1. The worsening mess
Since the publication in this column of “World War Z” some days ago, the events surrounding the war in the Ukraine have increased the possibility of a thermonuclear war breaking out between Russia and NATO. The Western mainstream press is not discussing this danger, but instead is engaging in behavior that exacerbates the threat: biased reports, atrocity propaganda, and warmongering. The establishment counts on the resultant hysteria to suppress dissenting views, and singles out dissenters to attack and to discredit. The New York Times, for instance, recently printed a typical hatchet job, against one of the most prominent antiwar critics, the journalist Tucker Carlson. What was unprecedented was that the smear was not the usual one-shot defamation but a multi-part series.
There are other articulate critics of US policy in this war who are too well known and widely respected for their experience, intelligence, and professional expertise and qualifications for simple character assassination. They are generally ignored, their voices pushed to the fringe. They include Jack Matlock, whose lifetime career as a scholar of Russian affairs and a diplomat in Eastern Europe included the post of US Ambassador to the Soviet Union in the critical years 1987-1991; and the veteran scholar and political scientist John Mearsheimer, who is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. Carlson, Mearsheimer, and Matlock have spoken repeatedly, candidly, and chillingly of the extreme danger of provoking and isolating Russia, through the imposition of draconian sanctions and the relentless encroachment of NATO. They consider the policy of the US toward Russia reckless, disingenuous, biased, and inimical to the interests of the American people.
In the last few days, the US Congress has been voting an aid package of $40 billion for the Ukraine— seven billion dollars more than Biden asked for just a week or so ago. Your largesse— yes, it is your money after all— is to be spent largely for the sale of weapons. Those funds will find their way into the coffers of the private munitions industry whose lobbyists in turn feather the pockets of our self-serving, corrupt public officials. The rest of the cornucopia is going to a variety of public domestic programs like infrastructure, border control, medicine, education, and so on— mind you, not to American roads, bridges, schools, borders, and hospitals, all of which are drastically underfunded and badly in need of repair, but to Ukrainian ones. The steady drumbeat of press hysteria accompanies the ritual of grand larceny: since there seems to be something a lull in the actual fighting, the BBC is dusting off and touting CCTV atrocity footage from the outskirts of Kiev, and covering “trials” by the Ukrainian regime of Russian prisoners of war.
In the field of diplomacy, president Macron of France remains a lone voice, trying to remind NATO and the EU not to seek to humiliate the Russians, who will at the end of the day be, of necessity, the other party to whatever arrangements about peace and security are hammered out. The prime minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, has a very different approach: he has just committed Britain to enter into direct military conflict with Russia, should the latter become involved in hostilities with neutral Sweden and Finland. Neutral for the moment, anyhow: the president of Finland has just declared his country ought to join NATO; and Sweden is expected to follow suit shortly. Once their request is submitted it will take some time to clear the parliaments of the various allies; but the US administration and Jens Stoltenberg, the hawkish Norwegian chair of NATO, have promised to fast-track the applications.
2. Neutrality, Scandinavian style
Before World War I, Finland was a grand duchy of the Russian Empire. The rule of the Tsars has left its traces: Helsinki looks enough like St. Petersburg that the movie “Reds” was filmed there in 1981. Lights, camera, action: the Russian Revolution, complete with Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton cheering Lenin at the Winter Palace, marching with the proletariat, throwing snowballs, translating Bolshevik broadsheets, and fucking to the tune of the Internationale. (That was Hollywood’s ingenuous take on the famous dictum of Herbert Marcuse, academic guru of the ancient New Left, that the personal is political.)
Russia ruled Finnish-speaking Estonia, as well as Latvia and much of what is now Lithuania. Finland and the three Baltic republics all became independent after World War I. Before World War II, the USSR asked Finland to cede some territory, since the international border then lay in the suburbs of the USSR’s second-largest city and industrial center, Leningrad. If you look at a map you’ll see that Peter the Great’s fabled (and only) “Window on the West” was then a casement narrowly bounded by foreign neighbors, at the end of a corridor of the Gulf of Finland that opened into a rather unfriendly room, the Baltic Sea. I’ve been a few times to St. Petersburg’s storied naval base, Kronstadt. It has an imposing, marine-themed Orthodox cathedral that houses a dusty little museum of the Russian navy. The town has pleasant parks and my friends and I found a café where we enjoyed hot tea and delicious pirozhki— those little Russian pies stuffed with minced meat, or potatoes and mushrooms, or cabbage. Back to 1940. Finland refused Stalin’s request and the Soviets attacked. The Red Army, whose officer corps had been decimated by the Great Purge of the late 1930s, fought the ensuing Winter War very ineptly, sustaining colossal losses, but the Russians were slow and stubborn and eventually got what they wanted.
Finland, resentful of Soviet aggression, became a wartime ally of Nazi Germany and participated in the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Indeed, the Soviet Union’s poor performance in the Winter War was one of the factors that emboldened Hitler to attack it when he did. One feature of the Axis campaign in the north was the 900-day blockade that killed about half the population of Leningrad. This was deliberate: Nazi plans called for the complete elimination of both Moscow and Leningrad, and the killing of at least fifty million Russians, in order to provide Lebensraum— “living room”— for German colonists.
The Finnish hero of the Winter War, General Mannerheim, was a bosom companion of Adolf Hitler. There exists a recording of a casual conversation between them— very rare, since in all the other audio documents the Führer is speechifying in customary high-decibel shrieks— in which Hitler admits he would never have invaded the USSR, had he known how many tanks Stalin had. Mannerheim makes little commiseration noises in German. Hitler tended to dominate table talk: I knew a woman who had been the captain of the US women’s skiing team at the 1936 winter Olympics. She had dinner with Hitler and found him to be a rather trying and disagreeable host. Not to mention the bland vegetarian dishes that one supposes were served that evening at Garmisch-Partenkirchen. My sympathies are sincere, if not profound. The company of Russians is more congenial, and so is their cuisine.
After the victory over fascism in 1945, the USSR made it clear that the price of Finland’s continued existence as an independent state would be strict neutrality in all foreign and military matters. The two countries signed a treaty to that effect, and both meticulously observed it. The Finns spent the Cold War decades living quietly, selling their quality Scandinavian products to the Russians on favorable terms, and getting very rich. With the Baltics returned to the USSR, Finland neutral, and Poland a Warsaw Pact ally, the Soviets could feel they had a breathing space and free access to the Atlantic.
What about peaceful Sweden? It is a bit like Mongolia, a placid country now but once a holy terror whose warlord Genghis Khan conquered most of Eurasia. Once upon a time, Sweden dominated not just Scandinavia and the Baltic— including Finland, in whose second language, Swedish, Helsinki is Helsingfors— but large parts of Eastern Europe and the Ukraine. King Charles XII marched on Moscow in 1707 but was defeated by the Russian Tsar Peter the Great in the Battle of Poltava in the Ukraine in 1709. The Swedes lost, despite the best efforts of their local Ukrainian ally, the Cossack chieftain Mazepa. Russia survived and grew; Sweden’s imperial pretensions in Europe were at an end and the country gradually became the quiet, prosperous place that the rest of us envy today.
Sweden paid a price for its neutrality during World War II: that price was the moral enormity of supplying the Nazi war machine with iron ore and everything else the Führer wanted. Despite the country’s reputation for liberalism, a significant number of Swedes harbored Nazi sympathies and plenty still do. The country was a haven for the very few Jews who were able to escape there— Finland did not surrender its handful of Jews to the Germans’ tender mercies either— but the Swedes stayed out of the fighting and afterwards were able to persuade the world to fantasize along with them that their hands were clean. Ignoring inconvenient tidbits of history is perhaps a small price to pay for cute blondes, blue movies, streamlined high-end furniture, chilled akvavit, and tasty smorgasbords. And besides, Finnish and Swedish neutrality generally worked well and was a sane alternative in the midst of the lunacy of the Cold War balance of terror and mutually assured destruction.
But that neutrality is at an end and now Finland and Sweden are about to join NATO. They are frightened of Russian expansion, and are perhaps justified, to a degree, in that fear. However the frontier of a Western-allied Finland will more than double the line of direct, armed confrontation between Russia and NATO. One should reflect seriously about this, because in the Communist era Russia itself— the RSFSR, or Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic— had NO common border with any NATO country. During the Cold War, Finland was neutral; the Eastern European states of the Warsaw Pact served as a buffer; and the Georgian and Armenian SSR bordered Turkey, a NATO member. The Central Asian Soviet republics all bordered neutral countries; and Mongolia, China, and North Korea were all Communist. In fact, Mongolia in 1926 had become the world’s second Socialist country after the USSR itself. And as I have stressed, the Russians have historical memories that cast a long, dark shadow. Americans, whose knowledge of history and geography is, to put it as politely as one can, somewhat limited and shallow, may not understand or respect the way the Russians see the world. But then, America was never invaded by the Mongols, Tatars, Poles, and Swedes— even before Napoleon and Hitler.
Vladimir Putin is my age. We could have been schoolmates. (I once met his boyhood pediatrician, a nice lady who lives on Nevsky Prospect. Long after he became president, he still remembered her name and patronymic.) He is from Leningrad, both his parents lived through the Blockade, and they remembered when the Finnish border was at Sestroretsk, a short ride on the suburban rail from the center of town. Maybe the Battle of Poltava is news to you but I’m sure he knows it as well as his own name. When the president of Finland taunted him yesterday with the quip that if Putin wants to know why Finland’s joining NATO, all he has to do is look in the mirror, it could not have gone down very well. But there’s been a lot of needlessly provocative taunting of the Russians lately. The Pentagon’s allowed word to leak out that the US provided the Ukrainians with the intel to kill a number of Russian generals and to sink the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet, the cruiser Moskva. Intel and secrecy generally go together, especially in wartime. Why leak intel like that unless the intention is to let the Russians know that the USA is, in fact, at war with them? My teacher Nina Georgievna Garsoian used to warn me, Не дразни гусей. “Don’t annoy the geese!” In Aesop-land, Russia is not a goose, and an angry goose is bad enough. Russia is, as we all know, a bear. The Russian bear is not in a cage. Also he has about six thousand nuclear bombs and warheads that are aimed at you. The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima had about 3% of the power of each of those thermonuclear weapons. The edifying, Aesopian moral of my tale: Stop annoying the bear.
3. What We Should Be Thinking About, And Aren’t
The danger is greater now than perhaps ever before that there will be an incident involving NATO and Russian forces. NATO is behaving in such a confrontational manner as to create the inescapable impression that it wants such an incident. Such an incident could very easily escalate into a major battle. If the Russians feel existentially threatened— and I am not talking here about whether or not that feeling is justified— they may resort to the use of battlefield, low-yield nuclear weapons. NATO forces would not be able effectively to respond with conventional weapons and would consequently counter-attack in kind. That exchange could very likely escalate in its turn into a strategic nuclear exchange. The Russians, and the US and its allies, target each other’s command-control-and-communication centers, military bases, and missile silos. If one side fires first, the other will have to fire back immediately: the principle is called, simply, “Use it or lose it.” Once those birds are in flight, the submarines will probably launch the missiles targeting enemy cities. Each of these ten thousand or more rockets will explode in a burst of heat and light like the heart of the sun, vaporizing everything around it and sending trillions of tons of radioactive dust into the atmosphere. Once the fires die down, a poisonous night lasting decades, maybe centuries, will descend; and with it, an unending winter killing every living thing.
And with that, the fascinating, vivid, tragic, heroic story of life on planet earth will be at an end. Should alien civilized races ever chance to discover this speck of dust in the vastness of the galaxy, there will be no trace left of any book or monument or work of art or music. It will be as though nobody had ever chanted the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. No one will ever know there was a Ten Commandments. Jesus Christ will never have lived. There will be no trace of the Parthenon or Notre Dame de Paris or Lincoln Memorial. The music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven will have vanished, unheard forever. No book by Pushkin, Tolstoy, or Dostoyevsky will exist.
Who would risk this? Who would do this? Who would try to keep you from being aware that this— nuclear war— can happen soon, that we are moving towards it rather than away from it? The word “nuclear” affords the key. To answer those questions, all one needs to do is to look at much smaller catastrophes, infinitesimally smaller ones, that involved nuclear energy, not weapons but peaceful industries. The same people who hold the fate of the earth in their hands today were responsible for those incidents, how they happened, how they were managed. They are deceitful, greedy, vicious people who lie as a matter of course and respect neither human life nor life itself.
In 1979, there was an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in central Pennsylvania. It could have been avoided: it was the result of a design flaw that both the private utility company and the US government covered up for the sake of, respectively, profit and policy. Local people were told they were safe, but many fell ill after the accident with radiation sickness and cancer. Nobody cared. The accident could have led to a meltdown and a major explosion: subsequent repairs by a private company whose executives had high government jobs exacerbated the danger: they planned to uncover fissionable material with a defective crane that could break, crash down, and cause a thermonuclear blast. Whistleblowers forced the company to repair the crane. They saved the entire east coast, which could have been vaporized, from the machinations of that company, at the cost of their own careers.
Seven years later, again as a result of cost-cutting and criminal incompetence— this time by the Soviet authorities— one of the four reactors of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded. Chernobyl is in the northern Ukraine, on the Belorussian border. Again, those in power lied and covered up the disaster, this time at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. Again, whistleblowers— this time, scientists— insisted on the truth and at the ultimate cost of their careers forced the government to confront the seriousness of the accident. Thousands sacrificed their lives to contain the meltdown. Had they not done so, all life on the European continent would have been exterminated.
Neither Three Mile Island nor Chernobyl was a weapon. But both after the accidents became potential nuclear bombs. In both cases, the Americans and the Soviets were lucky: despite the greed of companies and the callous incompetence of governments, the worst was avoided and although thousands died, it could have been millions. The American capitalist military-industrial robber barons and their stooges in government and the military do not seem to understand that the dollar they worship will have no value after the country they plunder and deceive is reduced to rubble. Across the sea, what power will Putin, or Boris Johnson, or Vladimir Zelensky retain in their subterranean caves when above them all the continent is dead? Do you understand now why nobody in the White House and Congress, nobody in the arms industry, nobody in the press, nobody in the churches, is talking about the danger of nuclear war? They are blinded by greed. They are confused by their own lies. And most of all, they are such narrow creatures that they simply cannot see ahead, and if they could it would not matter, since their hearts are so cold and dead that they would not care. These are truly the damned, of whom Dante said, “They have lost the good of the intellect.”
Such is the true banality of evil.
One thought even a week ago that the present world leaders might understand the true dimensions of the danger we face, and resort to diplomacy. But events suggest they are not capable of such understanding. They are mentally and morally unfit to govern. It is therefore up to the people, to us ourselves, to think about what we should be thinking about, which is the very real and growing possibility of nuclear war. We the people must resolve either to compel those in power to stop this madness, or to remove them.