Partners in Doomsday
IN FOCUS, 19 Jun 2023
As Ukraine begins a counter-offensive and Biden’s hawks look on, new rhetoric out of Russia points to a revival of the nuclear threat.
17 Jun 2023 – I was planning to write this week about the expanding war in Ukraine and the danger it poses for the Biden Administration. I had a lot to say. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman has resigned, and her last day in office is June 30. Her departure has triggered near panic inside the State Department about the person many there fear will be chosen to replace her: Victoria Nuland. Nuland’s hawkishness on Russia and antipathy for Vladimir Putin fits perfectly with the views of President Biden. Nuland is now the undersecretary for political affairs and has been described as “running amok,” in the words of a person with direct knowledge of the situation, among the various bureaus of the State Department while Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on the road. If Sherman has a view about her potential successor, and she must, she’s unlikely ever to share it.
Biden is believed by some in the American intelligence community to be convinced that his re-election prospects depend on a victory, or some kind of satisfactory settlement, in the Ukraine war. Blinken’s rejection of the prospect of a ceasefire in Ukraine, voiced in his June 2 speech in Finland that I wrote about last week, is of a piece with this thinking.
Putin should rightly be condemned for his decision to tumble Europe into its most violent and destructive war since the Balkan wars of the 1990s. But those at the top in the White House must answer for their willingness to let an obviously tense situation lead into war when, perhaps, an unambiguous guarantee that Ukraine would not be permitted to join NATO could have kept the peace.
Ukraine’s counter-offensive is going slowly in its early days, and so news of the war briefly disappeared from the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. The newspapers’ fear of another Trump presidency seems to have diminished their appetite for objective reporting when it delivers bad news from the front. The bad news may keep coming if the Ukraine military’s limited air and missile power continues to be ineffective against Russia.
It is believed within the American intelligence community that Russia destroyed the vital Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River. Putin’s motive is unclear. Was the sabotage aimed at flooding and slowing the Ukraine Army’s pathways to the war zone in the southeast? Were there hidden Ukrainian weapons and ammunition storage sites in the flooded area? (The Ukraine military command is constantly moving its stockpiles in an effort to keep Russian satellite surveillance and missile targeting at bay.) Or was Putin simply laying down a chip and letting the government of Volodymyr Zelensky understand that this is the beginning of the end?
Meanwhile, there has been an escalation in rhetoric about the war and its possible consequences from within Russia. It can be observed in an essay published in Russian and English on June 13 by Sergei A. Karaganov, an academic in Moscow who is chairman of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. Karaganov is known to be close to Putin; he is taken seriously by some journalists in the West, most notably by Serge Schmemann, a longtime Moscow correspondent for the New York Times and now a member of the Times editorial board. Like me, he spent his early years as a journalist for the Associated Press.
One of Karaganov’s main points is that the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine will not end even if Russia were to achieve a crushing victory. There will remain, he writes, “an even more embittered ultranationalist population pumped up with weapons—a bleeding wound threatening inevitable complications and a new war.”
The essay is suffused with despair. A Russian victory in Ukraine means a continued war with the West. “The worst situation,” he writes, “may occur if, at the cost of enormous losses, we liberate the whole of Ukraine and it remains in ruins with a population that mostly hates us. . . . The feud with the West will continue as it will support a low-grade guerrilla war.” A more attractive option would be to liberate the pro-Russian areas of Ukraine followed by demilitarization of Ukraine’s armed forces. But that would be possible, Karaganov writes, “only if and when we are able to break the West’s will to incite and support the Kiev junta, and to force it to retreat strategically.
“And this brings us to the most important but almost undiscussed issue. The underlying and even fundamental cause of the conflict in Ukraine and many other tensions in the world . . . is the accelerating failure of the modern ruling Western elites” to recognize and deal with the “globalization course of recent decades.” These changes, which Karaganov calls “unprecedented in history,” are key elements in the global balance of power that now favor “China and partly India acting as economic drivers, and Russia chosen by history to be its military strategic pillar.” The countries of the West, under leaders such as Biden and his aides, he writes, “are losing their five-century-long ability to siphon wealth around the world, imposing, primarily by brute force, political and economic orders and cultural dominance. So there will be no quick end to the unfolding Western defensive and aggressive confrontation.”
This shakeup of the world order, he writes, “has been brewing since the mid-1960s. . . . The defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the beginning of the Western economic model crisis in 2008 were major milestones.” All of this points toward large-scale disaster: “Truce is possible, but peace is not. . . . This vector of the West’s movement unambiguously indicates a slide toward World War III. It is already beginning and may erupt into a full-blown firestorm by chance or due to the incompetence and irresponsibility of modern ruling circles in the West.”
In Karaganov’s view—I am in no way condoning or agreeing with it—the American-led war against Russia in Ukraine, with the support of NATO, has become more feasible, even ineluctable, because the fear of nuclear war is gone. What is happening today in Ukraine, he argues, would be “unthinkable” in the early years of the nuclear era. At that time, even “in a fit of desperate rage,” “the ruling circles of a group of countries” would never have “unleashed a full-scale war in the underbelly of a nuclear superpower.”
Karagonov’s argument only gets more scary from there. He concludes by arguing that Russia can continue fighting in Ukraine for two or three years by “sacrificing thousands and thousands of our best men and grinding down . . . hundreds of thousands of people who live in the territory that is now called Ukraine and who have fallen into a tragic historical trap. But this military operation cannot end with a decisive victory without forcing the West to retreat strategically, or even surrender, and compelling [America] to give up its attempt to reverse history and preserve global dominance. . . . Roughly speaking it must ‘buzz off’ so that Russia and the world could move forward unhindered.”
To convince America to “buzz off,” Karaganov writes, “We will have to make nuclear deterrence a convincing argument again by lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons set unacceptably high, and by rapidly but prudently moving up the deterrence-escalation ladder.” Putin has already done so, he says, through his statements and the advance deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus. “We must not repeat the ‘Ukrainian scenario.’ For a quarter of a century, we did not listen to those who warned that NATO aggression would lead to war, and tried to delay and ‘negotiate.’ As a result, we’ve got a severe armed conflict. The price of indecision now will be higher by an order of magnitude.
“The enemy must know that we are ready to deliver a preemptive strike in retaliation for all of its current and past acts of aggression in order to prevent a slide into global thermonuclear war. . . . Morally, this is a terrible choice as we will use God’s weapon, thus dooming ourselves to grave spiritual losses. But if we do not do this, not only Russia can die, but most likely the entire human civilization will cease to exist.”
Karaganov’s notion of a thermonuclear weapon as “God’s weapon” reminded me of a strange but similar phrase Putin used at a political forum in Moscow in the fall of 2018. He said that Russia would only launch a nuclear strike if his military’s early warning system warned of an incoming warhead. “We would be victims of aggression and would get to heaven as martyrs” and those who launched the strike would “just die and not even have time to repent.”
Karaganov has come a long way in his thinking about nuclear warfare by comparison with his remarks in an interview with Schmemann last summer. He expressed concern about freedom of thought in the future and added: “But I am even more concerned about the growing probability of a global thermonuclear conflict ending the history of humanity. We are living through a prolonged Cuban missile crisis. And I do not see the people of the caliber of Kennedy and his entourage on the other side. I do not know if we have responsible interlocutors.”
What should we make of Karaganov’s warming of doom? Do his remarks in any way reflect policy at the top? Do he and Putin kick around the idea of when or where to drop the bomb? Or is it nothing more than an expression of Russia’s decades old inferiority complex when looking to the gleaming West, where it finds—as we see in the Biden Administration today—endless hostility toward Russia.
“This could be the clarion of a movement in Russia,” one longtime Kremlin watcher told me, “for a dangerous shift of policy or it could or the off-the-wall ramblings of a concerned but deeply Russian academic.” He added that any serious Nato political strategist should read and evaluate the essay.
Is the future of the world really only in Russia’s hands—and not in ours?
Seymour M. Hersh’s investigative journalism and publishing awards include one Pulitzer Prize, five George Polk Awards, two National Magazine Awards, and more than a dozen other prizes for investigative reporting. Hersh won a National Magazine Award for Public Interest for his 2003 articles “Lunch with the Chairman,” “Selective Intelligence,” and “The Stovepipe.” In 2004 he exposed the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in a series of pieces; in 2005, he again received a National Magazine Award for Public Interest, an Overseas Press Club award, the National Press Foundation’s Kiplinger Distinguished Contributions to Journalism award, and his fifth George Polk Award, making him that award’s most honored laureate. He lives in Washington DC.
Tags: Balkans, Biden, Bullying, Europe, Hegemony, Imperialism, Putin, Russia, USA, Ukraine, Violent conflict, War Economy, Warfare
DISCLAIMER: The statements, views and opinions expressed in pieces republished here are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of TMS. In accordance with title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. TMS has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is TMS endorsed or sponsored by the originator. “GO TO ORIGINAL” links are provided as a convenience to our readers and allow for verification of authenticity. However, as originating pages are often updated by their originating host sites, the versions posted may not match the versions our readers view when clicking the “GO TO ORIGINAL” links. This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.