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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Russia Flirts With The End Of "Mutually Assured Destruction"

Retired Major-General Alexander Vladimirov wrote the Russian “war bible.” His words have weight. Now he has declared that the use of nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine is inevitable, citing a justification that consigns the principle of deterrence to the history books.

Russia Flirts With The End Of "Mutually Assured Destruction"

Rehearsal for the Victory Day parade on May 7, 2023, in Moscow, a Russian MIRV-equipped thermonuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missile.

Vlad Karkov/SOPA Images via ZUMA
Slavoj Žižek

Updated on Sep. 19, 2023 at 4 p.m.


LJUBLJANANuclear war is the “inevitable” conclusion of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That's the opinion of retired Major-General Alexander Vladimirov, from an interview he gave last week to the journalist Vladislav Shurygin, and reported by the British tabloid The Daily Mail.

The retired general and author of the General Theory of War, which is seen in Moscow as the nation's "war bible," warned: “For the transition to the use of weapons of mass destruction, only one thing is needed – a political decision by the Supreme Commander-in-Chief [Vladimir Putin].” According to Vladimirov, “the goals of Russia and the goals of the West are their survival and historical eternity.”

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That means, he concludes, that they will use all methods at their disposal in this conflict, including nuclear weapons. “I am sure that nuclear weapons will be used in this war – inevitably, and from this, neither we nor the enemy have anywhere to go.”

Recently, Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer sparked outrage in India because it contained an intimate scene that made reference to the Bhagavad Gita. Many people took to Twitter to ask how the censor board could have approved this scene. A press release from the Save Culture, Save India Foundation read: “We do not know the motivation and logic behind this unnecessary scene on life of a scientist. A scene in the movie shows a woman making a man read Bhagwad Geeta aloud (during) sexual intercourse.”

My response to this scene is precisely the opposite: the Bhagavad Gita portrays cruel acts of military slaughter as a sacred duty, so instead we should be protesting that a tender act of bodily passion has been sullied by associating it with a spiritual obscenity. We should be outraged at the evil of “spiritualizing” physical desire.

Isn’t Vladimirov doing something similar in this interview? He is seeking to somehow elevate a (self-destructive, murderous) passion by couching it in obtuse terms such as “historical eternity.”

Abandoning "Mutually Assured Destruction"

However, his pronouncement should not be dismissed as mere bluster, or a strategic threat. Even if it is meant as such, Vladimirov’s prophecy has its own internal logic. It abandons the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which ensured we avoided nuclear disaster throughout the Cold War, instead portraying the destruction of both sides as inevitable, because “neither we nor the enemy have anywhere to go.”

It is not about determining who is guilty, because this is about fate, about a life-and-death struggle.

Then there is the claim that “the goals of Russia and the goals of the West are their survival and historical eternity.” What does the strange phrase “historical eternity” mean here? It implies that, as Vladimirov sees it, both countries are faced with drastic, existential choices: as if both Ukraine and Russia were fighting for their survival, and therefore they had no other way out except for nuclear war (Russia is threatening the identity and existence of Ukraine, whereas no one is trying to redraw Russia’s borders).

Russia is only fighting for its survival if we understand “Russia” to mean the much larger area that formerly made up Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union – the idea of “historical eternity” relates to this eternal conception of Greater Russia. That is exactly why Vladimirov doesn’t talk about Russia’s right to defend itself against a Ukrainian attack. It is not about determining who is guilty, because this is about fate, about a life-and-death struggle, in which trivial questions such as “Who started it?” don’t matter.

What can we do?

So what can we do in a situation like this? Firstly, we should examine it closely, so that we can identify signs that might point in a different direction from the oversimplified outcome that Vladimirov has put forward. In early September, reports emerged that Cuba had discovered a human trafficking ring aimed at recruiting Cubans to fight as mercenaries for Russia in its war in Ukraine. The Cuban foreign ministry released a statement explaining that the authorities were working on “the neutralization and dismantling” of the network, which operates both in Cuba and within Russia.

Of course that begs the question: Has Cuba, a country in which all areas of life are under strict state control, really only just uncovered this human trafficking ring? The Cuban authorities must have known about it for some time. So the real question is: Why has the Cuban government decided to reveal this “discovery” now? Is it a sign that even Cuba, which had actively supported Russia in its war against Ukraine, is now distancing itself from Russia’s dangerous venture?

The only approach that combines principles and pragmatism is to take note of Russia’s nuclear threat, but ignore it on the level of diplomacy and military strategy. The worst option would be to give in to Russia’s attempts to intimidate, to argue that we should try to avoid provoking Russia.

We should simply continue to support Ukraine, while at the same time making it clear that no one is trying to annex any part of Russian territory (of course recognizing Ukraine’s borders before the occupation of Crimea). Russia should be forced into a position where it is clear that if it uses nuclear weapons, it has chosen to do so of its own free will, not in response to a threat to its territorial integrity.

Photograph of President John F. Kennedy and Chairman Nikita Khrushchev during their meeting in Vienna, Austria.

President John F. Kennedy and Chairman Nikita Khrushchev during their meeting in Vienna, Austria, in 1961.

Stanley Tretick/Wikimedia

Strange times

We live in strange times, in which the possibility of global nuclear war is treated as a threat on a similar level to the culture wars that pit populist neoconservatives against cancel culture. At the same time, life in the developed West seems to be largely carrying on as usual – Europeans’ main worries this past summer were bad weather and disrupting flights that might ruin their holiday plans.

It's possible that we will all perish in a nuclear war, but what really irritates us is cancel culture.

Our true madness lies in this peaceful coexistence of radically different possibilities: it is possible that we will all perish in a nuclear war, but what really irritates us is cancel culture or provocative statements from populists.

And in the end, even that isn’t really important to us; only our day-to-day life matters. From a rational perspective, we know that the problems on these three levels (to say nothing of the environmental disaster) are linked, but we continue to act as if they have nothing to do with each other.

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