The Special Danger of This Moment

During the acknowledged period of the Cold War (which never really ended), the nuclear risk, though serious, was always somewhat mitigated by the fact that the Soviet Union’s goals and strategies were systemic, rather than personal. That is, the Cold War was waged not against one unstable individual who, if feeling threatened — including from within his own country — might become rabid and make a cataclysmic lunge at “mutual assured destruction” merely to cause maximum damage on the way down, but against a system that transcended any individual’s feelings. Since the Communist Party was designed to be indestructible as a regime that was not dependent on a figurehead for its survival, strategic choices regarding nuclear weapons were, one could hope, always made with the Soviet Union’s long-term prospects in mind, rather than one man’s shaky ego. 

This consideration was of course part of the reasoning behind the global push to limit the number of countries capable of developing nuclear weapons. As dangerous as it was to have such end-times weapons in the hands of mortal enemy nations, how much more precarious to have them under the control of a man who represents no impersonal system or “great project,” but merely his own individual interests, power, and survival. And yet after decades of worrying about North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Iran, the world is slowly realizing, though perhaps no one has yet openly admitted it, that the ultimate “rogue nuclear madman” is the one who inherited the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. The risk from Moscow that was formerly somewhat mitigated by the systemic nature of the old regime’s aims has evaporated as Russia has come unmoored from the multi-generational dreams of the “evil empire,” as Reagan called it, and become one man’s personal aggrandizement machine.

What would Vladimir Putin do if he felt personally threatened? After all, his goals are entirely his own, and represent no higher aim or wider party. He represents only himself. The nightmare scenario that so many have dreaded from a rogue nation or isolated dictator has in fact been with us for twenty years. A man with no allegiance to anything but himself, no ties to any intentions broader than his own preservation and empowerment, has the largest nuclear stockpile at his disposal. What if, in a moment of duress, he should decide to dispose of it in the most outrageous manner possible? All those politicians, diplomats, businessmen, and entertainers who have sidled up to Putin and tried to “get along” with him over these decades are culpable here, and stand to face the ugliest moment of reckoning in human history. They would certainly have it coming, though the poetic justice of this outcome would be achieved at a somewhat unpalatable price in collateral damage.

The world has three choices in the current predicament:

  1. Let Putin win or “save face” in his expansionist brutality, in order to prevent him ever feeling driven to the extreme recourse, though at the cost of tens of thousands of innocent lives and hundreds of millions of people’s freedom;
  2. Convert him to the ways of peaceful coexistence and liberal government, such that he defuses his own threat and makes some amends for the massive destruction he has already caused;
  3. Force his hand by rejecting his aggression and precipitating his defeat and humiliation, in the hope that his tyrant’s heart wilts under the harsh truth of his failure until he finally surrenders Russia to better Russians, or more likely simply hides in his corner unto death, as tyrants often do.

The first option has been the world’s primary anti-strategy for dealing with Putin for two decades. The second, the pie in the sky solution, is even less likely when a dictator has effectively surrounded himself with yes men and has already committed himself to a course of do-or-die aggression, such that his spiritual defensiveness and closed-mindedness have probably hardened to impenetrability. The third, the option used by Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II (the Polish pope, which explains much about why that country is the only one outside of Ukraine currently displaying full courage against Putin), is far from easy or perfectly safe, and requires nerves of steel, but it is the most realistic path to silencing a tyrannical threat that has already grown to global menace proportions.

Today’s leading advanced nations, however, lack a single statesman with the courage or decency to employ or sustain this strategy — a condition which Putin has been counting on all along, and has even helped to foster through his regime’s interventions in other countries’ domestic politics.

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