The Nuclear Endgame

Alan Zendell, April 14, 2022

As a fan and writer of science fiction, I have read several apocalyptic/dystopian novels and published one myself (The Portal, https://https://www.amazon.com/Portal-Alan-Zendell/dp/1523721049.) As reader and writer, I have always been fascinated by the authors’ conceptions of how modern civilization destroys itself. In The Portal, the world is not destroyed, but the economies of America and other major nations crash due to military adventurism triggered by the terrorist attacks on nine-eleven.

The better-known dystopian novels have their own scenarios. Neville Shute Norway’s On the Beach, (1958,) published as the Cold War was ramping up, imagined a nuclear war that begins when Albania sparks an Arab-Israeli conflict that escalates into war between NATO and the Soviet Union. Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz, (1959,) doesn’t tell us how the nuclear war starts, but posits that the mutually assured destruction that has kept us from destroying the world is a merely an illusion, and that armed with nuclear weapons, civilizations will inevitably use them and re-use them in millennia-long cycles of destruction.

In David Wingrove’s twenty book series, Chung Kuo, (1988-1999,) the end of western civilization begins with a war in the Middle East, after which China swoops in and occupies all the surviving nations. The Mad Max films (1979 and later) blamed the destruction of the world on running out of oil. There are many others, David Brin’s The Postman, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Pat Frank’s Alas Babylon, dozens in all, but none of them imagined the apocalypse beginning when a paranoid Russian autocrat invades Ukraine.

That has occupied the mind of every leader in the NATO alliance in the seven weeks since Russia began its invasion. As Ukrainian forces bolstered by militia volunteers and armed civilians beat back the Russian offensive, leaving mountains of junk (former Russian military equipment) and carnage in its wake, the free world cheered. Vladimir Putin expected to seize and occupy Kyiv, decapitate the national government, and install his own puppets in a matter of days.

Had that occurred we would now be facing a nation of forty-four million people occupied by Russia with the rest of the world in shock trying to devise a negotiating strategy and four NATO nations bordering occupied Ukraine. That would not be an enviable position for either NATO or the world, but the question must be asked: is the world’s prognosis better off as a result of Ukraine defending itself so impressively against a Russian military that showed itself to be substandard in many ways?

Two things are now clear. Ukraine will defend itself as long as one Ukrainian still has life and a weapon, and reluctantly or not, the West is now committed to supporting Ukraine with ever more powerful and sophisticated weapons until the fighting ends. Russia will suffer a huge price economically, and its citizens will wonder if they are back in the 1960s, as store shelves which used to be filled with western goods are now empty.

But we already see that the sanctions imposed on Russia have significant limits. Countries like France and Germany, which depend heavily on Russian oil and natural gas are not willing to cut off those imports and the billions of dollars that flow to Russia every week. Many countries that depend on Russian and Ukrainian wheat will face serious food shortages, and Putin seems determined to continue the fight until someone or something stops him.

The question on every military and political leader’s mind is whether we are writing our own apocalyptic scenario. With someone like Putin securely in control of Russia, this confrontation was inevitable. Potential conflict between NATO and Russia, with the always-present threat of nuclear war, has been on the table since Russia fired its first missile. President Biden and EU leaders have cautiously danced around sending Ukraine weapons that might spark such a crisis, but the fifty days of war and the deaths of thousands of targeted civilians and the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II have placed us all on a path from which we cannot turn.

The risk of a greater conflagration will exist as long as Russia is governed by someone like Putin, whose people have been long-indoctrinated with his paranoid propaganda. We’re going to have to face it head on one day no matter what we do, and the Ukrainian people have, in effect, thrown down a gauntlet to the rest of us. That, and the consistent lessons of history that the only way to defeat powerful autocrats and bullies is to stand against them with equal force, means that we may be on the verge of the end game of nuclear confrontation.

Putin knows the use of nuclear or biological weapons will spell the end of Russia and his regime. Is he sane enough to impose limits on his own ambitions, or failing that, will the people around him force him to? We don’t know, but we have no choice but to see the conflict in Ukraine through to its end.

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