Ukrainian Brinksmanship

Alan Zendell, June 5, 2022

If history has taught us anything, it is that civilizations rise and fall. The ancient Mesopotanians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Incas, Aztecs, were all-powerful in their day. In the post-Christ era, the united Caliphate, the Vikings, the British, Spanish, and Japanese Empires, and the Fascist and Communist regimes of the twentieth century all appeared unstoppable for a time, yet they all eventually collapsed under the weight of their own decadence when their ambitions outpaced their reach. Nothing on Earth is permanent, perhaps not even Earth itself if we believe in the inevitability of an astronomical extinction event.

One theme of history is that while humanity is infinitely innovative and capable of huge philosophical, moral, and intellectual leaps and growth, every civilization seems to reach a point at which it loses its viability. They all gestate in the ashes of their predecessors, reach an impressive level of enlightenment and technological advancement, only to lose their way. They either destroy themselves from within or fall to some powerful adversary.

In our modern era, possessed with weapons capable of destroying everything humanity has ever achieved in a single burst of madness, we live daily on the brink. With countries that possess these weapons led by people driven to ever expand their influence, there is an accelerating spiral of trigger points, any of which can lead to catastrophe. Just in my lifetime, the Axis Powers nearly destroyed Europe and Asia, the two Koreas and Vietnams nearly destroyed each other, radical Islam declared an unending Jihad against the Judeo-Christian world, and we survived the nuclear brinksmanship of the Cold War.

We like to believe that we’re better than our antecedents. We’re smarter, we possess unprecedented technology, and we’ve learned from the past. We’d better have, because in the last thirty years, the cycle of threat and conflict has accelerated. China is determined to bring Taiwan under its influence; Iran supports terrorists all over the world; the madman in North Korea rattles his nuclear sabers whenever his ego needs a lift; and a paranoid, evil genius controls Russia and the world’s largest storehouse of nuclear weapons. We’ve managed to avoid pushing the nuclear buttons until now, and most people assume we’ll always find a way to survive, but history suggests that may be a delusion.

Science fiction writer Walter M. Miller addressed the inevitable-seeming self-destructive cycle in his award-winning dystopian novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz. Miller painted a chilling picture of a world in which every post-Hiroshima civilization reaches the same awful end. No matter how devastating the lessons of the past, each new group of deadly antagonists is unable to resist the ultimate test of overcoming their differences peacefully, and the world continually experiences nuclear destruction every few centuries. I was sixteen when it was published in 1959, and to this day, it is the most convincingly terrifying book I ever read.

Like everyone else, I watch Russia’s war in Ukraine every day. What I see is two forces that seem more rigid and intactable as time goes on. Russia is being driven by a paranoid autocrat who believes rebuilding the Soviet Union is an existential necessity, while the United States and our NATO allies believe exactly the same thing about stopping Russia’s expansionist vision. We want to believe our leaders can continue to live on the brink without falling into the nuclear abyss. We need desperately to believe that. But Vladimir Putin seems determined to push on until an immovable object stops his irresistible force, and surprisingly, the West seems ever more united in its determination to stop him. Where will the gradual, weekly expansion of the war stop?

This week, President Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz agreed to supply Ukraine with NATO’s most advanced short and medium range missile systems. Putin responded immediately by threatening to greatly expand his military target list. Today, the risk of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spilling over into both Russia and the NATO countries on Ukraine’s western border is considerably higher than it was last week. As a result, Walter Miller’s apocalyptic vision is a dangerous step closer.

If Miller is correct, it doesn’t matter how smart or dedicated our leaders are to avoiding a holocaust. There seems to be an irresistible human need to fight to the finish. I hate the idea, but history has already proved that once tensions and disagreements reach a critical level, there’s no way out. Sixty years ago, we managed to pull back from the edge during the Cuban missile crisis, but Ukraine is beginning to look far more ominous, and Vladimir Putin seems far less rational than Nikita Khrushchev was.

Remember the Doomsday Clock? It’s been sitting at 100 seconds before midnight since 2021. I check it every day.

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