Unlike the U.S.-Soviet showdown in 1962, Vladimir Putin's allusions to his nuclear arsenal come with no sense of rules or limits, and with a more distant memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
PARIS — "Once more I wandered down to the town to have a last look at peace.”
It was with this quote from Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday in mind that I spent the past hot and dry summer in the French region of Normandy. Zweig had started writing his memoir in 1934, as the Nazi menace was spreading.
Were we living our last summer of peace? The funeral of Edward VII in 1910 preceded the outbreak of World War I by four years. Could it be that the funeral of his great-granddaughter, Elizabeth II, preceded the outbreak of World War III by four months?
We are not there yet, but this scenario, although highly unlikely, is nonetheless becoming "possible." I am by nature rather optimistic. I never want to be accused of being a doomsayer, but a new and qualitatively different level of escalation has just been reached by Vladimir Putin's Russia.
Russia has been humiliated on the military front, increasingly isolated on the diplomatic front, abandoned by even its closest ally, China, and criticized by the previously "neutral" great power, India.
Putin has no choice but to do what he knows how to do. He swaggers and accuses his opponents of wanting to treat Russia as they treated the USSR in the past. And, above all, he is waving the nuclear threat more and more openly, even adding, aware of how his threat will be perceived: "This is not a bluff."
Kennedy and Khrushchev were rational
Putin intends to make territories in the northeast and south of Ukraine, which the Russian troops can no longer hold militarily, "sacred" through referendums. Regardless of the legitimacy of his action, his message is clear. "Once they become Russian, do not try to take them over — I will defend these sacred territories by all means, including unconventional ones."
During the Cold War, the primary purpose of U.S. nuclear forces in Europe was to balance the conventional USSR forces. Moscow's tanks are only as far as "two stages of the Tour de France" to quote General Charles de Gaulle's famous expression in 1947.
"I will defend these sacred territories by all means, including unconventional ones."
Today, it is as if Russia's unconventional weapons were intended to balance Ukraine's conventional superiority, that is, of course, greatly helped by its Western allies. Indeed, the ongoing crisis is beginning to look like the most serious one the world has experienced since the Cuban Missile Crisis in Oct. 1962.
But 60 years ago, the balance of terror had its rules, which were well known and understood by its main actors. Not only were Kennedy and Khrushchev rational, but they were fully aware of the nuclear danger. They belonged to a generation that still had the terrifying images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in mind.
A conscripted man says goodbye to his family following Vladimir Putin's announcement of a partial military mobilization in Russia on Sept. 21.
This is not true of Putin today. He is a gambler who wants to make up for the loss of his initial bet by a bold move that is no longer rational. And, unlike Khrushchev, Putin does not seem to have any moral fiber.
Faced with Putin's threat, we have no choice but to be firm and absolutely clear. Nothing would be more useless — as Turkey and Qatar seem to have wanted to do at the UN — than to call for immediate negotiations to ease tensions. Negotiate what? There is nothing to negotiate. Russia bet on force, and lost.
One day after Putin's announcement of the partial mobilization, there were no more seats available in planes for foreign countries and there were endless traffic jams on the borders with Georgia. The most urban and educated young Russians do not want to die for Putin's war. They are rushing out of a country that now scares them. The war in Ukraine is becoming for Russia what the Vietnam War was for the United States in the late 1960s.
The post-Putin era
This is not the beginning of the 18th century. Putin is not Peter the Great, Zelensky is not Charles XII of Sweden. Russia does not have 20 years to turn the military situation in its favor as it had during the "Great Northern War".
The world cannot agree to live in the shadow of total war, with its huge human, economic, financial and ethical costs. The world cannot bow to Putin's diktats. In fact, his behavior only reinforces all those who cannot accept the idea of Iran becoming a nuclear power.
With his nuclear threats, he is also playing with the survival of the planet.
At the end of the 1960s, one of France's leading strategic thinkers, General Pierre Marie Gallois, had a "brilliant" idea. To ensure world peace, he thought it was appropriate to give as many countries as possible access to nuclear weapons.
This proposal was described by political thinker Raymond Aron as "an all but perfect model of logical delirium." It is a formula whose wisdom can be fully appreciated today.
In fact, everything is happening as if Putin has no other choice than to endlessly escalate, as he feels increasingly isolated internationally and also in his own country due to virulent criticism from ultra-nationalists. But with his nuclear threats, he is also playing with the survival of the planet, making Russia not only the "Empire of Evil" but also the "Empire of Madness".
The nuclear threat of the Kremlin's master must be taken seriously and the only conclusion that can be drawn from it: The security and stability of the world require a transition to the post-Putin era.
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