Approaching Putin’s Nuclear Brink
About every 80 years since the American Revolution began in 1776, there have been decisive pivot points or cataclysms in history. It was followed by the Civil War eight decades later.
There were a cluster of pivot points in the first half of the 20th Century, including the Great Depression (1929), President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal (1933), the commencement of World War II (1939), culminating with the arrival of the nuclear age in 1945 that established two Cold War super powers.
Are we about to enter the fourth cataclysm of the American experience eight decades after World War II?
Over the past five years, Americans have witnessed the greatest upset in American presidential politics with Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton, a pandemic that killed 1 million Americans and 22,000 Hoosiers after causing a series of societal lockdowns, the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection that occurred with the collapse of the Trump presidency, and now despot Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. That has the potential to spark the first nuclear war of the 21st Century, or, perhaps, the collapse of the Putin dictatorship.
Two quotes seem appropriate. American Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers said, “Every revolution seems impossible at the beginning, and after it happens, it was inevitable.” And Soviet Union founder Vladimir Ilyich Lenin observed, “There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.”
Lenin’s observation had an echo of truth these past two weeks with Vladimir Putin’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine, and the corresponding coalescing of the Western/NATO alliance into the most severe sanctions ever wrought on one pariah state.
But for 2022 to join the annals of historical pivot points, it will have to go beyond Ukraine President Zelensky’s Churchillian empowerment of his people through oratory (and social media), President Biden’s revival of what had been a moribund NATO, and the heroic defense of their homeland by millions of patriotic and free Ukrainians. For this year to join 1776, 1865 and 1945, it will likely take millions of Russian people to rise up and force Putin from power.
What are the chances that dramatic event will occur? Andrew Nagorski, a 1980s-era Newsweek correspondent based in Moscow, writes for the Daily Beast: “If history is any indication, Putin already has one foot in his political grave. His war on Ukraine is the beginning of the end for him, no matter how long that beginning takes.”
Prof. Olga Chyzh, who teaches political science at the University of Toronto, said in a Twitter thread this week that Western sanctions will likely not be enough to force Russian military leaders to remove Putin. “Oligarchs have even more to lose if Putin is no longer there to protect them.” Chyzh said that the other power zone is Russian “strongmen,” who, “view the looming Russia’s isolation and the forced return of the oligarchs to Russia as a benefit.”
There are two other key power points that could bring regime change, the military and the masses.
Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote in “History of the Russian Revolution” published in 1930, “There is no doubt that the fate of every revolution at a certain point is decided by a break in the disposition of the army.”
Nazi Germany’s Adolph Hitler, his Italian ally Benito Mussolini, Cuba’s Fulgencio Batista, Idi Amin of Uganda, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Cambodia’s Pol Pot, and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein were overthrown by domestic or foreign militaries or by rebel forces.
But the masses have risen up to force tyrants from power, via debilitating demonstrations that sway the military, or populist outbursts that have turned elections or forced rulers into exile.
The people of Romania rose up just weeks after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 to lethally terminate the 24-year rule of despot Nicolae Ceausescu, as did the Serbian people who routed Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Haiti’s Jean-Claude Duvalier and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines were both ousted by the masses in 1986. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was forced from office during the Arab Spring in 2011. The Shah of Iran was exiled by millions of secular and religious demonstrators who took to the streets in 1979.
Leon Aron, director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, writes of his native Moscow in the Washington Post, “The Russian national tradition is unforgiving of military setbacks. Virtually every major defeat has resulted in radical change.”
The danger for the human race is that unlike other Russian leaders, Putin has dismantled whatever checks and balances had existed. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brehznev had Politburos and weren’t losing wars of epic miscalculation.
U.S. intel chiefs are concerned. “We assess Putin feels aggrieved,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told Congress on Tuesday. CIA Director William Burns expects Putin to “double down” in Ukraine, targeting civilians.
Writing in Foreign Affairs, analysts Emma Ashford and Joshua Shifrinson see the West and Russia “may now be entering into the terminal stages of an insecurity spiral” that could go nuclear. “One might hope policymakers find off-ramps at that stage, but there are no guarantees,” adding “spirals are defined by their tragic nature.”
U.S. Sen. Angus King said on Tuesday, “Putin may be the most dangerous man in history.”
The human race has entered an unprecedented and harrowing sequence.
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.