"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"There are now more warheads in storage or pending destruction than operational in the stockpiles of the US and Russia."
As if Covid wasn't enough to worry about, the spectre of nuclear war rises from the vault of history at the command of Putin. He's spun up old demons, harsh realities, and power plays that Machiavelli would relish.
Conventional wisdom is that Putin has 'miscalculated' with his invasion of the Ukraine. His blitzkrieg has stalled. He has reinvigorated the NATO alliance and the EU, triggering heavy sanctions. And he has lost the 'information war' to a savvy TV comedian turned global hero.
Experts observe that the Russians appear incapable of combined operations and don't have air superiority. Meanwhile, their logistics are poor.
In all this, the thinking goes that Putin must get an exit strategy because, if cornered, his actions are unpredictable. The danger for NATO is that a failing, and flailing, Putin may use nuclear weapons. It is worth remembering that Russian doctrine includes using nukes early to prevail over the enemy.
But is that the correct analysis or the product of Western and Ukrainian propaganda? There is another narrative here from a former US soldier. In his view, the Russians are following their usual doctrine. In this interpretation of events, that mythical forty-mile long 'stranded' convoy is no such thing. Instead, he says, we are witnessing a build-up of resources for Phase II of the operation.
Also, if the worst-case scenario of a nuclear exchange occurs, it will be very different from what people expect. Most people assume two nuclear powers, standing toe-to-toe, lobbing missile after missile at each other. The outcome is complete destruction. Yet that 'shot your wad' approach looks unlikely these days.
During the Cold War, when the US/USSR possessed 60,000 plus weapons combined, they could blast each other into the Stone Age with ‘mutual assured destruction’. That has changed.
The Cold War peace dividend saw a vast drawdown in the size of nuclear arsenals. There are now more warheads in storage or pending destruction than operational in the stockpiles of the US and Russia. The US has about 1400 active nukes, while Russia has about 1600. Also, warhead yields have dropped while accuracy has increased.
These changes prompted a switch in the approach to target selection and how you'd use nuclear weapons. Forget the firing of many weapons hitting many targets simultaneously, as outlined in the document below — this details an anticipated nuclear strike on the UK with 150 nuclear warheads in the first wave.
Instead, the current thinking goes as follows; attacking cities with nukes only allows for one thing, retaliation on your populace which no sane leader can countenance. So, unless a city has a vital political or military target near it, common sense says these wouldn't get hit.
Yes, any conflict will be conventional for some time until one side determines that they need to use tactical nuclear weapons. That being the case, they opt to hit enemy army units — who then retaliate, leading to a gradual use of nukes on the battlefield.
Here is where things become somewhat complicated, plus much more dangerous. One side decides to cross the strategic nuclear threshold by 'sending a message' to their opponent. They hit a military base on their opponent's soil or a critical piece of infrastructure, taking the nuclear option beyond the battlefield.
This move triggers a series of small scale nuclear exchanges with ten weapons fired here; twenty fired there. This takes place over days or even weeks in a 'tit-for-tat' exchange. These targets would only be military locations.
And you don't need to target cities because these are already in chaos as people panic. As citizens attempt to flee, life in major urban centres grinds to a halt. The emergency services and the local government collapse as no one is there to run things. All this is achieved without having to attack a city directly.
Don't get me wrong. The consequence of these nukes is devastating. We'd see societal collapse pushed along by cyber-attacks, with disruptions to banking, food supplies, and utilities — disorder would be everywhere. Moreover, fleeing citizens could face plumes of radioactive fallout, even from a limited exchange, with physical and phycological traumas off the scale. None of this is pretty.
Studies have shown that even a limited nuclear war could impact world food supplies. For example, a nuclear war between India and Pakistan could produce a global famine. The massive amounts of dust pushed into the upper atmosphere would reduce sunlight, cutting the world's harvest by an estimated 20 per cent.
And if you think countries are capable of mounting a defence, consider this assessment on the state of Britain's defences. Given the lack of investment, stunning mis-managament. even a conventional attack would get through to take out critical infrastructure. But hey, at least the UK has gender-neutral toilets and rainbow-coloured flags on public buildings. That's the important stuff.
All this explains why NATO won't impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Any such move would lead to direct conflict between NATO and the Russians, soon escalating into something much bigger. When that happens, all bets are off.
Most importantly, Putin knows all this and understands the game he's playing. He has run the West's calculations, knows the responses to give, and despite his current troubles on the ground, he holds many cards. In effect, he has NATO on a tightrope, wobbling along.
By now, it is evident that sanctions aren't impacting Putin's thinking. And I'm not buying into the rhetoric that he is unstable or gone mad. Western analysts may find comfort in such assessments because Putin confounded their 'expertise,' thus falling back on the nutter trope absolves them.
Instead, I see a man carrying out a plan, albeit he misjudged the level of resistance from the Ukrainian forces and people. But it seems he got several important things right, including that NATO can't and won't do much in the strict military sense.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.