Imagine for the sake of argument that you are in charge of Putin’s propaganda. You know and your boss knows and everybody knows that the bandit raid on the Ukraine has been a resounding failure.
If you two harboured rosy hopes a week ago, the brilliant Ukrainian breakthrough over the past few days has disabused you of any such notions.
You know and your boss knows and everybody knows that only one development could stop the Ukrainian army in its tracks, saving what’s left of Putin’s forces and indeed his very regime. The flow of Western arms to the Ukrainians must slow down to a trickle or, ideally, stop altogether.
You rack your brain and ask yourself how your role model, Dr Goebbels, would approach the problem. A clever man, he would first have assessed what had been done so far.
Putin set high hopes on the energy blockade of Europe. Make those soft Westerners pay through the nose or freeze in the dark and, faster than you can say blackmail, they’ll twist the Ukraine’s arm into surrender, otherwise known as a peace process. Alas, those hopes have so far proved forlorn.
Europeans have not only managed to fill their gas storages to the brim, but they’ve also set in motion the wheels of energy independence. Nuclear reactors and even fracking are no longer seen as the work of the devil, and a stepped-up production at existing hydrocarbon fields no longer appals Western politicians.
What next then? You’ve thought long and hard about this conundrum, you’ve consulted Putin, your girlfriend, your wife, her boyfriend – anyone willing to listen and offer advice. They all agree with your innermost conviction: the only way to make the West back off is to threaten the use of nuclear weapons – first on the Ukrainians and second on anyone daring to interfere.
Sorted. The regime’s USP has been established, and it will now become the hub around which the whole media strategy will revolve. Mind you, Russian propagandists don’t even have to be briefed: they’ve already been sputtering nuclear threats for years.
You know, turning the US into radioactive ash, creating the Stalin Strait between Canada and Mexico, sinking the British Isles, that sort of thing. But those chaps have become a bit of a joke. Nobody in the West pays any attention to them any longer, and even the Russians are beginning to get jaded.
The boss himself has made similar threats, and they carried some weight for a while. At first, the West was in no hurry to arm those bloody Ukies. But when the Russian offensive ran out of steam, Westerners, especially those satanic Anglos, got emboldened. Rather than dwindling away, the arms supplies to the Ukraine grew exponentially.
No, for that threat to be credible it has to come from respectable Western sources, journalists perhaps or, even better, academics or, better still, academics who are also journalists. Let’s see, who’d be up for it?
Enter Mark Almond, Director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford. You know Mark well – until such moonlighting lost street cred, he had appeared a few times on your propaganda channel RT, mouthing sweet nothings about an urgent need for peace based on mutual understanding.
Not only does he not mind taking RT’s rouble, but he has also established himself in his own right as a reliable Putinversteher, to use that apt German neologism. Someone who understands Putin, feels his pain.
Easier done than said. You didn’t even have to ask, Putinversteheren get messages from ambient air, osmotically.
Sensitive to such emanations, Almond knocked off an article for The Mail in which he poses the big question: “Will Vladimir Putin go nuclear so that he can save his own skin?”
Back in 1995, I happened to spend a few days with Mark in Minsk, where both of us were British observers at the Belorussian elections. At that time I vouchsafed to him an observation that took our hacks another 10 years to make, and some still haven’t cottoned on.
Nothing, I said, had changed in Russia fundamentally. All those much-vaunted glasnosts and perestroikas were merely a transfer of power from the Party to the KGB.
Mark cast a furtive glance around to make sure no one was listening. “You can’t say that,” he half-whispered. “The most you are allowed to say is that unfortunately democracy in Russia isn’t developing as rapidly as we hoped.” “Allowed by whom?” I sneered, showing how badly I knew the lie of the media land.
At that time I ascribed Mark’s reaction to his unswerving devotion to the middle of the road, so characteristic of the British middle classes. Now, having since seen him on RT and read his articles, I am not so sure.
Having first treated his readers to a few truisms, such as describing the Ukrainian advance as “a brilliant tactical move” and praising the Ukrainians who, in contrast to the Russians, “are willing to die for their country”, Almond delivered the kernel of the message:
“… we may be approaching the most dangerous moment in the war. Schooled in Russia’s history and the ignominious end of so many of its leaders, Putin might be willing to do anything to prevent his assassination – even going nuclear to save his own skin.
“This counter-offensive is hugely significant, then – and we must cheer that Ukraine has gained a crucial military initiative. The risk, however, is that it prompts a far more terrible response.”
Why bother saying that? As you have surmised by now, my suspicion is that Almond is simply echoing the media strategy worked out in the Kremlin (or rather whatever bunker Putin is cowering in – no Zelensky, he). But I am prepared to entertain other ideas.
One idea is that Almond can only ever think in truisms and banalities. For he made no points that any mentally competent 10-year-old couldn’t have made, provided he had been following the hostilities.
Yes, Putin’s war isn’t going according to plan. Yes, the Ukrainian counteroffensive was brilliant. Yes, Putin can’t afford to lose the war. Yes, there’s the danger of him using last-resort nuclear weapons. All true. But why state the bleeding obvious?
A serious analyst would have played out the possible scenarios to decide how likely such a desperate measure was. He should have mentioned, if only for the sake of dispelling it, the rumour that Nato has put a quiet word into Putin’s shell-like that any use of any nuclear weapons, big or small, would lead to a deadly attack not on Russian troops but on him personally.
He should have tried to gauge the possible public reaction in Russia to the use of nuclear weapons. Every indication suggests that the support of the war is waning already. What would happen if the Russians felt they could find themselves under nuclear attack?
Would even the countries tepidly friendly to Russia, such as China, continue to be her friends if Russia resorted to nuclear terrorism? In the likely event that they wouldn’t, how would the Russians like their country becoming the global pariah it has never been in the past, not to the same extent?
Even if the Russians only used battlefield nukes, the neighbouring Nato countries would probably suffer from a deadly fallout. Would that be treated as a sufficient cause to trigger Article 5 of the Nato Charter?
The order to launch a nuclear strike has to circulate through different intermediate stages and can be countermanded at any of them. How likely would that be? Or even, how likely would it be that some high-ranking Russian officer would do a Stauffenberg in response?
At least two Soviet officers, Adm. Vasili Arkhipov in 1962 and Col. Stanislav Petrov in 1983, disobeyed nuclear orders in the past. It’s improbable that Putin enjoys more canine obedience from his officers than, respectively, Khrushchev and Andropov enjoyed from theirs.
Having analysed all such factors, a serious analyst would have come to the conclusion that a Russian nuclear strike in the Ukraine is hard, though of course not impossible, to imagine. In any case, such fears aren’t realistic enough to keep the West from pressing ahead. Supplying the Ukraine with the tools to finish the job isn’t merely our moral duty but, more important, also a matter of strategic necessity.
That’s how I’d write about the Russian nuclear threat. But then my aim would be to understand the problem and then communicate that understanding as best I could.
Almond’s objective seems to be Kremlin-inspired fearmongering, though couched in the vapid terms of mainstream journalism.