AN ISSUE OVERDUE for discussion involves Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks that had Russia been confronted militarily over its annexation of Crimea or its mischief in Ukraine, it was ready to use nuclear weapons; now, Russia threatens nuclear attacks on Denmark if it aligns more closely with NATO. These brash declarations may be bluster, but the only wise conclusion to draw is that Putin is capable, literally, of anything.
One of the issues I alluded to a week ago that I would have to come back to when time permitted has, in fact, returned on its own, and whilst tonight’s article is big on links for further reading, I’m going to keep the commentary portion of it fairly succinct: clearly this is something that isn’t going to go away, and it seems certain we’ll be talking about Vladimir Putin and his thousands of nuclear warheads again — and probably sooner than anyone might like.
The revelation by Vladimir Putin (reappearing in public after seemingly vanishing into thin air for a week and a half) that Russia would have responded to any military confrontation over Ukraine and/or Crimea with nuclear weapons is ominous enough, even if such a declaration could be ascribed to the chest-thumping bluster of a notoriously macho shithead.
But — lest anyone make the mistake of dismissing these veiled nuclear threats as isolated — I have been motivated tonight to publish the post I meant to write a week ago by the news that Russia’s ambassador to Denmark, Mikhail Vanin, has stated that his country would target Danish warships with nuclear warheads if the Scandinavian nation joins NATO’s missile defence shield, a US-led venture to safeguard against nuclear missiles launched by “rogue states” (read: North Korea and Iran), which Putin has long believed is aimed explicitly against Russia.
30 years ago, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — alarmed that Ronald Reagan went within a whisker of signing away the West’s nuclear deterrent in response to a proposal by USSR chief Mikhail Gorbachev that both sides unilaterally eliminate their stockpiles of warheads — famously observed that you could no more disinvent nuclear weapons than you could disinvent dynamite: despite the best will in the world, nuclear weapons and the technologies that enable them are with us forever.
The irony of course is that Gorbachev was probably the one Soviet or Russian leader in the last 70 years the West had no reason to fear. But the warmer relations it enjoyed with Gorbachev soon turned chill under Boris Yeltsin, and have become positively icy on Putin’s watch.
On one level, Putin’s well-known desire to restore Russia to the glory of its Soviet heyday as an economic and military superpower is understandable.
But the ridicule once attracted by Russia’s military as a decaying reserve of infrastructure and obsolete weaponry overseen by a contingent of manpower that was shrinking as quickly as its members could desert it has given way to the realisation — that those of us with an interest in such things knew — that all the while, Russia was rearming; that whilst the West (and the present occupant of the White House in particular) was signing new deals with Russia to make steep cuts in nuclear stockpiles, Russia was lying to its “partners” in the West, testing new weapons, overhauling old ones, and restoring its strategic forces to a position of superior strength.
Now — against a backdrop of nationalist fervour whipped up in Russia by master propagandist Putin — Russia is slowly but surely beginning a faltering advance aimed at “safeguarding” its “people abroad” (think the Russian-speaking peoples of Ukraine, and Belarus, and the Baltic states) and reclaiming its “historical sovereign territory” (think Crimea, whose annexation was legitimised by a “referendum” widely believed to have been fixed and universally regarded in the West as illegal under international law).
Now, we have Russia asserting its right to station nuclear missiles in Crimea — bringing all of Western Europe into much closer range — at a time of belatedly heightened international alarm over Russia’s motives and in apparent response to naval exercises in the Black Sea that infuriated Russia.
We have Russian military drills of their own, involving 45,000 troops and dozens of warships in the Arctic, which the Kremlin is openly telling any Western media outlet that cares to listen are all about getting the Russian military to a state of “combat readiness.”
We have reports that Russia is testing what sounds suspiciously like a neutron bomb, or similar, the intended purpose of which is ominously obvious.
We have ongoing attempts to decouple Europe from the United States with propaganda and misinformation — the old Soviet playbook — which should surprise nobody, given Russia has spent the past 20 years trying to get Europe addicted to supplies of Russian gas as a way of guaranteeing the dependence of the EU on Russia and detaching it from American influence.
We have reports of Russian attempts to station nuclear missiles near the Polish border and/or plans to invade or otherwise attack Poland; doing so would almost certainly draw in Germany, and with it NATO: and once the question of active warfare is one of NATO versus Russia, that — to use the vernacular — is tantamount to the whole powderkeg going “kaboom.”
And all this comes several years after Russian nuclear bombers resumed long-range patrols in international airspace and, more recently, as its fighter planes have repeatedly made incursions into European airspace, particularly around Britain, as they apparently seek to test the combat readiness of the Royal Air Force: flying up the English Channel and close to Britain’s south-west coast, forcing civilian passenger aircraft to take urgent evasive action and/or for flight paths to be re-routed, these are not the actions of a country seeking to minimise or mitigate against the prospect of a deadly and incendiary accident.
And it comes as the US — “led” by its most strategically dangerous and insignificant President since Jimmy Carter — mulls plans to arm the Ukrainian military against Russian-backed insurgents fighting against it in parts of Ukraine, with the attendant risk that doing so may provide the pretext for a direct Russian military response that could lead to God only knows what.
I do not post this evening to appear alarmist, inflammatory or to sound frightened, for I am none of these things.
But the simple fact is that over the past few years the accrual of evidence of a belligerent and confrontational Russia is overwhelming; its footprint is everywhere, and Russia’s fingerprints extend too far and too thoroughly across the Eurasian region now to suggest anything other than a bellicose Putin prepared — literally — to do anything in order to reclaim the lost lands of the USSR, and willing to risk the consequences of doing so.
Russia is not a friend, or a partner, or an ally: it is the enemy of freedom, and the sooner more people realise this basic truth of 21st century politics, the better.
And its antics can hardly be ascribed to bluster any more, or the mere trifle of a few military exercises that nobody should worry about.
Any nuclear attack launched by Russia on any country or countries in the Western hemisphere will be met with overwhelming nuclear retaliation against Russia by the United States and Britain; nobody should suffer from the delusion Putin appears to suffer from that nuclear force would not be responded to in like kind.
Those in the UK who seek to question the future of Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent — in the context of the election campaign underway in that country at present, and with the Labour opposition struggling to fend off an assault on its Scottish seats from the irresponsible and criminally populist SNP, which is campaigning on a pledge to remove nuclear submarines from the River Clyde — would do well to consider that without Trident, Russia could simply level the UK without resistance if it chose to do so, the threat of retaliation from the Americans notwithstanding.
And in fact, the disarmament daydreams of Barack Obama are likely to see his successor in the White House (preferably a Republican) make the reinvigoration and restoration of US strategic forces an urgent priority. The beaten Republican candidate in 2012, Mitt Romney, claimed during that campaign that the West would face the risk of nuclear blackmail and perhaps nuclear attack from Russia — and was laughed at. Romney was right, and this column acknowledged as much at the time (and I elicited much derisive comment and accusations of conspiracy theorism for my trouble). Nobody is laughing now.
But with or without Britain’s Trident nukes, if the Russians start shooting — and the US responds — the ensuing apocalyptic episode will render considerations of general elections, military alliances and even planning as far as the following week forever redundant.
Any reader who has not seen this chillingly credible depiction of nuclear warfare previously should spend the requisite couple of hours doing so: in what is unquestionably a fresh Cold War between Russia and the West, it’s high time this kind of thing once again sears the collective conscience of those faced with nuclear blackmail or, even worse, the existential threat of a general nuclear war and the hundreds of millions (if not billions) of lives it would terminate.
I’m going to leave it there, for the purpose of this article is to get a reasonable chronicle of recent events regarding Russia and its warlike behaviour — to say nothing of its loose and provocative nuclear rhetoric — onto our radar; this is the first time we have discussed such matters for some time, but I’m sure it won’t be the last.
And at some point we might have a look at the handling of Russia by the West since the fall of the Soviet Union, for just as Putin is depicted in some quarters as a madman and a lunatic, not all of the fault for the developing crisis and return to Cold War conditions lies with Russia: the West has made mistakes in its treatment of the Russians ever since the Berlin Wall came down, and as immeasurably superior to a life under Communism as the free world might be, there are some — the first President Bush being a case in point — who simply couldn’t resist poking the Russian bear in the eye with the very sharp stick of triumphalism.
But in the end, those men who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it: it is not too late to avert a disaster, and it is not too late for Russia to reach an accommodation with the West that does not stink of appeasement by the latter, or include ambit and unreasonable demands from the former.
But the trend of escalation is now clearly to be seen, in full view, with the apocalyptic threat of a nuclear war made in stark and blunt terms for the first time in decades. It isn’t a set of circumstances to be taken lightly, diminished with propaganda, or simply to be ignored.