I recently watched Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster biopic, Oppenheimer, shortly after reading the biography that inspired it, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s definitive American Prometheus. It was a harrowing reminder that humanity remains trapped on a nuclear precipice, with no answer to the issues of war and peace that Oppenheimer knew mankind would have to master if it hoped to survive his terrible creation.
It was a haunting experience, particularly in light of what is the most fraught moment in world affairs since the United States and the Soviet Union clashed over the discovery of nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba in 1962. This became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, 13 terrifying days in which Moscow and Washington came within inches of unleashing a world-ending nuclear cataclysm, before finally backing down, and negotiating an end to the crisis.
In some ways, though, the war in Ukraine is far more perilous, and will be even more difficult to resolve than the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was finally ended through delicate back channel discussions. It’s quite difficult to imagine a similar process of negotiation ending the war in Ukraine.
Indeed, it is already the largest and deadliest conflict since World War Two, and the danger of nuclear escalation has hovered over this war from the outset, particularly as Russia’s once-vaunted conventional military fell flat on its face in the first stages of the invasion. Vladimir Putin and his propaganda mouthpieces have made this nuclear threat repeatedly and explicitly, even as the Russian military revealed its weakness and strategic ineptitude to the entire world.
What Putin and his cronies meant by all this posturing was crystal clear: the Russian military might be dysfunctional, disorganized, and barely competent, but its massive stockpile of nuclear weapons have no such problems. If you don’t let us destroy and subjugate Ukraine, you create the risk of a nuclear apocalypse. It’s a terrifyingly simple formula, amounting to nuclear blackmail to protect Moscow’s right to brutally invade a foreign country without interference from the West. This has kept American soldiers off the battlefield, but hasn’t prevented Washington and her NATO allies from arming Ukraine to the teeth, albeit gradually.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has taken practical steps to reinforce the notion that its crazed rhetoric is more than just empty bluster. The Kremlin recently announced that it had moved an unknown number of tactical nuclear weapons into neighboring Belarus, under the loving care of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, putting Russian nukes closer both to Ukraine and NATO territory.
Of course, Russia already has plenty of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) within Russia itself, a fleet of nuclear-armed submarines, and long range nuclear-capable bombers, all of which can target any point on earth, a legacy of the Soviet Union’s arms race with the United States. These weapons have been modernized and refurbished, and brand new delivery systems innovated, like hypersonic weapons, capable of evading even the most advanced air defense systems.
In other words, the transfer of nuclear weapons into Belarus was likely more of a political statement about the Kremlin’s desire for the collective West, and specifically Washington, to take its nuclear threats more seriously. After 17 months of empty threats and vitriol, many analysts in the West have come to assume that Putin’s threats are hollow.
That is a risky assumption.
Incendiary rhetoric about nuclear weapons continues to spew forth from the mouths of Putin’s lackeys and lieutenants. Former president and deputy secretary of the Security Council Dmitry Medvedev routinely warns of World War Three, and said “the apocalypse isn’t just possible but quite likely,” among other things, and other prominent Russians have joined in this morbid chorus to warn of a nuclear armageddon should Russia lose its war in Ukraine.
Likewise, Russian state television is fixated on nuclear war, and routinely broadcasts threats to incinerate London, Warsaw, and Washington. If nothing else, the Russian population is being desensitized to the idea of nuclear war, more than thirty years after the end of the Cold War.
Foreign policy expert and adviser Sergei Karaganov recently wrote a rabid brief advising the Kremlin to ramp up its nuclear threats, and “restore the fear of nuclear escalation.” If this didn’t deter the West from arming Ukraine, he advised the Kremlin to simply nuke Poland. “If we build the right strategy of intimidation and even the use of it, the risk of a retaliatory nuclear or any other strike on our territory could be reduced to a minimum.”
Karaganov averred that no sane American president would trade Boston for Poznan, a ghastly formula. While several prominent Russians immediately and forcefully came out against this unhinged white paper, saying it was a danger to humanity writ large, Dmitry Trenin, a respected Russian foreign policy expert, warned that the belief in the West that Putin is merely bluffing about using nuclear weapons “is an extremely dangerous delusion.”
Indeed, it is. With one man in control of Russia’s nuclear warheads, someone who’s already shown himself capable of the worst kind of strategic miscalculation, and an incredible capacity for genocidal violence, there’s every reason to fear he might eventually reach for his nukes.
A pattern of escalation
Russia is locked in a ferocious, but ill conceived and badly mismanaged, war of aggression on its Western border, fighting against a determined underdog democracy that is now almost entirely funded and armed by Washington and her NATO allies. There’s vanishingly little room for negotiation or compromise, with both sides regularly upping the ante, in what is becoming a civilizational struggle between an aggressive autocracy attempting to subjugate its neighbor by force, and a nascent democracy, struggling to survive the onslaught.
The only constant has been a grim cycle of mutual escalation of hostilities, as Russia destroys cities and slaughters civilians, and the Western world arms Ukraine with some of its most advanced and sophisticated weapons, but stays out of the actual fight. Thus far, Russian forces have committed countless war crimes, and the Western world has responded first in horror, and then mounting outrage. At this point, 17 months in, the U.S. and her allies have provided Kyiv with a stunning array of weapon systems: main battle tanks, Patriot air defense systems, HIMARS guided missiles, artillery, drones, armored personnel carriers, and countless rounds of ammunition to fire those weapons.
Moreover, the U.S. has supplied invaluable targeting intelligence to Kyiv. The blurry line between direct combatant and ally is increasingly tenuous.
Thus, this has become something of a proxy war on Moscow’s Western border, and is what Putin describes as an existential battle for the survival of Russia itself. In reality, the war is existential only for himself and his murderous regime, which is barely hanging on, following the Wagner mutiny that easily captured the city of Rostov-on-Don and marched unhindered 2/3rd of the way toward Moscow, before suddenly stopping, and turning back. This stunning episode left Putin politically wounded, but very much still in power, a dangerous combination.
All of this leaves the world in an incredibly precarious situation, with a weakened dictator sitting atop a mountain of nuclear weapons, engaged in a war of aggression he can’t win, but also can’t be seen to lose. Putin initially overestimated his military’s strength, and he made a fatal miscalculation that he could break Ukraine quickly, and with little cost.
He was dead wrong. And yet, the Russian army remains unbroken, and continues to hold onto about 18 percent of Ukrainian territory, even in the face of a concerted Ukrainian counteroffensive, armed with Western weapons, and which is just picking up serious steam. Policymakers in the West have been optimistic that Kyiv will eventually succeed in throwing the Russians back, but there’s been relatively small gains, and little discussion about what comes after that. Negotiations aren’t even on the table, as of now, leaving humanity at an impasse.
A strategic debacle
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been a strategic debacle for Russia, costing the lives of at least 50,000 young Russian soldiers, in a very conservative estimate, and hundreds of thousands of casualties through injuries, to say nothing of the tens of thousands of dead and maimed Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. Cities have been obliterated and families permanently torn apart. For this incredible butcher’s bill, the Kremlin has succeeded only in achieving humiliation and human catastrophe on a grand scale.
CIA Director William J Burns put it succinctly in a recent speech:
Putin’s war has already been a strategic failure for Russia — its military weaknesses laid bare; its economy badly damaged for years to come; its future as a junior partner and economic colony of China being shaped by Putin’s mistakes; its revanchist ambitions blunted by a NATO which has only grown bigger and stronger.
And yet, Ukraine’s summertime counteroffensive has thus far shown the staying power of the lumbering Russian army, after many long months of defensive preparations, and what remains Russia’s advantage in weapons and manpower, despite the West’s massive investment in Ukraine. The Russian army is dug in deep. Indeed, the Russian military might be riddled with corruption, suffering from poor morale, and lacking a coherent mission, but they remain formidable foes on the battlefield.
It will take everything the Ukrainians have to break through the endless minefields, trenches, armor, and earthworks that make up the Russian lines, and a repeat of earlier disintegrations at Kharkiv and elsewhere seems unlikely, for now. Ukraine’s summertime offensive is proving to be a slow and bloody slog, and there’s little evidence there will be a major breakthrough anytime soon.
Meanwhile, all sides continue to escalate. Russia recently bombed the Kakhovka dam, setting in motion an epic humanitarian catastrophe that flooded much of southern Ukraine. The Kremlin also pulled out of the Black Sea Grain deal in an attempt to weaponize global food supplies, following the bombing of the Kerch Strait Bridge, as attacks against targets inside occupied Crimea and Russia itself increase in both scale and frequency. Drones routinely bomb Moscow, and Russia shot down several Ukrainian missiles near Taganrog, resulting in several deaths.
Pilots are being trained on F-16 fighter jets, which are on the way to being delivered to Ukraine, in what the Kremlin says is the crossing of a major red line. Regardless, the White House says they’ll be in the skies over Ukraine toward the end of this year.
In other words, the pattern is of escalation meeting escalation. This war is a product of grave miscalculation and fantastical thinking by Vladimir Putin, who believed Ukraine didn’t exist, and that his military could quickly and decisively absorb what he considers to be a satellite of Russia. When this proved impossible, he revised his theory of the war, saying it was an existential clash with the democratic West.
While this is a fallacy, it seems Putin is given to believing his own lying propaganda. He’s trapped in a botched imperial adventure, a war of choice he unleashed, entirely unprovoked, and what Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the paramilitary Wagner Group that recently marched nearly to Moscow, called a “racket.” As Prigozhin noted in videos watched by many millions of Russians on Telegram, the war is based on lies, on false pretexts.
Nevertheless, the war continues. Russian soldiers and officers aren’t laying down their weapons, and leaders in the Kremlin seem intent on fighting on to the bitter end.
“Now I Am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.”
J. Robert Oppenheimer understood that humanity simply could not afford to wage aggressive wars with massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, that ultimately this would lead to the end of our civilization, and possibly life on planet earth. His fears were clearly justified.
As if to broadcast the Kremlin’s suicidal strategy, Putin’s forces recently bombed targets just across the river from Romania, within spitting distance of a NATO ally. It appears the Kremlin has a mounting appetite for widening the war, particularly after Putin survived a mutiny at home. With only one delusional dictator controlling Russia’s massive arsenal of nuclear weapons, humanity is at grave risk, and will remain imperiled, until this war concludes.
The longer it continues, the greater the danger of it spinning entirely out of control. As if the war in Ukraine wasn’t sufficiently perilous, a bellicose North Korea is firing ballistic missiles into the sea near Japan, and issuing regular threats to use its nuclear arsenal. Likewise, Beijing is rapidly modernizing and expanding its own nuclear stockpile, as it contemplates aggressive moves in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. And Pyongyang and Beijing are both staunch allies of a revisionist Moscow, demonstrated by Vladimir Putin thanking North Korea for its “firm support” in a speech yesterday, in what amounts to a formidable anti-Western authoritarian alliance.
Oppenheimer tried, and failed, to get two successive American administrations to pursue nuclear arms control talks with the Soviets, to avoid a costly and dangerous arms race. He tried to prevent the development of hydrogen bombs, world ending weapons that are many thousands of times stronger than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For this, he was hounded out of government, stripped of his security clearance, and accused of being a communist spy.
The father of the American atomic bomb once described the U.S. and the Soviet Union as being like two scorpions trapped in a bottle, capable of destroying each other, but only at the risk of destroying themselves. It’s a powerful and unnerving metaphor, and I wonder how he might describe this current geopolitical moment. Perhaps it’s so chaotic and dangerous as to defy simple analogies.
Perhaps it’s like a pile of writhing scorpions, trapped in that same bottle, already slick with blood, and trying desperately not to kill themselves. Whatever the metaphor one chooses, it certainly feels tenuous, as humanity attempts to navigate what seems to be a narrow path, indeed.