The Nuclear Elephant

Alan Zendell, March 23, 2022,

Conventional wisdom in the United States has it that Americans need not fear an accidental launch of nuclear missiles toward another country. It’s not something we can predict accurately, but we’ve seen evidence that our senior military leaders would be willing to defy a nuclear attack order from their Commander in Chief if they believed he was not in control of his faculties or if irresponsible political extremists seemed to be in control.

We saw Chief of Staff Alexander Haig build a virtual fortress around Richard Nixon during his final months as president to limit his ability to execute dangerous decisions, when friends and foes alike came to believe Nixon was no longer rational. Haig, who had been Supreme Commander of American Forces in Europe, understood the havoc a desperate, deranged president could wreak.

We also saw Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Mark Milley separate himself from the actions of President Trump in the aftermath of the 2020 election, making it clear that he would not permit Trump to use the military in any way that violated the Constitution. Amid all the misinformation surrounding Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the election, and speculation among many pundits that Trump might instigate a war as a pretext for declaring emergency powers and martial law, whispers from military leaders were leaked to reassure Americans that that would not happen.

As Russia keeps pushing the envelope, escalating its brutal attacks on Ukraine, the possibility of nuclear war, should NATO forces come into direct conflict with Russia’s, has become the elephant in the room that everyone wishes they could ignore. But they can’t, and avoiding a nuclear exchange has become the dominant factor in NATO’s and the rest of the world’s attempts to aid Ukraine. Both President Biden and the Secretary General of NATO have consistently said the risk of nuclear war was too catastrophic a possibility should NATO forces become directly involved in the conflict.

Biden has been criticized by some Trump Republicans for publicly drawing that line in the sand, comparing it to announcing a definite date for withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan and suggesting that it plays into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Most Putin “experts” believe he will aggressively pursue his ambition of rebuilding the Soviet Union under his control until he is either forcefully stopped or ousted in a coup by his own people. Putin maintains his stranglehold on power in Russia by daily living up to his reputation for ruthless brutality. It’s a binary strategy. It will either succeed or end in chaos and destruction.

Yesterday, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that if Putin perceived that an existential threat to Russia existed, the Russian constitution permitted first use of nuclear weapons. That point of view is diametrically opposed to the philosophy of mutually assured destruction that drove both sides in the Cold War to build huge arsenals of nuclear weapons. But the latter only works if leaders on both sides behave rationally. What if Putin is so desperate, with his conventional forces unable to overcome a military one tenth its size, that he believes his only option is to continue to escalate the conflict? What if, as some suggest, Putin is in fact losing his mind? Is there anyone in Russia with the power and courage to stop him from setting off a world-wide holocaust?

Former Trump National Security Advisor, H. R. McMaster spoke about that, yesterday. He began by praising President Biden’s leadership in re-uniting NATO after Trump did his best to undermine it. He stressed that only united western strength had any chance restraining Putin. “McMaster urged the world to take Putin’s nuclear threats seriously because nobody knows what’s in the Russian leader’s mind…’We have to be concerned about him using some of the most heinous weapons on earth…But we need to make clear to him that he will suffer tremendous consequences if he does.’”

Where does that leave Biden and the western alliance? They can’t ignore the nuclear elephant, but neither can they be intimidated into giving Putin what he wants. As autocrats have proven for centuries, only determined force and resistance will stop them. If Putin has re-written the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, we have to accept that. The risks are huge either way, but one thing that’s clear is that letting fear of the consequences determine whether we’re willing to defend innocent nations can only lead to disaster.

I can’t imagine anything worse than the destruction of human civilization, unless it’s watching it decay and ultimately expire because we didn’t have the courage to defend it. Nuclear war will occur or not at the whim of Vladimir Putin, but that cannot determine our actions if he continues to destroy cities and civilians. Our best option is to stand firm, pour military and humanitarian resources into Ukraine, live up to our treaty obligations, and hope (possibly with our back channel assistance) that cooler heads prevail in Russia.

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