Destruction Unlimited

As a world, several decades ago, we reached the position where the weapons systems we have developed can easily destroy all human civilization and wipe out all but a small fraction of the human race… and possibly all of it. The planet will endure and possibly even recover, over eons, from such destruction, but at a terrible cost.

For the last few decades, the world powers have managed not to unleash such destruction, but now we’re closer to that possibility than ever before. So what has changed?

The idea that mutual assured destruction would avert nuclear calamity rests on a fundamental assumption – that no political leader wants to destroy the world, because such destruction would result in self-annihilation. There’s a sub-assumption behind that premise, which is that political leaders will act rationally, but what’s rational to most people isn’t necessarily rational to those with extremist beliefs.

“Give me liberty or give me death” is a powerful statement, but what about Vladimir Putin’s attitude of, “If you interfere with my attack on Ukraine, I will loose nuclear fury,” and possibly destroy civilization?

Yet the Ukrainians are fighting for freedom, for their liberty, and most likely tens of thousands have already died, just to remain free of Russian control. But if the United States enters that conflict militarily, Putin might well use nuclear weapons. If the U.S. provides defensive weapons that allow Ukraine to force the Russians from Ukraine, or even force a stalemate, might not Putin issue the same threat?

Putin is capable of using tactical nuclear devices. The question is whether he is willing to use them. If he does, then what? If the U.S. replies in kind, so will Putin. And if Europe and the U.S. back down, what happens if he goes after Poland or Finland next?

Once again, the world is faced with a leader who wants to force oppression on others, leading a people unwilling to remove him…but Hitler didn’t have nuclear weapons.

11 thoughts on “Destruction Unlimited”

  1. Sam says:

    The flip side of that question is what would it take for a rational actor to make use of their nuclear arsenal and are the more irrational actors aware of and willing to take advantage of that?

    One of my favourite TV shows when I was a child was Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister. At the time I didn’t understand it that well but every time I go back to it I feel like I glean new understanding and insight into the way the world works.

    This clip from the series is off in the details but seems almost prescient in pondering the question of how the West would respond to acts of Russian aggression:

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    Simple, if we were willing to go there. Initial use of a tactical device may be opposed by insertion of conventional forces or other non-nuclear escalation of response, but subsequent use will be treated as a strategic attack and responded to in kind. And ANY use ever against NATO country territory or with damage or significant fallout ending up there, will be treated that way as well.

    Bring it. He’s bluffing, or he isn’t. If he isn’t, better end it all than keep caving to someone like that.

  3. Censored Far Too Often says:

    Perhaps people should spend less time fetishising their opinions, and pay more time noticing that the media has been telling us for the last month that Russia is weak, about to fold, and Ukraine is about to win.

    If the media’s predictions have been so wrong, the model they used to make their predictions is wrong, and if your opinions are based on their information, your opinions are unlikely to reflect reality either.

    1. I’ve never said or implied that Russia was about to fold. The Russians can take tremendous losses, but given the amount of aid pouring into Ukraine, it doesn’t appear that either side is going to “win.” The problem with Putin is that he cannot afford to “lose,” and he could easily take a stalemate as a loss.

      1. Censored Far Too Often says:

        Since Russia supplies 55% of German energy, and significant amounts of the world’s food, minerals, fertilizer, energy, I’m not convinced that the West will manage to drag this out, however much the State Department wants it to.

        Indeed, I expect the coming mass unemployment inflation and hunger in the West will lead to changes of government. Le Pen may be set to achieve a Mitterand style upset in France. She’s speaking about leaving NATO, and returning to a more Gaullist position. Even if Finland and Sweden join NATO they both have tiny and relatively useless militaries.

        Simultaneously, China may decide that the West’s sanctions are all bark and no bite, given their lack of impact on the Ruble, and move on Taiwan or devaluing the dollar. If they take Taiwan, Russia and China will have access to the best semiconductor manufacturing on the planet. Most of the new fancy CPUs would be only a little faster than their counterparts 20 years ago, if it were not for the transition from 28nm to 5nm, spearheaded in Taiwan.

        What will the US do, if the dollar collapses, it loses computational dominance, and its allies turn away from it? (Don’t forget the dollar’s strength comes from the fact commodities are priced in it. Russia has switched. Saudi Arabia is moving to sell gasoline in Yuan. Iran would be happy to sell in their currency.)

        React angrily I suspect. After all Saddam Hussein/Iraq had a plan to de-dollarize, and got whacked. Gadhafi/Libya had the same plan, and got whacked. Now Russia is doing the same, but it’s got too many radioactive teeth for the West to try to attack it head-on.

        Instead the US’ brilliant plan is to convert Ukraine into “Afghanistan 2”. Funny. Ukrainians aren’t organized as the militaristic tribes the British Empire fought. It’s not going to work. The only people who’d try this sort of counter insurgency, are probably the Ukrainian Nazis, but they do not enjoy the support of the majority of the population, unlike the Taliban.

        As to Russia, it won’t back down. Russians have been sickened by the images of Ukrainians torturing other Russians. Russians don’t tend to be as jingoistic as Americans, because they’ve suffered wars at home, unlike the US, but at this point, I don’t believe Putin could turn the ship around if he wanted to. This war will be won by Russia, one way, or another. The only question is how much damage it will take.

        The only good news I’m seeing from the West is that the Pentagon seems to be reluctant to do crazy things like enforcing a no-fly-zone than the rest of the current administration.

        It’s important to realize that this is not about Ukraine. This is about a change in global world order, and such things are not decided by a single person alone. China has no doubt agreed to go along, and they may not be alone in this.

        It’s sardonically amusing to watch the US trying to sanction China for human rights violations against the Uyghurs while simultaneously asking for China’s help to get Russia to leave Ukraine; to watch them threaten India with sanctions for trying to trade with Russia in Rubles or Rupees; etc. Over half the planet, population-wise, has stopped listening to the US.

        You wrote an enjoyable book about a change in global order, called Haze. Ukraine is how it starts in reality.

        1. Censored Far Too Often says:

          Sweden & Finland’s move to join NATO may result in nukes being deployed in Kaliningrad.

  4. Michael Creek says:

    The problem for Putin is that he has already lost. True, the east of Ukraine may remain in Russian hands, but the strategic outcome of the conflict will be a revitalized NATO alliance, with both Finland and Sweden joining, with more preparation being done in the border states and with increased military budgets.

    1. Tom says:

      The problem with psychopaths is they “never loose”: there is always a “tail” of followers.

      There appear to be some Russians who understand what is happening, perhaps not to Ukraine but to Russia. The question is the Russian system for nuclear weapons control. Does the military have the release “button” or can the missiles be launched from Putin’s office?

      Stalin got rid of his officer crops in the usual bullet-manner. I have not seen any analysis of what Putin has done with the military. Hopefully, as per usual oligarchic style, he just flooded the military with money. Shoigu and Gerasimov may be examples but it still leaves the system unknown: that may be why a while ago the Pentagon noted the nuclear danger.

  5. Grey says:

    One important factor that’s not being discussed here: The risk of a nuclear accident. That is, as safeguards are removed to bring weapons to readiness as part of toy for tat escalation, the risk of an accidental launch increases. So, even if the Russians are bluffing, we could still end up with 200 million dead.

  6. Postagoras says:

    Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is definitely an act of evil vanity, but I don’t see it as upsetting the global balance.
    The “red line” of MAD was always drawn along the border of the Soviet Union and the NATO countries. The freeing of the former Soviet Socialist Republics didn’t move that red line to the border of Russia.
    Putin is using that fact to try to re-take the former SSRs.
    MAD is actually working in Putin’s favor here, because that is what is stopping NATO from military action in Ukraine.
    From a human rights point of view, this is a catastrophe. But from a global diplomacy point of view, Ukraine is not part of NATO. So the best that NATO countries can do is supply Ukraine with arms and material, and sanction Russia.

  7. Tom says:

    Nuclear weapons and accidents references are poor. Examples – 2015
    and 2022

    The Northman review: ‘Not weird or violent enough’ – BBC signs of the times?

    To Postagoras: “What Me Worry”?

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