many countries reproach the great powers: Why can you have nuclear weapons, but we cannot? North Korea has not been actually punished for its nuclear program. The world around has drawn its conclusions: the Koreans have a bomb, therefore, others are afraid to touch them. And it is necessary to provide oneself with a bomb asap. If nuclear fission starts all over the globe, a spontaneous chain reaction may begin sooner or later. Bomb owners, especially when talking of small countries, feuding with their neighbors, will want to put the weapon into action in a critical situation.

The Terrorists and the Bomb

In November 2007, two groups of armed men forced entry into a facility in South Africa, where hundreds of kilograms of enriched uranium are stored. They seized the control center, and shot an officer. And suddenly, they disappeared, not even trying to steal the uranium. A weird story. However, it shows that terrorists might get hold of nuclear materials.



Experts claim that it is enough to simply produce a small explosive device with enriched uranium: ‘In event of an explosion at a stadium during a popular soccer game, a hundred thousand spectators will receive a lethal dose of radiation.’ One of the scariest scenarios: Terrorists take control of a nuclear power plant. If they disable the reactor core cooling system, the radiation will melt down the protective shield, and deadly radioactive radiation will spill into the atmosphere.

Des Browne, recent British defense secretary, stated at the Luxembourg forum:

-- [T]here is weapons-grade material, and then there are other radiological materials which cannot be exploded in the same way as highly enriched uranium and plutonium can be, but if they are dispersed, certain of these materials would have an effect on the environment in which they are dispersed, that would essentially mean that these environments would be a danger to people’s health. [...] So, it’s known what these materials are, and it’s known where they are, and they are used for peaceful purposes particularly, and they are used in irradiating blood and treatments of certain diseases, and in managing blood transfusions. So, they are dispersed quite widely in medical environments… there is significant intelligence that suggests that terrorists throughout the world know these materials exist and where they exist, and the efforts have been made to try and get these materials. So, for example, when ISIS took over the city of Mosul, they said that they had removed the cesium from blood irradiators in hospitals in the city of Mosul… [T]he fact that they said that reveals that they know the degree of terror that they can generate if they have this in their possession.6

The Militarization of Consciousness

But the main danger -- it’s the confrontation between Russia and the United States. In our country [Russia], the previous way of thinking has gotten the upper hand -- hostility toward the outside world, instinctive striving to hide from the latter behind a stockade of nukes, and search for enemies, internal and external alike.


Kantor acknowledged at the Luxembourg forum:

-- Militarization of consciousness is in progress. Especially among the youths, among those who are interested in the arms race. Disarmament is a despised word for the establishment. Many politicians do not realize that a single use of a nuclear weapon would be a worldwide disaster. The prediction of a nuclear winter has been also forgotten -- that is, the destruction of all life, even of those who will survive the nuclear exchange.

Academician Alexei Arbatov cited a terrible figure: one billion (!) people will die in the event of a nuclear war between Pakistan and India. Billion!

Des Browne, former defense secretary:

-- The current generation of world leaders are simply poor judges of these issues. And these people lead great countries! The British Prime Minister said that the country is ready, under certain circumstances, to reconsider the approach to nuclear weapons. To put it differently, confidence has emerged once again, that nuclear weapons keep the peace. They have forgotten that it is a destabilizing weapons system, and its application will put the period on the history of humankind.7

Academician Arbatov:

-- The inventories of nuclear weapons decreased for over a quarter of a century, and this has led to an unexpected psychological effect. The understanding that there are no winners in a nuclear war is gone. Note that none of the world leaders speaks out this formulation. On the contrary, what’s being discussed is the modernization of nuclear weapons, which affects the behavior of the military and the mindset of society.

Igor Ivanov:

-- Trust in politics is only formed through a common business. You see, President George Bush Jr. and Vladimir Putin at the time signed a treaty that we are strategic partners! And look where we have departed... Marshal Akhromeyev wrote that the General Staff arrived at the conclusion about the impossibility of using nuclear weapons. We’ve forgotten about that, too! Once again, we have shifted away from the principle of no-first-use of nuclear weapons. But indeed, this formula was introduced to [our] military doctrine... You can’t build security based on the use of nuclear weapons. The culture of dialogue has been lost. Gone are the experts who know how to negotiate, diplomats who were doing this for decades. There are no professional negotiators left. They need to be taught again. While disarmament is a special matter that requires serious training, as well as talent.


* * *

A new Cold War is underway. Whereas we have already partially forgotten how to live under conditions of wartime. All that mankind realized over the last decades, has been crossed out. For the younger generation of politicians, who saw war only on a computer screen, nuclear weapons are not something dreadful, capable of ruining everything, but just a big bomb. People are likely to come out soon who will be passionately convincing us that we will prevail in a limited nuclear war, and that our men8 are strong enough in spirit to get back on their feet.

The International Luxembourg Forum, Viatcheslav Kantor told, intends to ask the two presidents -- Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump -- to answer the key questions: what else can be done in order to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, prevent accidental missile launches, and terrorists laying their hands on nuclear materials or manufacturing a ‘dirty bomb’?

And perhaps, the need to answer these questions may become a convenient motive for both presidents to meet?






1. Quotes have been verified wherever possible. Igor Ivanov’s, and other Russian speakers’ words in English are missing from the press conference transcripts:;

2.  Boyer, P. (1994). By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. The University of North Carolina Press. p.122.  

3. English references could be found at, e.g., (pp. 11, 41)

4. English references could be found at, e.g.,



7. The quote cannot be verified; translated as is.

8. Allusion to the ‘New Soviet man’ and his successors, and the like (often used in singular in Russian, including ‘our man’).


Original Russian article:

Позвольте превратить вас в пепел


Image credit: Novaya Gazeta [Russian: ‘New Newspaper’] &

AFP/The 4th Media: Iconic image of a leading Russian anchor, Dmitry Kiselyov, announcing on his weekly news show on state-controlled Rossiya 1 channel: “Russia is the only country in the world realistically capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash.” The big caption on the background reads: ‘Into radioactive ash.’ [The incendiary comment was made on April 7, 2014, at the height of tensions over the Crimea referendum.]

RIA Novosti: Atomic bomb ‘Fat Man’ equivalent to 21 kilotons of TNT. Such one was dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima.


The Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center: Three bombs in the Nuclear Weapons Museum in Sarov:

1. H-bomb – 1953 (Sakharov-Ginzburg “Sloika – LiDochka”).

2. Soviet original A-bomb – 1951,  two times less in size and two times more powerful than Fat Man (Lev Altshuler, Yevgeny Zababakhin, Yakov Zel’dovich, Konstantin Krupnikov).

3. First Soviet A-bomb – 1949 (exact copy of the American Fat Man thrown on Nagasaki).


Phil Rutherford Consulting: Pelindaba Nuclear Research Center, Pretoria, South Africa. 


A-Z Quotes

Ъ [Kommersant]/TASS. The U.S.S.R. started nuclear tests at the Semipalatinsk test site, October 21, 1971.


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