Martin LeFevre: Like many others, I have a very bad feeling about the slow-motion proxy war between Russia and America in Ukraine. The recent meeting of the G-7 in Hiroshima, of all places, with its lovefest and weapons bazaar for Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has added to a widespread sense of dread. Bizarrely, a movie touted as a “nuclear thriller” about the “Father of the atomic bomb,” Robert Oppenheimer, is soon to be released.
America and President Biden again failed, after 78 years, to express regret for the unnecessary atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (The accepted terms of Japan’s surrender, which were that they could keep their emperor, were put forth by Japan before the bombings.) America’s subsequent decades of rationalization and propagandization surrounding our use of nuclear weapons have greatly contributed to the loss of this nation’s soul that Biden is again running to supposedly restore.
If the Biden Administration truly wanted to take the moral high ground and prevent Putin from using tactical nukes in Ukraine, they would have apologized for their use when he was in Hiroshima, even if America couched its regret in the terrible exigencies of war. Instead, Zelensky was given his long-sought F-16’s, which prompted another ominous warning from Russia.
On the night Putin illegally added four Ukrainian provinces to Russia, he declared, “If the territorial unity of our country is threatened, in order to protect Russia and our nation, we will unquestionably use all the weapons we have. This is no bluff.”
American triumphalism and wishful thinking is prevailing, with many experts who should know better, like the warmonger Evelyn Farkas, believing that Russia’s defeat is just around the corner.
Having been invited to Russia on business at the beginning of 1990, when there was a real chance for the former superpowers to chart a different course, and having worked closely with a Russian touted as a leading example of perestroika, I know from firsthand experience that Russians play dangerous mind games, but they don’t bluff.
After nearly two weeks of meetings in Moscow while staying with my well-connected host and his family, my interpreter and I took the midnight train to Leningrad, as it was still called. I had been feted everywhere we went, eating at the best restaurants of the nomenklatura that the average Russian never entered. Even so, when I returned to Moscow after my professed partner had left for a planned trip to the United States, I was abandoned on the frozen streets of Moscow without a place to stay.
As I’d learned from getting lost while backpacking alone in the wilderness some years before, the worst thing you can do in a bad situation is panic. Misreading my composure, my extremely competent interpreter exclaimed, with an anxious voice and manner I’d not seen from her before, “You don’t understand, if you don’t have someone taking care of you in this country during winter, you die.” Though she had seen many hardships, she added, “I’m responsible for you. This is the worst day of my life.”
Fortunately, I had the sense to make a backup plan in case I found myself in just such a jam. During the flight from Frankfurt, I struck up a conversation with an American on her 8th trip to Russia. I obtained Carol’s address, as well as her agreement that if things went wrong, I could stay at her flat until I could fly out of the country.
So with uncharacteristic faith that things would work out, I calmly told Anya what we were going to do. Arriving at Carol’s after taking Moscow’s famous subway, Anya stayed in the lobby while I talked to Carol about my situation.
“They do things like this when someone has displeased them or is no longer of use to them,” she said, “but this is the worst I’ve seen – you’ve gone from the highest to the lowest. You can sleep on the couch tonight, but you’ll have to take the first plane out tomorrow.”
Somehow I wasn’t surprised when, on returning to Anya in the lobby, the worm had turned. I had a fine room in a hotel next to the Kremlin, and an invitation to dinner with an editor of a major Moscow paper and his family at their spacious, well-appointed apartment. Russians play dangerous mind games, but they don’t bluff.
America and NATO have been gradually tightening the screws on Russia after Putin’s vicious invasion of Ukraine. Analyst Dmitri Trenin, former director of the now-defunct Carnegie Moscow Center and a retired Soviet military officer, observed that the Belarus deployment “demonstrates that the conflict between Russia and the West is developing into an armed clash between Russia and NATO, and is a signal to Washington that further American/Western involvement in the military conflict in Ukraine could lead to the use of nuclear weapons.”
In a recent essay in “Russia Matters” entitled, “Why Putin Will Use Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine,” the author correctly notes, “Putin has laid the groundwork for using a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine. He has removed domestic and operational barriers…making the case to the Russian people that Russia is under existential attack, a situation that warrants the use of nuclear weapons.”
In recent days, it has been reported that the United States has warned Russia through backchannels that if they use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, America will destroy Russia’s Black Sea fleet and invade Crimea. That will result in nuclear war.
How bad will it be? There are three possible scenarios when Russia uses tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. One, their use ends there, and spreads no further than Ukraine, except for the fallout in Europe. Two, nuclear war is triggered, but unfolds relatively slowly and is halted when sanity prevails after the destruction of a number of cities in the United States, Russia and Europe. Third, all-out nuclear war breaks out, and civilization, if not humanity itself, is utterly destroyed.
The idea that the use of nuclear weapons will halt with Russia’s tactical use in Ukraine is as much wishful thinking as the widespread belief in the West that Putin is bluffing and won’t use nuclear weapons at all.
Though the United States and its NATO allies have repeatedly said that they will not respond to the use of tactical nukes in Ukraine with nuclear weapons ourselves (thereby giving Russia the option of using them), Ukraine, which will lose tens of thousands of more people when tactical nukes are used, will have every incentive at that point to drag NATO into a wider war.
What’s more, the increasingly likely use of tactical nukes by Russia in Ukraine will be the blackest of black swan events. It will trigger global, unforeseeable events, immediately destabilizing the entire world.
Because an all-out nuclear war would mean the end of human civilization, if not humankind itself, I don’t feel that will happen. But the use of nuclear weapons won’t remain confined to Ukraine, and some cities will be destroyed. If only three cities in America, three in Russia, and one in Europe are destroyed, all previous human history will be postscript.
So what can we do, not only to save loved ones and ourselves, but to prepare for the aftermath?
Nationalism, which is the modern form of tribalism, must finally be buried with the rubble of the nuclear war. Stop thinking in terms of ‘my country.’ Hoping against hope is for fools.
A genuine global civilization, in which human beings live in imperfect harmony with the earth and each other, can emerge. But the spiritual, philosophical and political foundation for it has to be poured now.
Nuclear war appears to be inevitable, but there is still time to radically change our thinking as individuals, which is the true basis for changing the course of humankind after the radioactive dust settles. I hope I’m wrong, but don’t count on it.
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue. email@example.com
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