The longer the proxy war in Ukraine continues, the closer the U.S. comes to a direct confrontation with Russia. Once that happens, the Dr. Strangeloves running the show will reach for the nukes.
I have covered enough wars to know that once you open that Pandora’s box, the many evils that pour out are beyond anyone’s control. War accelerates the whirlwind of industrial killing. The longer any war continues, the closer and closer each side comes to self-annihilation. Unless it is stopped, the proxy war between Russia and the U.S. in Ukraine all but guarantees direct confrontation with Russia and, with it, the very real possibility of nuclear war.
U.S. President Joe Biden, who doesn’t always seem to be quite sure where he is or what he is supposed to be saying, is being propped up in the I-am-a-bigger-man-than-you contest with Russian President Vladimir Putin by a coterie of rabid warmongers who have orchestrated over 20 years of military fiascos. They are salivating at the prospect of taking on Russia, and then, if there is any habitation left on the globe, China.
Trapped in the polarizing mindset of the Cold War — where any effort to de-escalate conflicts through diplomacy is considered appeasement, a perfidious Munich moment — they smugly push the human species closer and closer toward obliteration. Unfortunately for us, one of these true believers is Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“Putin is saying he is not bluffing. Well, he cannot afford bluffing, and it has to be clear that the people supporting Ukraine and the European Union and the Member States, and the United States and NATO are not bluffing neither,” E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned. “Any nuclear attack against Ukraine will create an answer, not a nuclear answer but such a powerful answer from the military side that the Russian Army will be annihilated.”
Annihilated. Are these people insane?
You know we are in trouble when former Donald Trump is the voice of reason.
“We must demand the immediate negotiation of a peaceful end to the war in Ukraine, or we will end up in world war three” the former U.S. president said. “And there will be nothing left of our planet — all because stupid people didn’t have a clue … They don’t understand what they’re dealing with, the power of nuclear.”
I dealt with many of these ideologues — David Petraeus, Elliot Abrams, Robert Kagan, Victoria Nuland — as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. Once you strip away their chest full of medals or fancy degrees, you find shallow men and women, craven careerists who obsequiously serve the war industry that ensures their promotions, pays the budgets of their think tanks and showers them with money as board members of military contractors.
They are the pimps of war. If you reported on them, as I did, you would not sleep well at night. They are vain enough and stupid enough to blow up the world long before we go extinct because of the climate crisis, which they have also dutifully accelerated.
If, as Joe Biden says, Putin is “not joking” about using nuclear weapons and we risk nuclear “Armageddon,” why isn’t Biden on the phone to Putin? Why doesn’t he follow the example of John F. Kennedy, who repeatedly communicated with Nikita Khrushchev to negotiate an end to the Cuban missile crisis?
Kennedy, who unlike Biden served in the military, knew the obtuseness of generals. He had the good sense to ignore Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff and head of the Strategic Air Command, as well as the model for General Jack D. Ripper in “Dr. Strangelove,” who urged Kennedy to bomb the Cuban missile bases, an act that would have probably ignited a nuclear war. Biden is not made of the same stuff.
Why is Washington sending $50 billion in arms and assistance to sustain the conflict in Ukraine and promising billions more for “as long as it takes”? Why did Washington and Whitehall dissuade Ukraine’s President Vladimir Zelensky, a former stand-up comic who has been magically transformed by these war lovers into the new Winston Churchill, from pursuing negotiations with Moscow, set up by Turkey? Why do they believe that militarily humiliating Putin, whom they are also determined to remove from power, won’t lead him to do the unthinkable in a final act of desperation?
Moscow strongly implied it would use nuclear weapons in response to a “threat” to its “territorial integrity” and the pimps of war shouted down anyone who expressed concern that we all might go up in mushroom clouds, labeling them traitors who are weakening Ukrainian and Western resolve.
Giddy at the battlefield losses suffered by Russia, they poke the Russian bear with ever greater ferocity. The Pentagon helped plan Ukraine’s latest counteroffensive, and the C.I.A. passes on battlefield intelligence. The U.S. is slipping, as we did in Vietnam, from advising, arming, funding and supporting, into fighting.
None of this is helped by Zelensky’s suggestion that, to deter the use of nuclear weapons by Russia, NATO should launch “preventive strikes.”
“Waiting for the nuclear strikes first and then to say ‘what’s going to happen to them.’ No! There is a need to review the way the pressure is being exerted. So there is a need to review this procedure,” he said.
The West has been baiting Moscow for decades. I reported from Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War. I watched these militarists set out to build what they called a unipolar world — a world where they alone ruled.
First, they broke promises not to expand NATO beyond the borders of a unified Germany. Then they broke promises not to “permanently station substantial combat forces” in the new NATO member countries in Eastern and Central Europe. Then they broke promises not to station missile systems along Russia’s border. Then they broke promises not to interfere in the internal affairs of border states such as Ukraine, orchestrating the 2014 coup that ousted the elected government of Victor Yanukovich, replacing it with an anti-Russian — fascist aligned — government, which, in turn, led to an eight-year-long civil war, as the Russian populated regions in the east sought independence from Kiev.
They armed Ukraine with NATO weapons and trained 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers after the coup. Then they recruited neutral Finland and Sweden into NATO. Now the U.S. is being asked to send advanced long-range missile systems to Ukraine, which Russia says would make the U.S. “a direct party to the conflict.” But blinded by hubris and lacking any understanding of geopolitics, they push us, like the hapless generals in the Austro-Hungarian empire, towards catastrophe.
The West calls for total victory. Russia annexes four Ukrainian provinces. The Westhelps Ukraine bomb the Kerch Bridge. Russia rains missiles down on Ukrainian cities. The West gives Ukraine sophisticated air defense systems. The West gloats over Russian losses. Russia introduces conscription. Now Russia carries out drone and cruise missile attacks on power, sewage and water treatment plants. Where does it end?
“Is the United States, for example, trying to help bring an end to this conflict, through a settlement that would allow for a sovereign Ukraine and some kind of relationship between the United States and Russia?” a New York Times editorial asks. “Or is the United States now trying to weaken Russia permanently? Has the administration’s goal shifted to destabilizing Putin or having him removed? Does the United States intend to hold Putin accountable as a war criminal? Or is the goal to try to avoid a wider war — and if so, how does crowing about providing U.S. intelligence to kill Russians and sink one of their ships achieve this?”
No one has any answers.
The Times editorial ridicules the folly of attempting to recapture all of Ukrainian territory, especially those territories populated by ethnic Russians.
“A decisive military victory for Ukraine over Russia, in which Ukraine regains all the territory Russia has seized since 2014, is not a realistic goal,” it reads. “Though Russia’s planning and fighting have been surprisingly sloppy, Russia remains too strong, and Mr. Putin has invested too much personal prestige in the invasion to back down.”
But common sense, along with realistic military objectives and an equitable peace, is overpowered by the intoxication of war.
On Oct. 17, NATO countries began a two-week-long exercise in Europe, called Steadfast Noon, in which 60 aircraft, including fighter jets and long-range bombers flown in from Minot Air Base in North Dakota are simulating dropping thermonuclear bombs on European targets. This exercise happens annually. But the timing is nevertheless ominous. The U.S. has some 150 “tactical” nuclear warheads stationed in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.
Ukraine will be a long and costly war of attrition, one that will leave much of Ukraine in ruins and hundreds of thousands of families convulsed by lifelong grief. If NATO prevails and Putin feels his hold on power is in jeopardy, what will stop him from lashing out in desperation? Russia has the world’s largest arsenal of tactical nukes, weapons that can kill tens of thousands if used on a city. It also possesses nearly 6,000 nuclear warheads. Putin does not want to end up, like his Serbian allies Slobodan Miloševic and Ratko Mladic, as a convicted war criminal in the Hague. Nor does he want to go the way of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. What will stop him from upping the ante if he feels cornered?
There is something grimly cavalier about how political, military and intelligence chiefs, including C.I.A. Director William Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, agree about the danger of humiliating and defeating Putin and the specter of nuclear war.
“Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks that they’ve faced so far, militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons,” Burns said in remarks at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
Former C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta, who also served as defense secretary under President Barack Obama, wrote this month that U.S. intelligence agencies believe the odds of the war in Ukraine spiraling into a nuclear war are as high as 1-in-4.
The director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, echoed this warning, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee in May that if Putin believed there was an existential threat to Russia, he could resort to nuclear weapons.
“We do think that [Putin’s perception of an existential threat] could be the case in the event that he perceives that he is losing the war in Ukraine, and that NATO in effect is either intervening or about to intervene in that context, which would obviously contribute to a perception that he is about to lose the war in Ukraine,” Haines said.
“As this war and its consequences slowly weaken Russian conventional strength … Russia likely will increasingly rely on its nuclear deterrent to signal the West and project strength to its internal and external audiences,” Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier wrote in the Defense Intelligence Agency’s threat assessment submitted to the same Armed Services Committee at the end of April.
Given these assessments, why don’t Burns, Panetta, Haines and Berrier, urgently advocate diplomacy with Russia to de-escalate the nuclear threat?
This war should never have happened. The U.S. was well aware it was provoking Russia. But it was drunk on its own power, especially as it emerged as the world’s sole superpower at the end of the Cold War, and besides, there were billions in profits to be made in arms sales to new NATO members.
In 2008, when Burns was serving as the ambassador to Moscow, he wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice:
“Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”
Sixty-six U.N. members, most from the Global South, have called for diplomacy to end the war in Ukraine, as required by the U.N. Charter. But few of the big power players are listening.
If you think nuclear war can’t happen, pay a visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These Japanese cities had no military value. They were wiped out because most of the rest of Japan’s urban centers had already been destroyed by saturation bombing campaigns directed by LeMay. The U.S. knew Japan was crippled and ready to surrender, but it wanted to send a message to the Soviet Union that with its new atomic weapons it was going to dominate the world.
We saw how that turned out.
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor and NPR. He is the host of show “The Chris Hedges Report.”
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