GELFAND’S WORLD - When you read about the history of the Cold War, the existence of nuclear weapons is the second major issue.
Back in the days immediately after the defeat of Germany, there was concern that the Russian armies holding eastern Europe were a continuing threat to the west. Depending on who you read, the worries ranged from border skirmishes to the Russian juggernaut conquering everything out to the Atlantic coast of Europe. As the stalemate continued, one additional factor came into being. By the early to middle 1950s, both sides were armed with hydrogen bombs and were racing to build unstoppable delivery systems. At a certain point it became possible that either side could blow the other to smithereens, and the world was locked into the concept -- and accepted doctrine -- of Mutual Assured Destruction.
MAD for short.
Baked into this doctrine was the idea that nuclear weapons should never be used in any war, because the result would be the death of much of the human population of the whole world. Somebody even figured out that the explosion of a relatively modest number of hydrogen bombs would cause something called Nuclear Winter. In brief, the dust thrown up into the upper atmosphere would block enough of the sun's rays that the surface of the earth would be cooled to a death dealing degree.
Why is all of this relevant to the current situation which is, at the moment, a relatively small land war in eastern Europe?
The answer should be obvious, but does not appear to be getting the play that it deserves. Under the MAD doctrine, the threat of the use of nuclear weapons is only to be used as a deterrent to somebody else's use of nuclear weapons. It has to be made clear to -- let's say Tehran -- that if they use a nuclear weapon against somebody they don't like, the next target will be Tehran itself, and it will be turned into a glass-paved parking lot.
In brief, it is out of bounds to threaten the use of nuclear weapons to gain any objective at all other than the final existential defense of your own people and territory.
But suddenly, Russia has violated the MAD doctrine by pointedly referring to its possession of nuclear arms as part of its early-on threats to Ukraine and the governments friendly to Ukraine. The threat was a bit vague, but it seemed to be aimed at the Ukrainians should they mount an effective defense as well as at friendly governments who might arm Ukraine or join with Ukraine to fight the Russians directly.
Putin crossed a very important line in that threat -- however vaguely and implicitly -- to use his possession of nuclear weapons in the move to take back a territory that once was a part of the Soviet Union.
There is one other small point that bears mentioning. At the time in history when hydrogen bombs were built to ride on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and to destroy whole cities, there was another invention. In modern parlance, they are called battlefield nuclear weapons. They were built to be smaller in explosive force and physically smaller too. They could be loaded into artillery shells or cruise missiles or, it is claimed, even into a suitcase. Battlefield nuclear weapons don't do the kind of damage that the blockbusters would do, but they are considered to go beyond the line of conventional weapons usage.
It is conjectured that the use of battlefield nuclear weapons by any side would lead to an escalating use of nuclear weapons and ultimately to a WWIII that could be the end of the world. Putin used that threat to make it easier to fight a conventional war.
By that simple threat, Russia has already turned the Ukraine invasion into a mini version of World War III. It's curious that there has not been much talk of this fact, but there it is. Ukraine's friends, including the United States and its NATO allies, are being restrained from coming to Ukraine's aid directly because they perceive a danger of getting into a real shooting war leading to a nuclear war with a Russian Federation led by somebody who is acting as a crazy man.
What are the logical conclusions to be drawn and the resultant necessary strategy?
I would suggest that the conclusion is obvious: Through whatever steps we can take that do not lead to nuclear warfare, we have to render the Russian threat gone for good. And this means that the end-game is also obvious. Russia must rid itself of its dictatorship and become a democratic country which enjoys security through its closeness to the west, not through its ability to destroy us in a rain of fire.
Is this just wishful thinking or is it a possibility?
I would argue that the endpoint is a distinct possibility if only the countries of the world continue the sanctions they have already executed and add the further sanctions that are in the planning stages. The main requirement is that the sanctions continue for at least five years and possibly even ten, and that the Russian economy be demolished during that period of time.
Isn't this a punishment of the Russian people as a whole, and isn't the current war actually the fault of at most a few men and possibly just one?
Well, yes and no. We can sympathize with the common Russian, but we have to keep up the pressure if we want the modern world to be one of peace and security rather than a return to 1955. To do that, we have to convince the Russians -- all of them -- that there are terrible dangers in allowing a dictatorship to run their country. The main message to the Russian people has to be that Russia will continue to be a pariah state, cut off from the western economy, and rendered little more than feudal in its consumer comforts. It will be back to the old days of Soviet Russia for them until they can show convincingly that they are no longer a threat to the rest of us.
What if Putin goes full-on mad man and starts the big war?
There are a couple of answers to this. The first is that no single person is entirely in control of any country at any time. As lots of others have pointed out, even a narrow oligarchy requires the administrative services of an inner circle as well as increasingly wide circles of people who execute the policies handed down to them from above. Hitler had a lot of support at all levels. Stalin and Mao likewise had to rely on large numbers of people to carry out their policies. The historian Barbara Tuchman made clear in several books that even hereditary monarchs typically enjoyed authority that was diluted among several others, and the advisers were often sensitive to the question of whether the masses would or would not revolt in the face of another tax increase.
I don't think we really know how diluted Putin's power is or will be in the near future. What we do know from history and common sense is that parents will oppose dictators when their children’s' lives are being taken or are at risk. Likewise, when large parts of a country's population have to endure privation, they are not going to do their best to turn it into the Paris of eastern Europe.
The widespread suffering that will accompany an economic depression that would be worse than our own Great Depression will concentrate the minds of the masses. For Putin or his successors, it would be hard to maintain a modern, effective war machine when the workers are engaging in passive resistance and slow production down to a trickle.
But finally, suppose that Putin really has all the power and can do whatever he wants. In that case, we already have the sort of problem that could lead to the worst case scenario. But the fact that we are able to impose the current sanctions -- already remarkably severe -- and threaten to impose even worse sanctions, suggests that this is not really the case.
It is an unhappy thought, but our policy should be to squeeze the Russians at all levels, from oligarch to commoners, until the whole country has accepted the lesson that political freedom is not only a blessing, it is what they need if they ever want to come out of their newly found medieval times. They need to learn that dictatorships are dangerous not only to their freedoms but to their creature comforts.
It would be amusing if it weren't so tragic that Donald Trump and his slavish followers have been praising and defending Putin for so long. There is a rumor that the Russian government is telling its own propaganda outlets to replay material from Fox News, particularly comments made by Tucker Carlson. Our people have to be reminded that Trump did everything he could to weaken NATO, with the obvious intent of eventually pulling the US out of the alliance in order to destroy it. That of course is what Putin wanted. Trump did his best to insult the other European leaders even as he took Putin's side when it came to a question regarding the merit of American intelligence. Americans have every right to enjoy some of what Trump did domestically, but at what point will they also concede that the man was a traitor to our national interests?
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)