The brutal news broke on Sunday, February 27 in the middle of the afternoon, during the fourth day of the Kremlin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. Before the television cameras, Vladimir Putin, with his usual cold voice and clearly drawn features, ordered his Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, and his Chief of Staff, Valeri Guerassimov, to put the dissuasive forces on alert. russians Deterrent forces that, as we know, include a nuclear component.
In many countries this information caused a wave of panic among the journalists who commented on the news. Clearly, a threshold had been crossed and numerous precedents that had occurred during the darkest hours of the Cold War were invoked.
Let’s try to get a clearer picture with, once again, a trip through history – old and recent – to find out if we really should be afraid of Putin or if we should see in this nuclear blackmail of the Russian president what the British prime minister Boris Johnson described it as “a diversionary maneuver”, an operation intended to camouflage what might already appear to be a Russian military stalemate in Ukraine.
World War III, a recurring fear of the Cold War
The parallel with the Cold War is natural. This conflict, which has often been presented as mainly psychological and ideological, was a confrontation between two models, the American and the Soviet, which also had an important military dimension. This was based on an arms race, which the world discovered with the test of the first Soviet atomic bomb on August 29, 1949, which ended the American atomic monopoly.
The arms race was the origin of the famous balance of terror theory, the French version of the MAD (mutual assured destruction) doctrine, popularized in the early 1960s after the Cuban missile crisis.
This crisis was not the first that kept the world on edge and plunged the West into fear of nuclear war. In fact, remember the escalation of the Korean War in April 1951. Then, General MacArthur, commander of the UN forces, was relieved of his duties by President Truman for showing independence and demanding the use of weapons nuclear (something he has always defended afterwards).
The (US) nuclear forces were also put on alert during the crisis of the U2 spy plane shot down by the USSR in May 1960 while flying over Soviet territory.
But it was the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 that sparked the era’s best-known fear of war and exerted a lasting fascination on the collective imagination. His story is well known: Nikita Khrushchev had launched an operation – Operation Anadyr – to install nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, an ally of the USSR since 1960, but US President Kennedy prevented it by ordering a blockade of the island.
The suspense lasted thirteen days, from October 16 to 28, culminating in the “black Saturday” of October 27, when the American pilot of a U2 spy plane, Rudolf Anderson, was shot down over Cuba. At the time, the US nuclear alert level, DEFCON, had reached level 2, which was never exceeded thereafter.
The Cuban missile crisis had made the leaders of the two superpowers aware of the risk, however small, of a third world war. Already in 1963, measures were taken to try to stop the infernal mechanism, especially with the creation of a red telephone between Moscow and Washington (actually a telex), and then with the signing of disarmament treaties (especially SALT I in 1972, SALT II in 1979).
These operations, intended primarily to reassure the population (or, on the Soviet side, for propaganda purposes), did not really stop the arms race. This led to several additional nuclear alerts on the US and Soviet sides, notably on October 24, 1973, during the Yom Kippur War and on September 26, 1983, during the Euromissile Crisis.
The last time the Kremlin put its nuclear forces on alert was on January 25, 1995, four years after the demise of the USSR, when a missile developed by American and Norwegian scientists to study the polar lights caused President Boris to break out in cold sweats. Yeltsin, whose nuclear briefcase was activated. Fortunately, he changed his mind upon realizing his mistake.
Shadow of Doctor Strangelove
On July 4, 2015, on the occasion of Independence Day in the United States, the famous director Oliver Stone met with Vladimir Putin for the filming of a documentary that would be broadcast two years later under the title The Putin interviews.
Putin received Stone at a residence thirty kilometers from the capital. It was in this rather informal setting that the two men discussed for several hours the possibility of a war between Russia and the United States.
The attempt to bring closer relations between the United States and Russia under the presidencies of Obama and Medvedev, launched in 2009 under the name of “readjustment policy”, ended in failure in 2012 with the vote by the US Congress of the Magnitsky Act. The rule was intended to punish those who had been held responsible for the death in prison of this lawyer who had become a symbol of the fight against corruption in Russia. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 had considerably aggravated the state of tension between the two countries, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even compared Putin to Hitler.
Stone’s documentary offers Putin the opportunity to polish his image in the West, to present himself as a moderate, rational and accessible leader: “I don’t think anyone will survive,” he answers Stone’s question about whether, in the event of war, the United States United would have the advantage. The director then recalls the Cuban Missile Crisis, which gives Putin the opportunity to launch into his usual history lesson:
Putin is referring to the 1961 deployment of 15 US Jupiter missiles in Turkey, some 2,000 kilometers from Moscow. The Russian president conveniently overlooks the fact that Operation Anadyr was to be carried out in the utmost secrecy (unlike the deployment of the Jupiter missiles) and that several people close to Khrushchev had a very negative reaction to the project. Khrushchev even felt compelled to reassure his more circumspect foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko: “We don’t need a nuclear war, we won’t go to war.” And Putin, ignoring years of research into the history of the crisis, concluded: “Khrushchev was not the cause of the Cuban crisis.”
In an attempt to lighten the mood before a clearly tense Putin, Oliver Stone then asks his interlocutor if he has seen the film Red Telephone, Shall We Fly to Moscow?, a famous black comedy by Stanley Kubrick. Released in January 1964, the feature film is directly influenced by the Cuban missile crisis, but denounces the US military-industrial complex and not the Soviets.
In the film, he is a deranged US Air Force general who orders a nuclear attack on the USSR. Meanwhile, the American president, surrounded by a group of experts including a former Nazi in a wheelchair, Dr. Strangelove, played by the brilliant Peter Sellers, tries to stop the B-52 from bombing Moscow. Oliver Stone proposes to Putin that they watch the film together, and the Russian president gladly accepts.
“Despite the fantastic nature of what we see on the screen, there are very serious motives in this film, a real message,” Putin said after the screening. And he concluded pessimistically: “Things have not changed since then, the situation has only become more dangerous with the development of weapons.”
A possibility or a strategy?
Did Vladimir Putin remember this episode from almost seven years ago when he made the decision to put Russia’s deterrent forces on alert? Did he want to catch the West at its own game by playing on the old fear of nuclear war that has had considerable influence on cinema – Kubrick’s film was just one example of Hollywood’s risk-focused “warning” productions or the consequences of the nuclear conflict?
In other words, should we consider Putin a master of psychological warfare, a man who believed that raising the idea of nuclear war would push the Ukrainians, and their Western allies, to accept the principle of negotiations and therefore possible concessions?
Or is its threat to be taken seriously, including nuclear war, however limited, among its possibilities – like a certain Yuri Andropov, director of the KGB and then leader of the USSR, who, convinced of the inevitability of a US nuclear attack , launched Operation RIAN, whose goal was to gather as many clues as possible to prepare for it–?
Faced with a man who is said to be increasingly isolated from the world, the loneliness of power coupled with the fear of covid infection, this possibility cannot be ruled out.
This article has been published in The Conversation
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