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questioning assumptions

Reader comment on item: Take Vladimir Putin's Nuclear Threats Seriously

Submitted by David (United States), May 8, 2022 at 19:02

I've heard this expressed elsewhere. I suppose that yes, we should consider the prospect that Putin is serious about a nuclear war. After all, the stakes are enormously serious. If we err in dismissing the possibility, we will pay dearly. I would still suspect that, for all the talk, Russia would be very unlikely to go down this route. It would be, after all, considerably suicidal. I understand that Russia has very advanced air defense systems, and that greater Moscow for example, has a considerable infrastructure of bunkers. But recent incursions into Russian airspace on the part of Ukraine, serve as a counter-point to the idea that the territory of the Russian Federation is impenetrable. The use of nuclear weapons by Russia would almost certainly, therefore, result in a nuclear attack on Russian soil in response, and whether this does or does not bother the Premier, it will bother others in the Kremlin.

A point that I take issue with is the characterization of Putin as a Soviet man. I think there's validity to the argument that he is, shall we say, flexible in his ideology. For many years he articulated a philosophy and a view of Russia's place in the world, that is much more in line with the White Russians than the Red. He famously stated that he "didn't believe in the system" in the old days of the USSR. However roughly two years ago, he made an interesting statement to the opposite effect, suggesting that he never destroyed his membership card in the Communist Party, and that it was for a reason.

Nonetheless, although I think he basically operates within a framework of situational ethics, his ideas tend quite consistently to follow the thinking of Russian imperialists instead of Communists. Most prominently, his conception of Russia's borders, according to his ideal, which would include Belarus, Ukraine, and perhaps northern Kazakhstan. A very similar conception of the proper borders of the Russian state, was articulated by Alexandr Solzenitsyn shortly before his death, in an interview that grouped the author's father along with Brezinski and a few others, as people who were failing to understand the new Russian national ethos. Even many of Putin's specific grievances about Ukraine, echo the arguments of Solzenitsyn in that interview. That it was being transformed into an "anti-Russia," that in the very least, it should return the provinces in the far East of its borders, that it received following admission to the USSR and that it did not hold before that time, and especially the Crimea and the Sevastapol within it. Solzenitsyn was many things, and not a perfect man. I don't think he would endorse tyranny, but he certainly wasn't a Communist.

To make a long story short, I think it is possible to conceptualize that a non-Communist in Russia, may find common ground with Putin's publicly stated rationale for the war, and it is probably useful, on an intellectual level, to recognize as much. As for nuclear war, over the past two months or so of this conflict, Russia has taken several escalatory steps on a ladder toward such a prospect. That is certainly the message they have telegraphed, for example by specifically targeting Western supplied weapons depots in Lvov, with a hypersonic missile. There's a very specific reason why Russia deployed a hypersonic.

Having said all this, regardless of the nuclear threat, I do question the Western rationale of insisting that none of the Ukrainian border should be negotiable. Yes, it maintains the 1945 "world order." I question how much order is preserved by that nostrum. And also what is inherently just about it. Taking territory by pure force has no moral legitimacy in itself. But there also doesn't seem to be anything inherently holy about a particular configuration of borders. Perhaps the most morally justifiable position is to allow both nations to stake their competing claims on those questions and try to come to mutual terms, rather than face the alternative of total war or total surrender. Even if nuclear weapons are not involved at all.


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