If Putin goes nuclear
I don’t miss the Cold War, but apparently Russian President Vladimir Putin does. Either that, or he’s now clinically insane.
There aren’t a lot of other explanations for Putin’s nuclear chest-thumping in the past week or so. So far, it’s vintage Putin: swaggering braggadocio about Russia’s nuclear status that isn’t actually linked to a specific threat, but with enough dots to connect that any foreign observer can take his meaning. Like the mobster he is, Putin never directly threatens, but instead talks in circles, sort of the way a loan shark explains the many ways you could have an “accident” if you don’t pay up.
This isn’t as new as it looks. The Soviet and later Russian militaries have always been obsessed with nuclear weapons — yes, even more than the Americans — but mostly, in the last few decades, to compensate for the pitiful state of Russian conventional forces. Apparently, nuclear deterrence has now reverted back to Cold War dice-throwing.
(And by the way, I
took a raft of shit was subjected to serious academic criticism for saying in my first book two decades ago that unreconstructed “Sovietism” in the Russian Armed Forces was the biggest threat to post-Cold War peace. I would gladly take an apology from the scholar who led that attack back in the 90s, but he’s dead.)
So what, exactly is Putin on about? Let’s look at this seriously for a moment, as if Putin isn’t a gangster or a lunatic. Is there actually a strategic logic to the use of a nuclear weapon anywhere in this current crisis?
Russian commentator Andrei Piontkovsky thinks that Putin, at least, believes there is. As Paul Goble reports:
Clearly, [says Piontkovsky], Putin does not seek “the destruction of the hated United States,” a goal that he could achieve “only at the price of mutual suicide.” Instead, his goals are “significantly more modest: the maximum extension of the Russian World, the destruction of NATO, and the discrediting and humiliation of the US as the guarantor of the security of the West.”
To put it in simplest terms, Piontkovsky continues, Putin’s actions would be “revenge for the defeat of the USSR in the third (cold) world war just as the second world war was for Germany an attempt at revenge for defeat in the first.”
(To read Piontkovsky’s interview in Russian, go here.)
If Putin is the old-school Soviet thug I now think he is, then his notional plan will look something like this:
1. Provoke a crisis within the current crisis. There are rumors, for example, that the shootdown of MH17 was actually supposed to be the shootdown of a Russian airliner that could then be used as a pretext for invasion. That’s a little too clever for me, but imagine a sudden Russian lunge toward, say, Odessa, and the US and UK take the recent advice of Ben Judah in the New York Times and send troops to hold the airport there. Now we have exactly the NATO-Russia standoff for which Putin has been striving for months.
2. Get some Russian soldiers killed. Make sure it looks right on RT, preferably with Ukrainian soldiers using Western weapons. (Or better yet, with NATO soldiers returning fire on innocent Russian “peacekeepers” and “aid convoys” or whatever idiotic ruse Putin uses the next time.)
3. Use a nuclear weapon. NATO shatters as everyone west of Warsaw loses control of their bladders.
I’m not saying this is a good plan, but it might be the one Putin and his cronies are considering.
Of course, this is pure crazy talk on many levels.
First, I can’t figure out how even Putin thinks he secures the future of Russia by becoming the first nation since 1945 to use nuclear weapons. If the Russian president’s goal is to make the world forget about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, place a permanent stain on the word “Russia” for all time, and unite the entire planet against his still-poor, still-weak country, then he is not only unhinged, he’s just plain stupid.
There are other considerations, of course. Exactly what does Putin think he’s going to hit with nuclear weapons? A NATO base in Poland, perhaps? A UK submarine pen? A US ICBM base in Wyoming? This is one of those ideas that probably sounded good after that fourth vodka at 3 am in the Kremlin, hanging out with the boys and getting a shoulder rub from Alina Kabayeva.
Indeed, you can almost see it: jackets open, ties loosened, cigarette smoke hanging in the air, the clink of glasses, the generals and the spooks sitting around smugly talking about NATO having a collective pants-browning over the display of Russian nuclear might.
Unfortunately (for them) it’s not 1974. It doesn’t work that way. No matter how Putin’s team or his courtiers in the Russian media try to spin the story, the first use of a nuclear weapon is still the first use of a nuclear weapon. Russians, raised on the idea that only the bad guys would ever use nukes first, will know exactly what happened. And then they will wait for the cloud of fallout to hit them — as it will within a few days if the target is in European NATO.
And some of them — especially the smarter ones who are already trying to get the hell out of Russia — will wonder why their lives and futures are being sacrificed for the sake of the memory of a country that ceased to exist while they were still toddlers.
How any of this helps Russia is beyond me. Even if the exchange stops at one weapon — and I don’t think any U.S. President needs to retaliate by adding yet more poison to the planet, but that’s just me — Russia will forever be contained by the international community as the Worst Country In The World.
Of course, if Putin thinks the exchange will stop with one weapon, then he’s the most confident gambler since Hitler in 1936. (I’d also bet that the Chinese are probably rooting for Putin to get off the leash and go nuts, because it will allow them to finally get the stink of Mao Zedong’s crazy off of them and make it stick forever to Moscow.)
If the exchange doesn’t stop at one weapon, then the rest is irrelevant, and you and I will likely not be sitting here calmly reading and reflecting on international affairs.
Putin isn’t going to live forever, and after using a nuclear bomb his successors will have two choices: either revert to complete Soviet-like isolation and self-sufficiency in world that will forever hate Russia (and live off pickled herring and apple juice for another century) or abjectly throw the Russian Federation on the mercy of international opinion, and engage in prolonged atonement that would almost certainly require demilitarization of the Russian state and war crimes tribunals for the surviving leaders and generals.
I used to think the chance of any of this was about zero. But of course, that’s the problem with “about zero:” it’s not actually “zero.” Anything that’s not impossible has a finite chance of happening. Putin’s provocations might have only a million to one shot of producing a nuclear event, but if he tries those provocations a million times…well, you do the math. I keep waiting for cooler heads to prevail in Moscow and thought this might have reached some kind of resolution over the summer. But that was 2500 Ukrainian deaths — and one innocent airliner — ago.
Still, I’m used to Soviet…er, sorry….Russian leaders talking about nuclear weapons, and so I’m assuming this is business as usual, circa 1980. But the fact that Putin is willing to throw away Russia’s future for the sake of a Soviet past means that this crisis is not close to being over. It also means that there is no way to deal with this crisis through negotiation: if Putin is so locked in the past that he thinks he can make nuclear threats, he’s not likely to change course now.
I also worry about one more thing, on our side rather than theirs. Putin is taking huge risks based on the idea that Barack Obama is the weakest American president in modern history. The Kremlin has plenty of reason to think so, especially after the graceless powder we took in Syria a year ago. There is no question that President Obama is among the least, uh, decisive leaders the White House has had in a long time, but even weak Presidents can only be pushed so far.
I worry that Putin, like other Soviet — sorry again, Russian, I mean Russian — leaders thinks that America is as leader-centered as Russia is, and will not understand that at some point the American foreign policy establishment will create a response that will totally surprise the Kremlin. That’s how major wars get started, but it’s not clear that Putin knows this, or cares.
The article is posted on site TomNichols.net
The URL of the article is http://tomnichols.net/blog/2014/09/01/if-putin-goes-nuclear/