If Putin Is Cornered

Marc Ash / Reader Supported News
If Putin Is Cornered Putin at war, Russian president Vladimir Putin. (photo: AP)

Russia has a nuclear arsenal estimated at 6,250 total warheads, two thousand of which are classified as tactical. Making allowances for poor maintenance and malfunction consistent with other phases of their military operation currently underway in Ukraine that still gives them the ability to cause global catastrophe on an unimaginable scale. French President Emmanuel Macron upon considering a yet another recent Vladimir Putin threat to use nuclear weapons replied, “We have those too.” Indeed we do.

The US nuclear arsenal is slightly smaller, at roughly 5,500 total warheads. That equates to a combined total in the range of 1,000-1,200 contemporary grade nuclear warheads. For context in terms of how much destructive power that represents, one atomic bomb leveled the entire city of Hiroshima, Japan and a second did an equal amount of damage to Nagasaki three days later, killing a combined total of a quarter of a million people immediately and perhaps as many as half a million over time from the effects of radiation poisoning. That’s a total of two atomic bombs, vintage 1945. Today’s nuclear weapons are infinitely more powerful and have many times the destructive power of those produced in the closing months of World War II.

The bad news is that such weapons exist, the good news is that the impression made in 1945 was so powerful and lasting that it has kept mankind from trying it again for 76 years. However there have been threats before, including but not limited to Nikita Khrushchev, Richard Nixon and of course now Vladimir Putin.

When considering the likelihood that nuclear weapons will be used you do not want to rely too heavily in your analysis on good judgement. Good judgement like common sense is not very common. More dependable and safer is the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD). MAD is what deterred Khrushchev and Kennedy in 1962 and what has maintained nuclear peace since. MAD is bigger and badder than Putin’s out of control ego. While it would be difficult for Russian officials to orchestrate a coup, it’s not very likely they would stand by as he launched a full nuclear engagement with US and NATO. The ramifications would just be too overwhelming. In totality the idea of Russia launching a full armageddon strike on the West is highly unlikely, as long as the West makes clear its resolve, should that come to pass. That is the lynchpin of the MAD doctrine, that destruction is Mutually Assured. Terrifying but effective throughout the entire history of mankind’s uneasy existence in the shadow of nuclear proliferation.

A World of Risk

While MAD is a functional and effective deterrent it does little to assuage the visceral anxiety the world is now experiencing. The magnitude of the risk is daunting. The most natural human reaction is to want to draw away from the precipice, avoid confrontation. That’s natural, that is an indicator that you are not crazy. The problem is that the risk, the existential threat to humanity is not of our making and not something we can cancel through good judgement alone.

When Vladimir Putin made his decision to send legions of tanks and troops crashing across the Ukrainian border global security was the first casualty. With Putin’s army in Ukraine committing genocide the entire world is at risk and the risk is extreme. That only goes away when Putin’s army goes away and not until. The risk can be mitigated through good judgement but not eliminated entirely. The risk ultimately must be confronted and managed, there is no easy way out.

The Existential Threat of Nuclear Terrorism

Yes the potential for a nuclear engagement represents an existential threat to humanity, but not the only existential threat. An additional threat is nuclear terrorism. While it doesn’t have the capacity to obliterate civilization in the blink of an eye it’s quite a bit more likely to happen, in fact it is happening now.

It was no coincidence that Vladimir Putin began his Special Military Operation in Ukraine with a reminder to any nation that would interfere that “Russia is a nuclear armed nation.” It was intended to keep the US and NATO at bay. To the extent that there are not yet US or NATO forces on the ground in Ukraine it could perhaps be viewed as effective, but the US and NATO are surely interfering in every other way.

The problem with backing off in the face of Putin’s nuclear threats is that any nation or people can be coerced to capitulate to any demand at any time. The threat is limitless. If it works once it will work again and on it goes, and at no point does it ever mean that actual use of nuclear arms is off the table. There can be no semblance of global security under such circumstances.

Putin “Cornered”

The question of what Putin might do if “cornered” depends on accepting the premise that Putin will be cornered or even can be. It is a flawed premise. Putin is not cornered, certainly not in the way that Ukrainian fighters defending Mariupol are now cornered with their backs against the sea. Putin and his army have Russia to retreat into, the largest country on earth. It is highly unlikely that any western military force would pursue them across that border and they understand it.

If there is a cornering of Putin in any sense it is surely one of his own making. While good judgement can mitigate risk bad judgement can just as effectively create risk. Putin has placed himself at great risk through his own reckless behavior. In that sense he now dwells in a self made corner, one from which it would be very difficult to rescue him. If anyone even cared to do that.

In summation, the risk of a full-blown nuclear engagement is real but not extreme as long as Western leaders show strength and resolve. Capitulating to nuclear terrorism on the other hand would amplify the risk not mitigate it. Putin has cornered himself, the West would be well advised not to make the same mistake.

Marc Ash is the founder and former Executive Director of Truthout, and is now founder and Editor of Reader Supported News. On Twitter: @MarcAshRSN

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.

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