Has the “unthinkable” become thinkable?
The more the world openly discusses the prospects for nuclear war — real or not — the closer we get to a psychological barrier that makes nuclear war possible — perhaps inevitable.
The prospects for nuclear war are growing despite the fact that no one wants it. Putin, and to some extent Biden, are talking themselves into a nuclear war by warning each other against it.
Warnings beget actions. Actions beget counteractions. The two largest nuclear forces on the planet are on high alert for no real reason except the perception that the other side is preparing to launch.
On one side, we have a megalomaniacal dictator with delusions of grandeur and visions of reconstituting a lost empire. On the other side, a weak, confused president in cognitive decline.
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Who should the world be more worried about? CIA Chief William Burns thinks Putin is the greater danger.
“Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership given the setbacks that they’ve faced so far militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons,” Burns said during a speech to students at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, also known as Georgia Tech.
“We’re obviously very concerned,” he said, noting that Putin has an “almost mystical belief that his destiny is to restore Russia’s sphere of influence,” which includes bringing Ukraine under the Kremlin’s sway.
Burns thinks Putin has a mystical belief in his destiny. And we’ve known for 20 years that Putin harbors a burning resentment against the United States for the loss of Russia’s superpower status. But so far, he’s given no indication that reality is slipping away from him.
“While we’ve seen some rhetorical posturing on the part of the Kremlin, moving to higher nuclear alert levels, so far we haven’t seen a lot of practical evidence of the kind of deployments or military dispositions that would reinforce that concern,” he said.
Biden, on the other hand, may push Putin so hard that the Russian president would have no choice but to respond with nuclear weapons.
Biden is going to have to give Putin an “off-ramp” to allow him to step away from Ukraine with some dignity and the ability to declare some sort of “victory” to end the conflict. Consider John F. Kennedy’s off-ramp for Nikita Kruschev during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy agreed to withdraw some obsolete nuclear missiles from Turkey and, much more importantly, gave a guarantee of Cuba’s sovereignty — no more overt threats to overthrow Castro like the Bay of Pigs invasion.
But does Joe Biden possess the mental faculties to know how far to push Putin without triggering a devastating response? Judging by Russia’s warning about supplying Ukraine with weapons, he may be getting close to a Russian red line.
Russia this week sent a formal diplomatic note to the United States warning that U.S. and NATO shipments of the “most sensitive” weapons systems to Ukraine were “adding fuel” to the conflict there and could bring “unpredictable consequences.”
The diplomatic démarche, a copy of which was reviewed by The Washington Post, came as President Biden approved a dramatic expansion in the scope of weapons being provided to Ukraine, an $800 million package including 155 mm howitzers — a serious upgrade in long-range artillery to match Russian systems — coastal defense drones and armored vehicles, as well as additional portable antiaircraft and antitank weapons and millions of rounds of ammunition.
Yes, Biden has aides and advisors who would tell him if he was pushing Putin too far. But the temptation is strong to keep pushing, hoping to show the world — and voters in the U.S. — that he’s the better man. It’s an open question whether Biden still possesses the judgment to thread the needle and make that call.
Putin will not lose this war. The Russian offensive being prepared in the east will play to Russian advantage and Russia will be fighting in friendly territory with much of the region full of ethnic Russians.
But the situation is very unstable, and that instability could make things very dicey in the face-off between the mystical Russian president and the cognitively impaired American chief executive.