Will Putin nuke London?
We are bizarrely one-tracked in our historical memory. Anything we dislike is compared to the Nazis. So, when Vladimir Putin actually invaded a neighbor, he was inevitably likened to Adolf Hitler.
But we don’t have to look far to find an apter parallel.
In September 1939, Stalin seized the eastern half of Poland. Unlike his Nazi allies, who simply absorbed the territory they wanted, Stalin made the conquered population vote in sham elections. Two congresses were established in eastern Poland — one supposedly representing ethnic Belarusians, the other ethnic Ukrainians. These two assemblies immediately petitioned to join, respectively, the Belarusian and Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republics. Stalin graciously consented, and the sham congresses promptly dissolved themselves.
Putin is following Stalin’s playbook, right down to the hammer-and-sickle flags being hoisted in the towns his troops occupy. Four Ukrainian regions are now being made to vote on integration with Russia. There is, however, an important difference. Six months into the war, Stalin was starting to turn things around. Putin, in contrast, is losing badly.
Just before the invasion, the impassive tyrant released a video in which he humiliated the head of his foreign intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin. When the terrified spy chief was asked whether Russia should recognize the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk republics, he stammered that they might be admitted into the Russian Federation, only for Putin to snap: “We’re not talking about that.”
Well, he’s certainly talking about it now. The formal annexation of four Ukrainian regions will allow Putin to claim that Russian territory is being attacked, justifying both the deployment of conscripts and, conceivably, a nuclear response.
Neither option would serve any military purpose. The draft has pushed thousands more Russians into protest or emigration, but it is of no practical value. Russia already does not have enough weapons for its regulars. What is it going to give 300,000 reluctant conscripts? World War Two-era T-34s? And what will be the economic impact of diverting so many young men from productive work?
The nuclear option (how extraordinary to use that phrase literally after all these decades) is even harder to justify militarily. On Wednesday, Putin sent one of his propagandists, former MP Sergei Markov, onto the BBC to threaten a nuclear strike “against Great Britain.” Russia, Markov said, would not use battlefield nuclear weapons but would go straight to ICBMs: “Ukrainians are our brothers, but Ukraine is occupied by Western countries who make a proxy army from Ukrainians. It’s Western countries fighting against the Russian army using Ukrainian soldiers as their slaves.”
It is far from clear how attacking the West would stop Ukraine from fighting and, indeed, winning. Even if the strike failed — we presumably have spies and double-agents, cyberdefenses, interdiction mechanisms, space-based shields — it would mean the end of Putin. The international community would stop at nothing to convict a man who attempts global annihilation. Putin’s name would displace Hitler’s as shorthand for evil.
Even during the depths of the Cold War, there was a well-understood no-first-strike convention. Until last week, Russia was clear that nuclear weapons were a final resort, to be used only in the face of an existential threat.
True, Putin expressed that doctrine with unsettling glee. “If someone decides to annihilate Russia, we have the legal right to retaliate,” he told an interviewer in 2018. “Yes, it will be a catastrophe for humanity and for the world, but we will ascend to heaven as martyrs, while they will just croak before they know what hit them.” On another occasion, he asked, “What use to us is a world without Russia?”
But no one outside the fantasies of some pro-Kremlin TV presenters thinks that the West is threatening Russia with destruction. NATO troops have meticulously stayed away from Ukraine. Hence Putin’s deliberate widening of the nuclear doctrine. Russia, he says, will go nuclear to preserve its territorial integrity. In theory, that means he might retaliate against the West if Ukraine recovers any of its lost lands.
It is possible, I suppose, that Putin has lost his wits and will pull the world down rather than face defeat. It is even conceivable that he might get away with it — that is to say, that there is no posse of sane Russians ready to stop him from pressing the button, that his nuclear rockets system will work better than any of his conventional weapons, and that the West’s defenses will fail.
But does it not seem more plausible that we are dealing with a tawdry, frightened dictator who realizes that he has made a terrible blunder, can see no way out of it, and is playing for time as defeat closes in?