What to do about a lunatic with nukes?

Jeremy Gordin writes on how to respond to the Russian leader's disastrous adventure in Ukraine

It’s probably a good thing that I’m not secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato); because, if I were, five days ago I’d have obliterated that 40km (some say 60km)-long column of Russian Federation tanks etc. heading towards (or stuck on the road to) Kyiv.

Then, for good measure, I’d have taken out all the Russian missile and artillery batteries in sight – and maybe even have arranged for a couple of ‘planes to stop by in Minsk to see, just for good measure, if Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko could be vaporized.

Might, however, my prefrontal cortex (PFC) – the part of the brain that is said to be key to reasoning, problem solving, comprehension, impulse-control, creativity, and perseverance – might my PFC have suggested to me that bombing the Russkis (and killing Lukashenko) might not be such a brilliant idea?

Because then – so the narrative goes – the Russian Federation might fire its short- and long-range missiles equipped with nuclear warheads at western Europe, the UK, and the US – and vice-versa (the US and UK would launch their ICBMs and SLBMs) – and thus much of the world would go to hell in a proverbial handbasket [i].

Might I also have taken a moment to recall that on 6 August 1945, the Allies dropped a “Little Boy” (an enriched uranium gun-type fission weapon) on Hiroshima, Japan, and three days later, a “Fat Man” (a plutonium implosion-type nuclear weapon) on Nagasaki?

“Over the next two to four months, the effects of the atomic bombings killed between 90 000 and 146 000 people in Hiroshima and 39 000 and 80 000 people in Nagasaki; roughly half [the deaths] occurred on the first day. For months afterward, large numbers of people continued to die from the effects of burns, radiation sickness, and injuries, compounded by illness and malnutrition”. 

Anyway, needless to say, I am not the Nato sec-gen – and he (Jens Stoltenberg) and the Nato and United States decision-makers do seem to have their prefrontal cortexes working – and not only do they not want to precipitate a war that would engulf the Baltic, European and other Nato member states, the Russian Federation’s Vladimir Putin put his nuclear forces on high alert nine days ago and they don’t want to precipitate a nuclear confrontation.

Could this happen? Soon after Putin loudly rattled his nuclear capabilities, the BBC noted on its web site that “analysts suggest [Putin’s] actions should probably be interpreted as a warning to other countries not to escalate their involvement in Ukraine, rather than signalling any desire to use nuclear weapons”.

Well, yes, but the “analysts” could not really know this, could they? – the point being that, so far, Putin has pretty much done everything he has threatened to do, has he not? 

And it seems clear too that the fact that Putin has carried out his threats is the main psychological trauma – to use a Woke sort of phrase – with which just about everyone is grappling. For if there is one word that sums up Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s disbelief [ii]. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

After all, in March 2022, some 77 years after the end of the Second World War, and some 30 years after the end of the Cold War, what kind of a human being launches “his” army into a neighbouring country, a sovereign state – whose people have been closely involved with Russia and vice-versa for a 100 years if not longer – and starts killing and traumatising its people, civilians as well as army members, as well as levelling its buildings and infrastructure – with the result that, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, some two million Ukrainians (and others) have fled westward across the country’s border.

It does seem insane; it does seem to be a manifest failure of Putin’s prefrontal cortex. As a result, there have been a variety of views advanced on whether Putin is indeed ill. It’s been suggested his puffy face and insistence on being seated six metres away from people when dealing with them [iii] could mean he’s receiving chemotherapy and is concerned about immunological failure, and/or that he’s on steroids (hence the irrational aggression). Others have suggested that it’s merely a case of Putin having become “more isolated, more repressive, more ruthless ... [operating] in an airless political environment, free of contrary counsel”.

Then – leaving aside the ad hominem stuff – there have been countless articles, interviews, and narratives explaining why Putin “believes” or “feels” he “must” do what he’s done.

Last week I mentioned the work of eminent political scientist John Mearsheimer and I can suggest – though most readers probably won’t like them – at least three writers (actually four) who will explain in detail why everything is pretty much Nato’s fault [iv].

Nato, the Americans, and others, these writers will tell you, buggered Putin/Russia around, have committed countless horrors themselves, and don’t appreciate how important it is to Putin not to have Nato close by. And that now Nato, the Americans, and the west are getting their comeuppance.

Well, we all like to know how things started and, if possible, to understand (what Sigmund Freud loved to call) their “aetiology” (the cause, set of causes, or manner of causation of a disease or condition).

At least, however, one of the anti-Nato-ists I’ve just mentioned, Jeremy Scahill, does begin his piece thus: “There are no excuses or justifications for what Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine. His brutal invasion is a bald-faced act of aggression, replete with war crimes, and is rightly being condemned as such by large numbers of people and nations across the globe. The targeting of civilian populations and infrastructure is a heinous act that belongs in the annals of major nation state crimes ...”

I’ll go with that; and I’d rewrite my sentence above as follows: “And now Nato, the Americans, and the west might be getting their comeuppance – but, if so, it’s the Ukrainian people who are paying the price, and it’s the Ukrainian people who right now matter most to me”.

So much so that it does occur to me – notwithstanding what I have written above – that all this Nato and American shilly-shallying over responding militarily (the Polish MiG-29s) to the destruction of Ukraine might not be so much about the application of prefrontal cortexes, about a concern about nuclear warfare – but instead a kind of code between two sets of bullies (Russia, on the one hand; Nato, America, and the west, on the other) – which, deciphered, goes along the lines of “You mention nuclear weapons and we’ll lay off and give you a free hand to do what you like as long as you don’t cross the ‘Nato border’ ...”.

For some reason, a passage from George Steiner’s 1965 essay, “A Kind of Survivor,” floats into my mind: “I wonder what would have happened if Hitler had played the game after Munich, if he had simply said, ‘I will make no move outside the Reich so long as I am allowed a free hand inside my borders.’ Dachau, Buchenwald and Theresienstadt would have operated in the middle of twentieth-century European civilization until the last Jew in reach had been made soap. There would have been brave words on Trafalgar Square and in Carnegie Hall, to audiences diminishing and bored ...”

In short, I don’t care much for either set of powers or elites. As a friend put it, “I can’t stomach the sanctimoniousness of those who believe the West played no part in creating the current fxxk-up and that it’s all due to Russian paranoia, but at the same time there can be little doubt that Putin is a prize prick and possibly on the wrong side of sanity”.

Meanwhile, Ukrainians are dying, cities and villages are being flattened, and Volodymyr Zelenskyy and others are screaming for Nato to create a “no-fly zone” above their country – though from what one can see from the TV coverage is that equal if not more damage is being done by artillery and missiles. In any case, as is palpably clear now, Nato isn’t going to enter this war.

Also on TV, English and American pundits are telling us that Putin’s invasion has not gone to plan at all – that he wanted a blitzkrieg, he wanted to take Kyiv for example within a couple of days, but never counted on the resistance and bravery of the Ukrainians. I’d like to believe this is true – and maybe it is – but I have a sneaking feeling that the Russian army is holding off from demolishing Kyiv. Though why, given the rest of its behaviour, this might be so, I don’t know.

The thing, though, is that Putin’s prefrontal cortex has really failed him and his country stupendously. Whatever happens in Ukraine, things will never be the same for him and, while he’s around, for Russia. They will never be trusted; it’s game over; the end of Europe’s post-Cold War halcyon period.

And though Russia might weather one way or another the sanctions that countries have brought to bear, especially given that Europe imports some 40 percent of its gas from Russia, Putin has clearly shot himself in the foot when it comes to international politics. If Putin had an unfortunate accident, I suspect there would not be universal mourning.

This morning Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov met his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba in Turkey, but little is said to have been achieved. Given that Moscow has said all its demands must be met, this is not surprising. The demands apparently include that Kyiv takes a “neutral” position, disarms, accepts partition, and drops aspirations of joining Nato.

What are Kuleba and Zelenskyy and his government to do? It’s no fun having to compromise with a bully – but, given that someone like me is not the Nato secretary general, and that the first prize in life is staying alive, it’s probably worthwhile, even if a little lame, to remember the story of the sultan’s horse.

A sultan sentenced two men to death. Just as they were being dragged away, the sultan said he’d commute the sentence of the man who could teach his horse to talk. The next day one of the two men was being dragged to the executioner to be beheaded. He saw that the other man was standing there unshackled. He shouted: “What did you tell the sultan? It’s impossible to teach a horse to talk.”

“Well,” said the other man, “I said to the sultan I could teach his horse to talk, but that I needed a year to do it. And he let me go. After all,” the freed man said, “a lot can happen in a year. The horse could die, or the sultan could. Or I might even be able to teach the horse to talk.”


[i] Nine countries are reported to have nuclear weapons: China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the US, and the UK. But whether they’d have their weapons readied in time and at whom France would fire is not clear to me. Presumably China would fire at the US; India at Pakistan and vice-versa; Israel at Iran; North Korea at South Korea and the US; and the UK at Russia.

[ii] If I might steal a sentence from Adam Tooze’s Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy (Allen Lane, 2021).

[iii] Though soon after such suggestions appeared in the western media, an image was flighted of Putin sitting in close proximity to some school children.