The Nuclear Madman Scenario

Alan Zendell, March 1, 2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was always going to be a risky proposition with the borders between Ukraine and four NATO countries within shelling and rocket range of the fighting. The risk seems greater now that Ukrainian forces have put up fierce resistance, upsetting Vladimir Putin’s plans for an early victory. Americans are asking questions. What would it take for NATO forces to be drawn into the fight? What would immediately trigger Article 5 and require American forces to engage against Russians?

With NATO having ordered its quick reaction force to be ready to move, why is anyone surprised that Vladimir Putin put his nuclear deterrence force on alert? And what does that mean, exactly? Nuclear deterrence means Russia has about 6,000 nuclear warheads attached to medium range and intercontinental ballistic missiles aimed at every critical target in every NATO country. That’s enough explosive power to destroy life on Earth if not Earth itself.

If you’re much over sixty, you remember the Cuban Missile crisis. I was 19 in 1962. Like everyone around me, I was terrified that we could be nuked any minute as President Kennedy had laid down a gauntlet, blockading sea routes to Cuba, daring Russian naval vessels to cross it. It was especially terrifying because I was in New York City, a prime nuclear target. For some arcane reason, about a thousand students were lined up registering our presence with Columbia University, everyone listening to Walter Cronkite on our transistor radios and looking up at the sky. It was reminiscent of Philip Wylie’s 1954 novel, Tomorrow! wherein two twin midwestern cities are attacked with nuclear weapons. The scene that stuck in my mind was a man standing on a rooftop who, through some trick of light and luck, actually sees a nuclear missile heading towards him.

I believe the reason we didn’t see one approaching that day was that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev realized his American counterparts were out of their depth and therefore unpredictable, the worst possible scenario in a diplomatic crisis. The only way he could assure the world’s survival was to call back his navy. We older folks remember Khrushchev well, especially when he took off his shoe during an address to the UN Security Council and began banging it on a table. He was belligerent, loud, and intimidating, and many Americans thought he was a nuclear-armed madman. Fortunately for all of us, he wasn’t. It was all an act, and Khrushchev, the level-headed statesman, realizing the peril his ships had placed the world in, backed off.

In recent days, pundits around the western world have been debating whether Vladimir Putin is a nuclear-armed madman. The media immediately jumped on the notion, just as they hype and sensationalize anything that might attract viewers. From what I’ve heard, not a single one of these “experts” knows the first thing about mental illness, and it’s all speculation based on various observers claiming Putin has somehow changed in recent years. Consider the statement by Florida Senator Marco Rubio who warned that Putin is far more dangerous than he was in 2008 and 2014, and appears to suffer from a neuro-physiological disorder. What the hell does Rubio know about neuro-physiology and what’s the point of stirring up fears of nuclear war among the American people? It’s irresponsible, and can’t lead to any kind of positive outcome. The only voice that attempted to blunt this kind of dangerous gossip was President Biden’s. When asked by reporters if he thought Americans should worry about the fighting in Ukraine leading to nuclear war, his answer was eloquent. “NO!”

Conventional wisdom says a paranoid leader who lives in isolation and surrounds himself only with loyal yes men and women is at risk of losing touch with reality. We saw it happen with Richard Nixon, and many would say, with Donald Trump. In both cases, our military leaders made certain an irrational leader could not trigger a nuclear attack. The same conventional wisdom says senior Russian military leaders would act just as responsibly today, but can we count on that? If nuclear push comes to shove, could they prevent Putin from triggering a nuclear holocaust? Can pressure from Russian oligarchs who see their fortunes threatened by sanctions and growing unrest among ordinary Russians?

The media are pushing a dangerous narrative that Vladimir Putin is the most dangerous man in the world and that no one could stop him from escalating what he started into World War 3. My response is to turn off my TV and fly the Ukrainian flags I bought yesterday from my balcony. If Putin is as crazy as they want us to believe, there’s not much we as private citizens can do about it. Instead, let’s assume he still possesses the ability to think rationally and show him the world is aligned against him in solidarity.

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