It seems bizarre that the fate of the world might hinge on this question, on the psychological state of one man, but this is where we are.
We are told that a NATO secured ‘no fly’ zone over Ukraine is not possible, because it might trigger World War III, and ultimately Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) with an exchange of strategic nuclear weapons.
We know that nuclear weapons do not prevent terrorism, civil wars or conventional ones, and ‘great power’ proxy wars have been a scourge on the world since 1945.
Near misses between nuclear powers have been far more frequent than many realise. As Sasan Aglani states:
“A recent Chatham House report documents 13 instances between 1962 and 2002 where nuclear weapons were almost inadvertently used due to miscalculation, miscommunication, or technical errors. What prevented their use on many of these occasions was the ‘human judgement factor’ – intervention of individuals who, based on prudent assessment of situations and against protocol, either refused to authorise a nuclear strike or relay information that would likely have led to the use of nuclear weapons.”
And in the latest moment of high risk, NATO’s nuclear weapons haven’t restrained Putin; far from it.
In a sense, they have enabled him.
Nuclear deterrence is usually described in the simplistic terms parroted by politicians, and as the UK’s Ministry of Defence describes:
“Potential aggressors know that the costs of attacking the UK, or our NATO allies, could far outweigh any benefit the could hope to achieve”.
But this was the obsolete MAD strategy of the 1950s, not the more complex picture that emerged from the 1960s onwards: flexible response.
Both US and Russian military strategists were unhappy with a nuclear force that was literally incredible. They needed some way to make MAD credible, that is, to make nuclear weapons usable.
The answer was a ladder of response: the threat of battlefield nuclear weapons would cause an opposing large conventional force to think again. If that failed to deter, then medium range nuclear weapons would do the trick. The ultimate ‘deterrent’ would be strategic intercontinental multiple warhead missiles.
But this is the kind of theoretical scheme dreamt up by wonks in think tanks. It can be tested in war games but not in practice, and certainly not with Putin in the room, playing the game.
It takes no account of accidents, miscalculation or, dare I say, one mad man who refuses to act logically.
If Putin ordered a battlefield nuclear weapon attack on a Ukrainian city that refused to submit, what would NATO do then?
Would Putin go this far, risking that “it might trigger World War III”?
He seems to like taking risks, crossing red lines and getting away with it.
Each time, the world tutted, and looked away, even though the plan was already pretty clear. His intentions towards Ukraine have hardly been a secret. He has given many speeches on the state of the west (which have enamered him to the religious far right in the west), and the need to rebuild a greater Russia.
He clearly wants to undermine western democracies and any countries in Russia’s orbit aspiring to join them.
Putin has always been testing, probing, and seeing what lines can be crossed.
Is Putin mad?
The problem for the west is that he only needs to appear to be mad to get away with it, and so far he’s doing a pretty good job at that.
We must hope against hope for China to restrain him, for a palace revolt, or anything to restrain his worst impulses.
And when we are through this, in however many years it takes, we must finally stop this irrational belief that nuclear weapons make us secure, and make us safer.
Post-Putin, the world will have been warned again of its folly in trusting in these genocidal weapons.
We must all work towards their total eradication.
Richard W. Erskine, 2nd March 2022.
A little background …
During the 1980s I was research co-ordinator for SANA (Scientists Against Nuclear Arms) and on their National Coordinating Committee. It became SGR (Scientists for Global Responsibility) and remains very active, with many great reports and research on nuclear weapons, non-military research careers, climate change, and much more. SGR’s work on nuclear weapons contributed to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), who went on to win the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
Please visit SGR’s website and donate towards their important work.
This essay is a personal piece with a personal viewpoint, as I am just an ordinary member of SGR these days, but I continue to support their great work.