Dispatch from the Front Lines: Hey, does anyone have a fallout shelter? Or a Geiger counter?
Thinking the dark thoughts. Federal politics. Media chaos in Canada. A crisis in the U.K. And the comments section returns, God help us.
This is perhaps the strangest dispatch we’ve ever written. It is a fact of life in the news business that top headline can change in an instant. We’re one breaking news alert from seeing a day’s work dramatically reduced in importance, if not rendered obsolete forever. Every journalist has known that frustration. And today, as Western officials remain concerned about the risk of nuclear attack, this seems more true than usual. All our little insights into Canadian politics and cultural issues would make a weird second and third item in a dispatch where the lead item was Kyiv going up in a mushroom cloud.
So yes. This is where our minds are. As discussed at some length in our podcast and video this week, your Line editors have been closely watching developments in the war between Ukraine and Russia, and indeed take very seriously threats by the Russians to use nuclear weapons. We understand fully that it is very possible that all of Putin‘s talk of nukes is a bluff, intended to rattle the West and encourage Ukraine to accept Russian gains and negotiate.
Neither seems likely — Ukraine is motivated and Western support, though imperfect, remains strong. We also see little indication that Putin could win the war in which he has stranded himself and his country, and we believe that things will only get worse for him. His attempt to mobilize 300,000 has turned into an item of mockery abroad, as pictures of old men and rusted equipment spread across social media. The "annexation" of occupied areas into Russia clearly didn't deter either Ukraine or its Western backers; Ukraine’s forces remain on the move, with more Western weapons arriving all the time. And meanwhile, on the battlefield, the Ukrainian Armed Forces grow ever stronger: in just the last few hours, they have handed the Russians another embarrassing defeat in the city of Lyman. That city, a local rail junction, was important for Putin's logistical efforts in the region, and fell into Ukrainian hands with a shocking lack of resistance.
See what we mean? This isn't going well for Russia, and everything he tries is just stranding Putin deeper in the shit. He could have de-escalated this war at several points. At every juncture he has chosen escalation instead, and that has only made his problems worse — more deaths, more unrest, more humiliation. All of his efforts to intimidate the West or crush the Ukrainians have failed. What can he do? How can he get himself out of this problem? What will happen to him if he can’t?
These are the questions keeping us up at night. Seeing the conflict through his eyes, it’s not hard for us to imagine that Putin will come to view some kind of nuclear use as his only remaining chance to escape this war with his power still in place, or perhaps even simply with his life. After all, all this talk about whether Putin is "rational" depends entirely on how he understands his own circumstances. What may seem insane to us may, in fact, make perfect sense to him, and we suspect one’s definition of reason undergoes a radical re-evaluation when one feels a noose getting ever-tighter around the throat.
So that’s why we think it’s possible. Let’s talk what we think is possible. There are a few different ways he could use nuclear weapons. We are not the experts on this, but your Line editors are, if nothing else, reasonably well read on the topic, and we have spent the last few weeks talking with genuine experts. If we do see the use of a nuclear weapon, Putin could use a single small device on a minor target in Ukraine (or perhaps over the Black Sea) in hopes of shocking NATO and the world through his sheer willingness to break the nuclear taboo. We would expect him to go a bit further, and hit Ukraine with a series of small strikes intended to disrupt its military and seize some kind of conventional military advantage on the ground, on top of the political shock.
Or hey: he could go fully insane and try to terrorize the world into bending to his will by, for instance, attacking NATO directly, or using one of his larger nuclear weapons to utterly destroy a city in Ukraine.
We think the latter options unlikely, at least as an initial move. Limited use of relatively small-yield nuclear weapons, though, strikes us as very possible. And this is something we need to be thinking about here in the West. We obviously mean our governments and military leaders, but we also think all of us should be thinking about it as well, if only to be prepared for the possibility. In any of these scenarios, how we respond could well make things worse.
We have not had to worry about these kinds of calculations for almost 60 years, dating back to the Cuban Missile Crisis (which marks its 60th anniversary this month, in fact). We'll keep watching the situation in Ukraine, and encourage our readers to do the same. In the meantime, we'd simply remind them that a firm belief that "he wouldn't dare" isn't a good reason to doubt that Putin would indeed dare to go nuclear, It’s time to kill normalcy bias. Putin is following his own calculus for his own reasons, and will decide for himself what makes sense and what doesn't.
A final note, before we move on to the rest of the dispatch: many of us have this image in our head, honed by half-forgotten Cold War nightmares and dramatized depictions of nuclear war, that a nuclear war means The End. There's a flash, and then a final blackness. That probably wasn't true even back at the most dangerous times in the Cold War and it's certainly not true now, in an era of smaller arsenals and (at least in the Russian case) weapons of unknown reliability. There is every reason to believe that even should a nuclear war come, most of us would live through it, at least the early stages. A flash and then a clear, pain-free nothingness isn't a luxury any of us are guaranteed. Instead, we may have to live through the consequences of any use of nuclear weapons, limited or widespread. These aren't nice things to think about. But ignoring the risk, despite being something of a Canadian pastime, is no answer, either. As Matt Gurney wrote in a column here on Wednesday, for all of us, it's time to start thinking some weird thoughts again.
Sigh. We miss the end of history, too. Its return leaves much to be desired.