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1) Simon Tisdall, “Vladimir Putin’s ship of fools is sinking fast. Will he take everyone down with him?” The Telegraph, September 24, 2022 (13:36 EDT);
Simon Tisdall of The Telegaph has zeroed in on the existential core of the current Ukraine crisis, at the very end of his analysis of how Putin is like the Captain of the Titanic who doesn’t see the iceberg, but whose ship is going down.
What happened last week was not even mostly about Ukraine. It was about the future of Russia, the dangerous, desperate unravelling of its regime, and whether what follows will be more democratic, more law-abiding, less aggressive.
The Russian people, not the western powers or regional neighbours, will ultimately decide. But Putin’s reign of impunity is drawing to a close. Like the Titanic’s captain, vainly peering into the enveloping gloom, he just doesn’t know it yet.
Putin’s ship of fools is holed beneath the waterline. He’s going down. The question is, will he take everyone down with him?
Imagine Adolf Hitler in Putin’s place–One man with the power to destroy the world.
Indeed, as Tisdall writes,
“Putin’s ship of fools is holed beneath the waterline. He’s going down. The question is, will he take everyone down with him?”
In 2022, people in the West and other countries, including Russia, are in general not capable of looking directly at the possibility of nuclear war and potential nuclear annihilation.
1) “Ukraine War, July 12, 2022: “Cognitive occlusion”–Mental defenses against hard truths; Genocide in progress,” The Trenchant Observer, July 12, 2022.
2) Irving Yalom, Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the terror of death (2009).
As Irving Yalom writes in Staring at the Sun, people cannot stare directly at the possibility of their own deaths for very long. This also applies to staring at the possibility of one’s own death as a result of nuclear war.
Vladimir Putin appears to be subject to no external constraints, unlike the situation of Nikita Khrushev who during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 was subject to the authority of the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party.
As far as we know, Putin is not subject to any higher supervising authority.
In that regard, he is like Adolf Hitler at the end of World War II as defeat was closing in.
There is one important difference, however. Hitler faced total defeat and the collapse of his regime. Putin faces only relative defeat, the failure of a war of aggression outside of Russia proper.
He does not at present face the end of his regime.
Nonetheless, if reports of his having terminal cancer turned out to be true, and he faced imminent death or death in the short term, his situation would be more like that of Hitler.
If Hitler had had Russia’s nuclear arsenal (and the Allies had had theirs), would he have tried to blow up the world as he committed suicide in his bunker? Would German officers have refused his orders to launch nuclear missiles?
In a counter-factual hypothetical, of course, we can’t know the answer to that rhetorical question. But it can illuminate our thinking.
We cannot know if officers in the military command structure of Russia would execute an order from Putin to launch a nuclear weapon, or whether even if they initially refused to do so, they might be replaced by officers who would.
What should President Joe Biden do?
First, one step we have recommended is the formation of a “Nuclear Decision Advisory Group”. While the formation of such an advisory group was highly advisable in the past, it has become an urgent necessity now, after Putin’s latest escalation and as we move toward a nuclear showdown with Russia.
Biden’s foreign policy team does not have the competence or the capacity to face the current challenge without assistance. What is needed is something like the Executive Committee or “Ex-Comm” which Bobby Kennedy formed to advise president John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Nuclear Decisions Advisory Group
Biden should form a small “Nuclear Decisions Advisory Group” which would be involved in making any decisions to respond to the use of nuclear weapons. Biden should bring in a small group of 6-12 of the most seasoned current and former defense and diplomatic officials to become intimately involved in the taking of these decisions. People like Bob Gates and Leon Panetta.
The formation of such a “Nuclear Decisions Advisory Group” could go a long way toward disabusing Putin of any misperceptions he might have about Joe Biden and his foreign policy team, and the nature of the U.S. and NATO response to any use by him of nuclear weapons, even tactical nuclear weapons.
Second, the actual decisions that need to be made in the face of Putin’s nuclear threats raise extraordinarily difficult choices.
If the U.S. and NATO cave in to Putin’s nuclear threats, by limiting the types and quantity of munitions supplied to Ukraine or by trying to slow the advance of their forces in the Donbas and Kherson regions (e.g., by withholding intelligence), Putin will see that his nuclear threats have worked.
That will lead to more nuclear threats in Ukraine, and essentially mean the U.S. and the West will not act to enable Ukraine to defeat the invading Russian forces.
As Putin sees how effective his nuclear threats are, he can be expected to continue brandishing them.
If he actually uses a small nuclear weapon (a so-called tactical nuclear weapon) in Ukraine, NATO will either respond militarily, or it will not.
If it doesn’t, Putin will have every reason to believe that, under the cover of his nuclear threats, he could invade Lithuania or Poland (e.g., to establish a land bridge to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad) without provoking a NATO military response.
The fact that they are NATO countries would not change the underlying nuclear deterrence equation.
The one clear thing Biden needs to do, immediately, is to form a Nuclear Decisions Advisory Group as recommended above.
A Nuclear Decisions Advisory Group would serve two purposes
The formation of such a group would serve two purposes.
First, it would operate as an additional element of nuclear deterrence.
Putin has seen his nuclear threats work, first with Obama in 2014 when Joe Biden was vice-president working on Ukraine, and second, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
Moreover, he has witnessed the catastrophic withdrawal of all U.S. forces and contractors from Afghanistan, and had an opportunity to meet in person with Biden at a summit in June 2021–between the announcement of the withdrawal decision in April and its disastrous implementation.
Putin seems to believe that with his own nerves of steel he could beat Biden in a nuclear showdown.
The introduction of a Nuclear Decisions Advisory Group with such hardened veterans as Leon Panetta and Bob Gates would complicate his risk calculations, adding uncertainty regarding the response of the U.S. and NATO to any Russian use of a nuclear weapon.
Second, the formation of a Nuclear Decisions Advisory Group would strengthen the competence and capacity of Biden’s foreign policy team with regard to any nuclear events and decisions. It would provide a continuing sharp focus on the most dangerous element of the current confrontation with Russia.
The work of Bobby Kennedy’s Ex-Comm during the Cuban Missile Crisis should serve as a model.
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