The Things That Come to Mind
When I was in grade school, at 10:30 in the morning on the first Tuesday of every month, every air raid siren in the city of Chicago went off. It was a regular test of the warning system. Our job, as third graders, was to duck under our wooden desks and cover in place. After a few minutes, the “all clear” sounded and we went back to our studies. I may not have known what “geopolitics” even meant in those days. But I do remember wondering, if the nuclear bombs were as dangerous as everybody said they were, how much protection would those wooden desks provide?
By the time I got to high school, the Cold War was simply an unpleasant fact. A substantial portion of the wonderful Promontory Point Park just a block from our apartment building, where I used to walk my Scottish terrier, had been taken over and surrounded by a fence. On the fence were intimidating notices to stay out. And inside were several towers, each one a couple of stories tall. At the top of the towers were antennas. This was part of the early warning system, designed to detect Soviet bombers coming over the North Pole, down from Canada.
About a mile away, in Jackson Park, behind the Museum of Science and Industry, one of my favorite places and right about where the Braack Obama Presidential Center is being built, was a Nike missile site. Most of the time the missiles were underground. But every now and then you would catch them up for some sort of test. It would be their job to knock down those Soviet bombers before they could drop their nuclear bombs.
By the time I got to college, strategic nuclear planning had become a study topic. I remember authoring a paper about submarine launched ballistic missiles. These missiles, with nuclear warheads at the tip, represented one third of what was called the nuclear triad. They were designed to travel the world’s oceans, stay submerged for extended periods of time and being virtually silent and therefore undetectable, deliver a devastating retaliatory blow to any nation that launched a first strike and hoped to catch our land-based missiles and nuclear bombers on the ground. I wrote that SLBMs made the perfect defensive weapon. Got the only A+ in my four-year undergraduate career.
That was the strategy. You can shoot first, overwhelm our defenses, trap our bombers on the field, blow our missiles out of their silos. But after the devastation has ended, a day later, maybe a month later, it will be your turn. The submarines will fire. And the devastation you suffer will truly make yours a pyrrhic victory. They called it mutually assured destruction. And mad it was. But it has kept the peace for more than 70 years.
The Rational Actor
A thousand dissertations later, the mental health professionals have declared that mankind survived because, at the end of the day, the United States of America, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and later the Chinese, have been run by what they call “rational actors. “Those actors, and the institutional safeguards they implemented, kept the missiles safely stored. So far.
The United States has just come through a four-year period where a considerable number of observers questioned the mental stability of their president. As increasingly more hard evidence of the Trump endgame becomes public it appears that credit must be given to a series of officials including Vice-President Mike Pence and the lawyers advising him; Bill Barr, and a set of career lawyers at the Department of Justice; deputy and assistant secretaries and inspectors general at various government agencies; and a set of election officials, many of them Republicans, throughout state and local governments for keeping an irrational president from staging a revolution.
Today we hear similar concerns about the rationality, or lack thereof, of the President of Russia. People who know Vladimir Putin, who have listened to his speeches, and have conversed with him directly, report changes in his personality. Always harboring a resentment of the west, he had become increasingly vocal in his threats to take action to restore what he sees as Russia’s proper place as the world’s dominate state. He had taken to reduce his inner circle of advisors to a mere handful. And perhaps in fear of Covid-19, he kept his distance from all others to a laughable extreme.
Now… something different
And now Putin has invaded Ukraine, declaring that it is properly a part of Russia and has no right to exist as an independent nation. He’s done this before. The successful 2008 invasion of Georgia stripped that country of two territories, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. A previous invasion of Ukraine, in 2014, stripped it of Crimea as Russia annexed the territory. A silent takeover of Belarus was accomplished in 2020 by means of a Russian supported leader rigging his reelection.
But this invasion of Ukraine feels different. Putin’s actions seem overly ruthless, even with his track record. Putin’s rhetoric is over the top in a way we have not heard since the former KGB officer took power. The threats clearly include the use of nuclear weapons. Anti-personnel weapons are already being used against civilian population centers.
It is difficult to see any signs of the “rational actor” on the Russian stage. And it is difficult to see any other officials in the Russian government with the power and willingness to stand up to Putin’s increasingly irrational actions.
This has already created the biggest crisis the world has faced since the end of the Second World War. It is difficult to see where it ends.