OBSERVATION | 1999-03-06

The United States is nearer a nuclear war today than it has been since the Cuban Crisis of 1962.

Russia today is somewhat like Japan in 1941. Back then, the Japanese Army was actually operating on its own. We tend to think of Imperial Japan as a centralized dictatorship, like Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. But, in actual fact, the Japanese Army was fighting in China and taking other actions on its own. To a large extent, the Army dragged Japan into its increasing confrontation with the United States.

That piece of history is important to us today. We are dealing with a Russia that still has nuclear power, but it is no longer Soviet Russia, where the central government is in absolute control. Yeltsin is old and sick, and his government is not in real control of its nuclear weapons.

Russia is humiliated and its generals are furious. Our attacks on Serbia, which Russians regard as a fellow Slavic state being humiliated by the United States, has infuriated even Yeltsin. One can only imagine how upset the Russian military men are. Yeltsin has actually threatened the US over Serbia. This is a first for him, one which has been largely ignored here.

This brings up another factor which makes this situation especially serious.

That is the fact that we took the USSR seriously, but we do not take Russia seriously. That could lead us to take steps which would lead into nuclear war, steps we would never have taken in the face of Soviet threats.

Before anyone reassures themselves that Russian nukes are not what they used to be, remember that we have no defense at all against missiles. Russian has numerous missiles for each American target. They may be slow, many may be inaccurate, but there is no defense against them.

The horror and revolutions and slaughter that constitute the history of the twentieth century began at Sarajevo. Sarajevo was in what was then Serbia and later became part of Yugoslavia. In 1914, an Archduke was shot there, and all of Europe got into the act and World War I began. Serbia, and later Yugoslavia, were part of the Balkans, the southeastern part of Europe, east of Italy. The Balkans is an area all sane people know not to get into.

Now the United States is in there.

This century could end in a nuclear massacre springing from the same stupidity, and in the same place.