Russian troops stand guard outside a Ukrainian military base. Photo: Getty Images
ACCORDING to the best estimates, there are about 17,300 nuclear warheads held by eight countries around the world today.
While this is large enough to destroy the world, it's a big improvement from the height of the Cold War when there were about 70,000 warheads and the world came perilously close to annihilation. But if some politicians - such as former US vice-president Dick Cheney - get their way, tensions over Ukraine will take us back to the 1960s and a world constantly on edge.
It is only in recent years that we have learned how close we came to nuclear war. At the height of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, American destroyers located a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine, B-59, in international waters approaching Cuba.
Policing a blockade, the destroyers began dropping depth charges to force the submarine to the surface. On board the submarine, the three officers authorised to launch a nuclear torpedo had no way of knowing whether World War III had begun. They argued over whether to launch a nuclear weapon to blast a ship out of the water. One of the officers, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, opposed the launch; without unanimous agreement it did not go ahead. Thanks to Arkhipov and a level-headed President John F. Kennedy, nuclear war was averted.
Thirty years later, the Cold War ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But some US politicians either aren't over the Cold War or can't wait to take us back there.
Leading the charge is Cheney. Interviewed on US television, he criticised President Barack Obama for taking Ukrainian options off the table. Queried about which options were missing, he said the administration had said no to the military option.
He claimed such options did not involve putting troops on the ground in Crimea. ''We could go back and reinstate the ballistic missile defence program … we could do training exercises in Poland … we can offer military assistance in terms of equipment, training, and so forth, to the Ukrainians themselves.''
More ballistic missiles! US military training! There are echoes of the past here.
Remember how the US got into the Vietnam War? A few military advisers here, a little training there and before we knew it half a million troops were on the ground.
It is ludicrous to think of the US escalating the military situation in the Ukraine, as all sane European Union leaders know.
Other suggestions to come from the genius who gave us the Iraq war and its lies were that the US should conduct joint military exercises with its NATO friends close to the Russian border and that it should offer equipment and training to the Ukrainian military.
But before Australia rushes to join a US taskforce, as our Coalition leaders are so wont to do, it might well pay to take a look at the region from a Russian perspective.
Russians have fought and died to hold Crimea for hundreds of years. In the Crimean War they confronted the Ottoman Turks, British and French forces. Eighty years later Germany and its Axis allies invaded. In the Crimean offensive of April-May 1944, an estimated 17,754 Russians were killed or went missing, and another 67,065 were wounded. The Crimean campaign saw Sevastopol hold out against the invaders for 250 days.
With that sort of history, does anyone imagine any Russian president ignoring ethnic Russian calls for Crimean reunification with the motherland?
When former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave the peninsula to Ukraine in 1954 no one saw it leaving the homeland. It was only when the Soviet Union broke up and Crimea stayed in Ukraine that the issue arose.
Crimean Russians' concern would have grown when the Russian-leaning President Viktor Yanukovych was deposed this year as a result of protests supported by groups which included right-wing anti-Russian extremists.
Who then is surprised that Russian forces have moved into the Russian-majority peninsula to control it and its key Russian naval port of Sevastopol?
By many accounts Yanukovych and his government were corrupt and had lost the support of the majority of the Ukrainian population. But frequently when coups like this occur, Western governments condemn the coup leaders and call for the restoration of the old order.
Because big bear Russia was involved and they could not get over their Cold War upbringing, Western leaders did not adopt this line in the case of Ukraine.
Russia was the old enemy and even if it is now a capitalist state, it still must be contained.
Confronted with a similar situation on its border, the US would do exactly the same as Russia has done. Americans thought nothing of invading Grenada in 1983 to end a coup that the US felt threatened its interests. And of course in 2003, based on lies and misinformation, the US orchestrated the invasion of Iraq - an invasion that is still costing thousands of lives every year.
After the Ukrainian coup the Crimean parliament voted to become part of Russia. To legitimise this state, a referendum is scheduled for this weekend.
In response, Cold War warriors have argued that Crimea cannot break away without the endorsement of the Ukrainian state as a whole. Where was this argument when Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia?
The reality is that Crimea is going to be integrated into Russia and the sooner the West accepts this the better. No European country is going to go to war to stop it and thankfully the Obama administration is not proposing military action either.
As to sanctions, they will hurt European countries every bit as much as Russia. Europe has enough economic problems of its own, without taking on that additional burden.