Nuclear Weapons: The Case of Russia (Vladimir Putin?)

Can Vladimir Putin, state administrator of Moscow, press that legendary “red button”? Could the war in Ukraine turn into a global nuclear conflict? Is it worth driving Russia into the corner, risking turning the world into a nuclear graveyard on the last day of the war? Maybe it’s better to stop before it is too late?

There are many similar questions in the media, in discussions between military experts and street politicians. What is the real possibility of using nuclear weapons?

Mathematical game theory (developed in the middle of the last century) has, among other scientific concepts, modelled the use of nuclear weapons. Famous mathematicians John von Neuman and John Nash (remember the movie “The Amazing Mind”!?  – the prototype of the character in the movie) have in a way proved that a nuclear conflict between rational (sic!) government leaders can arise when a potential aggressor has reason to believe that it will either win or obtain a better result with a nuclear weapon than with conventional means. Except when the use of the weapon would be tantamount to suicide. Other theories (no longer mathematical) have said that with nuclear parity and enough weapons for total annihilation, starting a nuclear war would not mean victory but rather annihilation, and so the initiator should regard nuclear war as a suicide rather than a path to victory. Therefore, it is hardly a weapon for territorial gains or for any kind of retaliation. In short, nuclear warfare is only possible when you have the opportunity to destroy the enemy and survive. If you can do neither, it is pointless.

The Americans detonated two bombs over Japan in 1945. You could say that they realised and allowed others to realise several important things. The first is that the weapon is a very cruel instrument of war, so cruel as to be terribly immoral, even if the enemy is deadly. Secondly, it is a terrible weapon, so terrible that to wage war against a nuclear-weapon state is suicidal. Conclusion: nuclear weapons are not a means of waging war, but of deterring war.

The classical idea of deterrence is based on two principles:

– Don’t start it because you have no chance of winning,

– Don’t start it because you will be punished.

So, in 1945, nuclear deterrence seemed to perfectly reflect the theory of classical deterrence. Nobody has a chance of winning a war against the US, so they won’t start one. Nor does it stand a chance against those whom the Americans will declare to be their equal allies, i.e., by extending the nuclear umbrella to them. The bigger the umbrella, the more peaceful the world. Beautiful.

Later, the situation changed. With the emergence of a competing nuclear power, it became clear that whoever destroys the enemy’s arsenal first and keeps his own undestroyed (or at least maintains a stockpile) wins the war. As arsenals grew rapidly, it was thought that the war would not be fought because the potential losses were greater than the potential gains. The so-called “Star Wars” programme launched by US President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s was a signal to the Soviet state that the USSR could not go to war because its missiles would be destroyed in the launch phase. Ronald Reagan basically discouraged the Russians from going to war and scared them enough that the US had the means to punish the USSR for all sorts of other sins, for example, for Afghanistan and some other things. Then the Russians did not withstand the competition.

What is the situation with Russia today?

Vladimir Putin does not seem to want a global nuclear conflict. He doesn’t even want to punish anyone in particular – he doesn’t say that the Germans, the Poles, the Swedes are more to blame… His aim is to put the fear into us that this could happen. He is succeeding to a large extent, and there is enough fear.

We – the West – are not afraid of losing, but afraid of war itself, both the current war and the nuclear one. We are totally unprepared morally, so it looks very scary. But if the war is won, the fear diminishes. Victories of Ukraine in the conventional war are increasing the fear in Russia that, if they lose the conventional war, they will certainly not win the nuclear war. With defeat, there are more questions “who is to blame?”. The desire not to be a loser and the unwillingness to accept that everyone is to blame increases the distancing from the supposedly main culprit. To say it simple, if the Russian society were convinced that the war was truly unpatriotic, the society would become more divided, increasingly blaming the leaders of the state, and of course not themselves. This is natural and human.

Vladimir Putin’s desperation may be growing, but so is the fear of those around him not to let the desperation break out. Not everyone wants to be part of this desperation, thus not everyone wants nuclear war. Actually, Vladimir Putin will not push the button alone…

Russia, with Vladmir Putin needs to know that we accept his nuclear threat as a reality and that we are ready for it. If we know how to behave, that means we will not surrender, that means we will not lose. This ultimately means that Vladimir Putin is not preparing for some victory, but for personal suicide. We expect his suicide, we know how to behave, and we are prepared not for the end of the world, but for the world without Vladimir Putin (or without Russia). The world will survive, even Ukraine will survive, but Vladimir Putin will not. Is everyone who can influence decisions ready for such suicide? If we are talking about desperation, Vladimir Putin needs the obedience of those around him to start a “desperate” nuclear war, as the members of a sect in Guyana were obedient, I think. They (at least some of them) obeyed the command to commit collective suicide. It is unlikely that Vladimir Putin can secure such obedience. So, the suicide will be individual rather than collective. It may well be that, in a state of desperation, those around him will also have the opportunity to decide whether they want to die “collectively” or to sacrifice the “great perpetrator of evil’? After all, Adolf Hitler’s entourage did not commit suicide along with the Führer..

Who is Vladimir Putin after all? I have my own comments on his “psychological portrait”. Vladimir Putin (and all other dictators and authoritarian leaders) are usually shown to the public as simply wealth-hungry human beings, minding their Swiss bank accounts and their yachts in Mediterranean ports. The confiscation of yachts or some palaces with crazy gold toilets should be, supposedly, a death blow to those people. It could lead them to desperation… Not because of the policy fiasco, but because of the yacht… I am convinced that the war in Ukraine is certainly not about the personal wealth of the Russian ‘elite’. Marauding is part of the Russian style of warfare, it is true, but this is not an ‘elite’ culture, it is a folk culture. Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin did not do their mischief out of hedonistic (or not only hedonistic if you like) motives. If wealth is all that is needed, a nuclear missile will not save Warsaw or Prague’s wealth. On the other hand, if Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi had killed himself, it would not have changed their political assessment.

If Vladimir Putin is just a lonely madman, then the madness will be a disability to make much simpler decisions than the legendary “button.” The madman just won’t get to him …

Everything will be OK.

Post scriptum (a joke). More about movies. I remembered an old comedy; I think it was ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. In it, an elderly gentleman asks a young girl he meets at a party why she is so upset. She says that she is desperate because she was hoping for some sex, but unfortunately there is none. The elderly gentleman asks if there is anything he can do to help her… The girl replies: “Well, my desperation is not yet at that terrible level…” So, desperation has its levels, too. Vladimir Putin’s level of desperation does not have to be at that mythical “red button”.

Egidijus Vareikis

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