New phase in Ukraine war fuels instability of global capitalism

A building and car lay destroyed in rubble in Kharkiv, 30 May 2022 (Photo: Chase Baker/Wikimedia Commons)

The following is a statement by the International Secretariat of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) on the new phase in the Ukraine war; a conflict that is partly a result of the intense tensions between world capitalist powers, and which, in turn, is greatly adding to the instability of global capitalism.

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World capitalism is now faced with an intensified series of multiple crises – economic, social, geopolitical, and environmental. A highly unstable and polarised situation now exists globally and in practically all countries. Capitalism is in a protracted death agony stumbling from one crisis to the next. There is an upturn in the class struggle in many countries alongside a socially and politically explosive situation. A deepening economic crisis is unfolding. The decision of Saudi Arabia and OPEC+ to cut oil production will add to the tensions and divisions which exist. Wars continue to rage in Ethiopia, Yemen, and elsewhere, At the same time, the bloody war in Ukraine has escalated and entered a new more intense stage which has in hours and days had military, political and geo-political repercussions in Ukraine, Russia, and internationally.

The cost of living crisis has hit workers and the poor in almost all countries provoking strikes and protests in Britain, France, the US, and other countries. This is taking place alongside a worsening of the outlook economically for global capitalism. The political instability that grips even the main imperialist powers is reflected in France where Macron has been compelled to partially retreat from his plan to raise the retirement age. This was followed by the spectacular U-turn and political crisis of the new Truss government in Britain. The depth of the crisis there points to the possibility of the Tories facing a historic existential crisis at the next election. The impact of the crisis in Britain can spill over to the world economy because of the size of the economy and its dependence on the finance sector and trigger an international financial crisis. The US remains a highly polarised country where an explosive situation exists reflecting the decline of US imperialism. It is central to the class struggle internationally.

On a world scale, a highly polarised situation exists. This is reflected in the electoral successes of the “left” – albeit of a diluted pink left variety – in Latina America on the one hand. The massive protests in Iran are extremely significant. On the other hand so is the electoral growth of the populist and far right in Sweden, Italy, and Norway together with the strong showing by Bolsonaro in the first round of the Brazilian elections. The large middle class and very downtrodden layers of the urban poor in Brazil and some other countries can provide a certain social base for far-right forces like Bolsonaro where no mass socialist alternative exists. The absence of mass workers’ parties and a radical socialist left is resulting in the crisis unfolding in a very protracted form with features of revolution and counter-revolution present globally.

The vacuum and crisis of leadership of the working class have been reflected in the mass uprisings in Sri Lanka, Sudan, Iraq, and previously in Chile and other countries which have failed to find a way forward. The impasse which followed these movements has often allowed the right-wing bourgeois forces to regroup and reconsolidate their rule but on an extremely unstable basis which points towards further social explosions. The underlying factors which led to these uprisings have not been resolved and are likely to worsen in the coming period. The ongoing struggle between features of revolution and counter-revolution is assuming an increasingly bitter and sharp character. As is the devastating economic, social and environmental crisis that is ripping through Asia and Africa.

It is against this background that a significant escalation of the war in Ukraine has taken place. This will have a dramatic impact on the world situation and the class struggle.

Battlefield set-backs

The Ukraine war has entered a bloodier phase full of dangers to Ukraine, Russia, and internationally. The desperate, dramatic about-turn by Putin, to announce the mobilisation of 300,000 reserves, coupled with his renewed threat to use nuclear weapons should Russian territory be threatened indicates the seriousness of this new stage in the war. This was followed by the announcement of “referendums” in four provinces – Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia – and their annexation into the Russian Federation “forever”.

This constitutes the largest attempted seizure of land by a foreign power in Europe since the end of the Second World War. An area roughly the size of Portugal or Serbia – amounting to 15% of Ukrainian territory. This represents a major escalation of the conflict. It has been accompanied by Ukraine declaring it will not enter into peace negotiations with Russia while Putin remains President and applying for accelerated membership of NATO.

The western imperialist powers responded by increasing sanctions and refusing to recognise the annexed territories as part of Russia. The UN Security Council voted to condemn the annexations but was vetoed by Russia. Significantly, China, India, Brazil, and Gabon abstained. It seems unlikely that western imperialism will accept Ukraine into NATO membership, but if they do it will provoke a further dangerous escalation in the conflict.

During the war, the population of the four provinces substantially declined. It is unclear what the sentiment of the population in these areas is toward joining the Russian Federation. The peoples of these areas have a democratic right to decide for themselves what status they want – to be part of Ukraine, Russia, autonomous areas, or independent. However, this cannot be determined democratically under the bayonets of the Russian or Ukrainian military.

Putin’s announcement of partial mobilisation of the population initially triggered small but significant protests in many Russian cities which were brutally repressed. Call-up papers were handed out to some of the protestors as a punishment and intimidation to deter further protests. According to some reports, in reality, up to one million are going to be enlisted. This is the first time the population has been mobilised into the military since the end of the Second World War.

This dramatic change in the situation will starkly bring home to the mass of the Russian population the reality of the war which many have probably tried to blank from their consciousness as until now, in the main, they have not been directly affected by it. The mobilisation is a big gamble for Putin. As it has been enforced hundreds of thousands have attempted to flee the country to avoid being drawn into the conflict. Flights out of Russia are packed and the cost of tickets has rocketed. Thousands queued at the frontiers with Kazakhstan, Finland, Georgia and other countries desperate to flee the country and avoid going to fight in the war. Although carried out on an individual basis this does represent an act of mass civil disobedience and is an important harbinger to shifting moods in the Russian population.

Putin’s about-turn on a partial mobilisation followed the significant advances on the northeastern battlefront of the war and the apparent routing of Russian forces in the Kharkiv region. In a matter of days, the Ukraine military advanced 8 to 9,000 square km. This followed a period of glacial advances of only 1 to 2 km at a time by Russian forces. Russian forces seemed to be taken by surprise by the attack. According to some reports, Russian commanders ignored intelligence warnings that this offensive was being planned. This defeat in eastern Ukraine has now been compounded by the humiliating withdrawal of Russian forces from Lyman, in Donetsk, which has now been occupied by Ukrainian forces – part of the territories annexed by Putin only 24 hours earlier. This latest defeat is of strategic importance and constitutes another blow to the Russian military. These defeats on the battlefield have now been compounded by the explosion on the Kerch Bridge linking Crimea to Russia. This is a crucial supply line for Russian forces. It is a further humiliation for Putin and was a prestige infrastructure project opened by him when he boasted it could never be attacked, being defended by missiles and even militarily trained dolphins! Russia has now hit back with a series of missile attacks across Ukraine in a further escalation of the war.

In war, the significance of seizing land depends not on the size of the area taken. On occasions, the seizure of vast areas can be of little importance. On others, the seizure of small areas can have a major impact. It depends on the strategic significance of the area concerned and what effect it has on the contending armies involved. The consequences of the offensive in the Kharkiv region were major. It was a big blow to the prestige and standing of the Russian army and Putin’s regime. It has also boosted the confidence and morale of the Ukraine military. Militarily it has damaged the supply lines to the Russian military forces in the area. Putin was put on the back foot by this withdrawal.

The defeat of the Russian army in this area has punctured the perceived invincibility of the Russian state. It has enraged Putin’s embattled regime and driven it to take drastic measures in an attempt to hit back. The military victory on this front arose partly from the high morale of the Ukraine forces mirrored by the low morale of the Russian forces. The morale of contending armies is crucial in warfare. Napoleon argued that in war “three quarters of victory is down to morale, and only one-quarter to the balance of military forces.” Ukraine advances also revealed that the modern artillery supplied by the west is beginning to be effective when deployed against older and less effective Russian weaponry. An even more prolonged war will sap morale even further as the body bags pile up and the economic and social situation worsens.

At the same time, the battle in the south around Kherson is proving to be a much bloodier and more difficult terrain for Ukrainian forces which have also launched an offensive there. Russian forces there were better prepared for an assault and fortifications were much stronger. Russia is determined to hold this area of Ukraine because it guards the Crimean Peninsula. Here Ukraine’s forces do not appear to have sufficient artillery backup to be used before a ground offensive. As a result, Ukraine is suffering greater casualties from artillery attacks. However, it now appears that even in this area Ukraine forces have managed to break through the front line around Kherson in what is being claimed as one of the most rapid advances in the war. Russia now does not have full control of any of the annexed provinces. It has less territory under its control now than it did after the first week of the war.

It is unlikely that the successes of Ukraine in the north-east will result in an immediate victory for Ukraine or an end to the war. Neither is it certain that these Ukraine victories can be sustained. However, it poses the possibility that unless the situation is reversed Russia could eventually be faced with defeat. This possibility, or disintegration of the Russian military, is increasing as the war develops. A sign of the turbulence inside the Russian command structure is the sacking of the head of the western command, Col Gen Alexander Zhuravlyov. Sergei Surovkin has been appointed overall commander in chief of the Ukraine battlefront. He has a ruthless reputation for the brutal tactics he deployed in the war in Syria in 2017. A collapse, or further partial collapse, of the Russian forces, cannot be ruled out. This would have existential consequences for Putin and possibly his mafia regime. It is the threat of a rout that is now determining Putin’s response.

Rising tensions

The Ukraine regime and some of the western imperialist powers want to use the recent military victory as a basis to try to drive on and eject Russia from the whole of Ukraine, of which it currently occupies less than twenty percent. Some, including Zelensky, have raised the issue of driving Russia entirely from Ukraine, including Crimea. Retaking Crimea would be a far more difficult objective for Ukraine. Crimea is the base for Russian reserve forces, ammunition, and hardware. There was undoubtedly an important base of support in Crimea for its re-incorporation into the Russian Federation in 2014. The consciousness there today is uncertain. However, a complicating factor for Ukraine is that an estimated 500,000 to 800,000 Russians have moved into the peninsula since 2014. A bloody, brutal struggle would be necessary for Ukraine to re-occupy it.

The enforcement of the mobilisation in Russia has triggered the flight of hundreds of thousands from the country, mainly of the middle class who can afford to leave. The call-up has been enforced but with major problems in many areas.  A layer of the population undoubtedly accepts it, however, reluctantly. Significant layers of the population still see it as their “patriotic duty”. This substantial layer of the population undoubtedly exists at this stage, especially outside the main urban centres, and will rally to the call to “defend the motherland from western aggression”. The Putin regime is conducting a massive propaganda campaign that the western powers are set on attacking and weakening Russia. His speech declaring annexation was a denunciation of western imperialism’s hypocrisy, aimed at whipping-up Russian chauvinism.

Putin’s attacks on western imperialism’s historic role in India, the slaughter of the indigenous people of the Americas, the plunder of Africa, and wars against China will resonate in some of the neo-colonial world. As will his point that the US has already used atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and thereby “set a precedent”. At the same time he hysterically attacked the west as “Satan”, and he stridently defended “traditional” family values in an appeal to more conservative reactionary elements. This is part of the regime’s propaganda for an escalation of the conflict. The apparent sabotage of the Nord Stream gas supply pipeline seems likely to be a part of this strategy although both sides accuse the other of carrying this out. There are tensions and clashes in the EU and Balkans over gas, sanctions, etc. In some central European and Balkan countries, there are signs of widespread opposition to sanctions on Russia.

At the same time opposition to the war is growing and will continue to do so should it drag on into an even more protracted, bloodier conflict. The exclusion of university students from the call-up reflects the fears of the regime.

The continuation of a protracted, bloody war, with little prospect of a victory, will eventually lead to a big change in consciousness and the development of massive opposition to Putin and his war. How long this takes to develop will be tested as events rapidly unfold. Yet Putin has taken a big gamble by going down this route and will have hastened its development.

Following Russia’s invasion, and its failure to secure a decisive outright victory, the leaders of western imperialism prosecuted the war with the aim to weaken Russia. Enormous amounts of advanced weaponry have been sent to Ukraine, costing many billions of dollars, and Nato countries are reportedly providing Ukraine with close military advice and support. Since 2014, the western powers have played a key role in modernising the Ukraine army.

Some of the western powers want to use it to try and carry through regime change in Moscow, leading to the downfall of Putin’s regime. However, the western imperialist leaders do not have a uniform position on this. Some fear that what would replace Putin could be even worse.

Putin has faced criticism from hard-line Russian nationalists who support the war but want it prosecuted more determinedly. The military defeat suffered by Russia in Kharkiv and elsewhere has strengthened their hand and driven Putin to undertake these new measures with more to follow. Previously he had avoided calling up the reserve for fear of it provoking more opposition to the war. Now he has little choice but to attempt to strike back.

A change in war objectives of Putin was forced on his regime earlier because of the failure to take the capital Kyiv and occupy the whole of Ukraine. The regime was compelled to abandon its original objective of taking Kyiv and the whole of Ukraine and fall back on continuing the war to control the eastern provinces and the Donbas forming a corridor to Crimea.

This is now his main war objective and even this is in jeopardy. The call-up of at least 300,000 reserves was with this in mind. However, militarily, the call-up is likely to only have a limited effect and may backfire on Putin. It will take months to train and deploy these new forces. According to some reports, the Russian state does not have enough officers to train the existing conscripts and new recruits to the army let alone an influx of 300,000. Even when deployed, the reluctance to be conscripted into a bloody military conflict will further undermine the morale of many or most of these new Russian forces. As the old British military adage says one volunteer is worth one hundred pressed men!

In Crimea, the regime is targeting the Tartar people for the draft as a form of national oppression. Other ethnic groups such as in Dagestan have also been targeted which has provoked turmoil. These do not point to a reliable war machine being welded together as a result of the call-up.

The Ukraine military is likely to try and use the coming weeks, prior to the onset of winter, to secure further advances and consolidate what they have already captured. The annexation of the four provinces into the Russian Federation as Putin has made explicitly clear means that any attack on them by Ukraine forces will be regarded as an attack on the Russian Federation which will be defended by any means necessary! Although he has yet to respond to the fall of Lyman, this falls into this category.

Nuclear escalation?

In this situation an embattled Putin, if confronted with an existential threat to his regime, could strike out in an unpredictable, desperate manner, including the possible use of a tactical nuclear weapon or other weapons of mass destruction as he has already threatened. Russia has an estimated 2,000 such “small” nuclear weapons.

The possibility of Putin resorting to the use of such a weapon or other weapons of mass destruction has increased as a result of the military setbacks suffered by his regime and could increase further should the Russian army face further defeats or begin to disintegrate. His threats to use them, although far from a certainty, together with the possibility of a nuclear explosion at the Zaporizhia power facility, are serious. He has raised them in all likelihood as a tactic to try and constrain western imperialism. Yet the threat of him trying to turn these threats into a reality is a serious one.

It is possible that Russia could detonate a weapon over the sea or other uninhabited areas as a warning. However, even this would run the risk of some form of retaliation.

The vice-chair of Putin’s Security Council, Dmitri Medvedev, argues that should Russia use a nuclear weapon NATO and the west would not respond with a nuclear warhead or intervene directly in Ukraine. How the west responds to such an attack partly depends on what Putin may attempt to do. However, a nuclear response is very unlikely.

Having threatened to use them and then not doing so could further weaken Putin as his bluff is called. At the same time, Putin would be under pressure from China and other regimes sympathetic to Russia not to go down this road. Whether the elite squads controlling such weapons would be reliable for Putin would be tested during events but the working class cannot rely on this to prevent a weapon of this kind from being used. The seriousness of this threat illustrates the new era that world capitalism is now in.

The character of the state machine Putin has constructed – an extreme autocratic mafia state – means that the checks and balances which existed in a different historic era do not exist to the extent they did before.  This process has or will develop in other authoritarian Bonapartist regimes. The danger can also emerge in other conflicts elsewhere that will erupt in the era of permanent capitalist crisis and conflict in which we live today. Nonetheless, at some stage, we could see splits opening up in Putin’s regime and some form of palace coup could take place as a section of the state and the ruling elite act to remove Putin because of the damage and threat he is causing to their interests.

This does not mean an all-out nuclear war, which would destroy humankind, is posed. But the use of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction is now a heightened possibility in the coming period. If one is used by Putin or another regime, then it will change the character of modern warfare compared to what it has been in the post-1945 era.

Putin may calculate that the threat to use such a weapon may terrorise Ukraine into conceding the east to Russia and be a warning to western imperialism. However, this is not likely to be the case. It is unlikely to end the war. Putin would need to calculate whether going down this road would further his interests in Ukraine, Russia, and internationally. However, as we have seen in the conduct of the war he could also miscalculate the situation. The west would be compelled to hit back in some way although not necessarily using a nuclear weapon which is very unlikely. Mainly because of the reaction this would provoke amongst the population and also because of the danger of an escalation.

War is not simply a question of logic. Neither is it just driven by short-term economic gain or interests. In war, the questions of power, prestige, and strategic interests are critical factors. This is especially the case for a Bonapartist regime facing an existential crisis.

The use of a nuclear weapon would be certain to trigger mass protests and demonstrations demanding peace and an end to the conflict in Europe, the US, and elsewhere, including Russia. It would weaken, not strengthen, the support base of Putin’s regime. In some areas of the neo-colonial world, a more mixed reaction is possible due to the hostility towards US and western imperialism which could be blamed for the escalation.

This has already been seen in some countries. Imran Khan, in Pakistan, prior to his overthrow reflected this. The denunciation of western hypocrisy in relation to the Ukraine war by South Africa at the UN General assembly also illustrated this.

The bourgeoisie in the west would intervene in, and even initiate such protests, donning the mantle of ‘defenders of democracy against the tyrannical Putin’. The ‘left’ and most of the trade union leaders in most countries in such a situation would in all likelihood fail to advocate an independent class position which socialists and the CWI would need to do. However, US imperialism and the other Western powers would not be able to use such a movement as a basis for a counter-attack on Russian cities. The movements would probably be dominated by a horror of war and the threat of nuclear war and demands for peace.

Geopolitical consequences

The war in Ukraine has already had major repercussions in world geo-political relations. The resurgent military clash between Azerbaijan and Armenia in part reflects this. As do the brief clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Eurasia is now far less stable as Russia is now perceived to have been weakened.

The complications facing Putin in Ukraine have also led Xi and the Chinese regime, and Modi in India, to raise “doubts” about what is taking place in Ukraine. Both have distanced themselves from Russia. Yet they cannot support western imperialism and Ukraine. A defeat of Russia would not be a positive outcome for the Chinese regime despite the hesitations and doubts it harbors regarding Russia’s role in the war. Chinese/Russian collaboration as a block against western imperialism, as with all of the emerging blocks, is unstable. China has its own interests, both economic and geopolitical. Although China was always the dominant partner in relations with Russia, Putin’s setbacks in the recent period have strengthened China’s hand further. Some conflict of interest within Eurasia between Russia and China is likely as the area becomes more and more unstable.

As the Ukraine war has assumed centre stage this year US imperialism has also heightened tensions with China. The trend of decoupling the US economy from China has been increased by Biden through the introduction of more and more trade restrictions. The latest was to boost scrutiny of cross-border deals in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and biotechnology. There is a clear intent to try to weaken supply chains and financial markets from Chinese influence. It is a struggle to control the supply chains and future technologies. However, how far this process can go is unclear. A complete break with the Chinese economy, its supply chains, and its role as a crucial assembly hub would be disastrous for US capitalism.

These economic trends, reflecting the growing conflict of interests between a rising China and declining US imperialism, are echoed by the growing military build-up in the South China Seas by both China and US and western imperialism. China has equipped at least three of the islands it has built in the disputed area of the South China Sea and recently staged military drills, in practice for an invasion of Taiwan in response to the provocative visit by the US House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. The potential for a military conflict in the area has been heightened in the recent period and is implicit at a certain stage in the continuing clash of interests between state capitalist China and the US and western imperialism. Whether it occurs is uncertain and not pre-ordained. However, the risk is present in the situation.

Some commentators have recently argued that China has reached the apex of its growth and potential development. Yet this is not certain. Even if this does prove to be the case it does not reduce the possibility of some military conflict erupting between the US and China, possibly over Taiwan or elsewhere. In some respects, stagnation or decline in China could make it more likely to divert attention from a domestic crisis. Xi could whip up Chinese nationalism and launch an adventure to reincorporate Taiwan into China. How US imperialism would react to such a development is not certain but it would clearly have decisive consequences on world relations and global capitalism.

China faces a huge debt crisis. The slowdown in the economy is apparent and hitting big sections of the population. Up to 20% of young people are unemployed. There is a growing crisis in the massive property bubble that exists. The property market accounts for an estimated 20-30% of the Chinese GDP. House prices have tumbled in China. Add to this the significant protests against COVID lockdowns that have been imposed and the ingredients for the regime to be confronted with a social and political crisis are all present.

Xi has established a more repressive and centralised regime than has existed previously with power concentrated in his hands. One of his central objectives is reincorporating Taiwan back into China. The forthcoming 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is set to appoint Xi for the third term as party leader, in reality for life,  after he abolished the two-term limit in 2014.  His “ideology” is now that of the party. This has been coupled with increased centralisation and state intervention in the economy. A series of jailings of a clique of senior security officials for “corruption”, including the former vice-minister of public security, Sun Lijun, and former justice minister, Fu Zhenghua, together with the police chiefs of Shanghai, Chongqing, and Shaxi are very significant, taking place in the run-up to the party congress.

It seems possible that the faction of the bureaucracy around Xi has acted to repress sections of the elite that have become too “independent” and can act as a possible opposition to Xi’s faction, his regime, and policy. Some of the bureaucracy may wish to check the greater concentration of power in Xi’s hands and want a more “collective” leadership. This was a process in the former USSR, under Khrushchev, following Stalin’s death. In reaction to all power being concentrated in Stalin’s hands a more “collective” check was present amongst the leading echelons of the CPSU. Amidst these recent events in China, unfounded rumours of a military coup and Xi being placed under house arrest circulated, which possibly indicate that some form of power struggle was beginning to take place in the run-up to the party congress. Even if this was not the case recently it indicates what could develop within the Chinese regime at a certain stage involving a more pro-capitalist, less centralised wing in opposition to the more centralised, authoritarian regime Xi has imposed.

The question of democratic demands is, and will, assume crucial importance in the impending upheavals in China. For workers, the poor, and the young urban, highly educated middle class, this is especially the case. Sections of the ruling elite and capitalist class, opposed to Xi, can in future clashes present themselves as “democrats” appealing to the very large, young middle class, on issues related to democratic rights on social media, LGBTQ rights, and other issues. At the same time Xi, or other party factions, can win support by demagogically denouncing corruption and the “super rich” elite.

Facing mounting opposition at home, and growing social and economic problems, it is not excluded that Xi could strike out and provoke an international crisis over Taiwan and attempt to reincorporate it back into China. This would have massive international consequences. For Xi, this is a key political question and objective which has been of central importance to him even before he became a central and dominant figure in the leadership.  China, like global capitalism, is faced with the prospect of big social upheavals and potentially powerful struggles by the largest industrial working class in the world which will have a big impact on the working class internationally.

The war in Ukraine epitomises the era that world capitalism is now in. It is part of the global crisis that capitalism is in economically, in geo-political relations, and socially. Wars are inherent to capitalism as rival ruling classes compete for influence and power. How the war in Ukraine will be “concluded” is uncertain. A peace deal at this stage is extremely difficult for either side to accept. It is possible that Russia could be defeated, leading to the removal of Putin and possibly his regime. Alternatively, the war could drag on in an even more protracted form with enormous political consequences, especially in Russia.  Even with some kind of formal cease-fire deal the underlying conflict will not be resolved but will continue in one form or another. Even a defeat of Russia will not mean an end to greater Russian chauvinism amongst layers of the population that will be expressed in clashes, especially in areas with a large ethnic Russian population.

Only by the Russian and Ukrainian peoples taking power into their own hands, removing the oligarchs and the political regimes which exist, will it be possible to resolve the crisis and threat of war. The withdrawal of Russian troops, the democratic rights of all peoples to self-determination in all areas, and the establishment of democratic governments of working people that end capitalism and establish the basis to build a democratic socialist alternative is the only way to resolve the crisis in the interests of the peoples of Ukraine and the Russian Federation.

The clash between US and western capitalism with China is the decisive issue in the geo-political situation which is unfolding. At the same time, the war in Ukraine and the crisis unfolding in Russia epitomise the new era that capitalism finds itself in. The protracted death agony of capitalism is posing in a sharper way each day the need to resolve the crisis of leadership of the working class and the urgent necessity of rebuilding workers’ parties with a revolutionary socialist programme to break with capitalism. No other road will avert further wars, the threat of the use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, bloody conflict, and the suffering of humankind.

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