A reader asked this popular question a couple of days ago, and it deserves a longer answer than I could provide in the Comments (“Is anything?”).
First, ‘Armageddon’ has to mean a shootout with strategic nuclear weapons. That isn’t on the cards because neither side wants it.
Putin probably has the technical capacity to annihilate Britain and France, the two nuclear powers in the civilised part of Europe. However, some major Russian cities would also go up in smoke, including the ones where Putin and his jolly friends live.
Also, if Britain no longer exists, where will those gangsters find schools for their children, hospitals for themselves and laundromats for their purloined trillions? And what will happen to their mansions in the best parts of London? No, I’m sure they’ll keep their fingers off that button come what may.
As yet no post-Hiroshima war has involved nuclear weapons. The Israelis were ready to use them as a last resort in 1973, but that proved unnecessary. Neither the US nor Russia has gone nuclear in any conflicts. India and Pakistan keep their nukes in the silos – this though both would dearly love to see those mushrooms sprouting on the other side.
The question would be more apposite if we replaced ‘Armageddon’ with ‘conventional war’. Is the Ukraine worth risking such a war between NATO and Russia?
Let’s say “no, it isn’t” and see what happens, staying within the boundaries of the “What if…” genre of history. Suppose a bloody war between Russia and the Ukraine breaks out, which is a possibility but, as President Zelensky stated, not necessarily a certainty.
Hundreds of thousands of Russians may not survive the war, and Putin’s regime may not survive all those KIA notices. That possibility will remain even if Russia emerges victorious, which it probably will.
But let’s assume the Ukraine is conquered, and Putin hangs on. What then?
The Anschluss of Belarus will definitely follow (it’s likely to happen even if Putin decides against further aggression against the Ukraine). Kazakhstan and some other ex-Soviet Asian republics will re-join the fold, a truncated USSR will be reconstituted.
Is this possibility worth risking a war? Let’s assume it isn’t and keep our conjecture going.
Will Putin’s appetite be sated? Probably not. Russia may have been hit by crippling sanctions. Will the Russians be happy to have their standard of living drop from low down to puny? Will they be happy to swap empty fridges for TV sets full of bugle toots and drumbeats?
They may, up to a point. But certainly not indefinitely. When the rumble of discontent turns into a growl, Putin will have two options.
One will be to unleash the kind of terror for which his idol Stalin is known and, in some quarters, still loved. This isn’t feasible, even though Putin and his gang wouldn’t be held back by any moral compunctions.
Tightening the screws more than they are already tightened, yes. Murdering millions and enslaving the rest – unlikely. Different times, different mores, different Russians. Herzen did write that the strongest chains shackling people are forged out of victorious swords, but I simply can’t imagine today’s Russians sitting still for Stalinesque terror.
The other, likelier, option will be to empty those fridges out completely, but at the same time ratcheting up the volume of the TV bugles and drums. More conquests, in other words.
The next logical target in our hypothetical “What if…” scenario would be the three Baltic republics, NATO members all. Article 5 of the NATO Charter specifies that an attack on one member is an attack on all. Should NATO go to war then?
If not, NATO is dead as an effective deterrent to Russia, which is the sole purpose for which it was formed in the first place. That means the US, which is growing more and more isolationist, will fold its nuclear umbrella and go home, leaving Europe to her own vices and devices.
The continent may not be occupied by Russia, but it’ll definitely be dominated by her. That’s another way of saying that Europe will no longer be free.
The combined resources of a now de-NATOed Europe will still be sufficient to contain Russia, provided those resources are mobilised and activated, not to mention underpinned by steely resolve. However, such an effort is extremely unlikely, if recent history is anything to go by.
Realising this, and Putin’s KGB training means he’s unlikely to overlook it, Russia will be encouraged to move into Poland and beyond. So is that worth risking a war?
The number of hands voting aye is increasing now. By then even slow learners will have realised that the foot is off the brakes of the rolling juggernaut, and it won’t stop by itself.
But let’s say the nays still have it. And next thing you know a Russian airborne division lands in Kent, with a puppet government in tow. What then? Should we fight?
Here the support for a belligerent response becomes overwhelming. The spirit of the Blitz, the roar of the lion, we’ll fight them on the beaches and all that… Well, you know the drill.
Hence, going back to my counter question (“Is anything?”), the answer is an unequivocal yes. By the old method of reductio ad absurdum, we’ve agreed that some things are definitely worth risking war.
The original question could then be further rephrased to say, “What are those things?” Or else, “At what point in our hypothetical progression must we fight?”
Here we leave the domain of “What if…” to enter one of dispassionate analysis, based on the thorough knowledge of the relevant facts and intimate understanding of the key players in this game. It’s on these bases that I form my judgement:
The earlier we snip the chain of events I’ve outlined, the better. This chain may be hypothetical, but the hypothesis is solid, supported as it is by the nature of Putin’s regime – and an understanding of evil.
This last constituent is especially hard for middle-class Westerners to grasp, and who these days isn’t middle class? Bourgeois mentality is such that good people boasting two chickens in every garage, two cars in every pot, 2.5 children and a nice house in the suburbs can’t easily grasp that some other people may be drastically different.
A little different, yes, we can all get our heads around that. But yahoos knowing no civilised restraints on their behaviour? No, leave that stuff for horror films. Real life isn’t like that, even if it might have been in the past – or may still be in the low-rent parts of the world.
Alas, real life is exactly like that. Some people are evil; under certain historical and cultural conditions evil people create evil regimes. And evil regimes do evil things that seem irrational, and therefore impossible, to good people.
I’m certain that my macabre progression must not be allowed to unfold. How, is a different matter.
It’s clear that NATO won’t fight to save the Ukraine, so that point is moot. However, Putin must be made to pay an exorbitant price for perpetrating evil in the heart of Europe.
I doubt any sanctions can be severe enough to deter that particular evil, but I’m no expert. It’s possible that, at some cost to their own comfort, NATO countries could destroy Russia’s economy, entirely based as it is on export-import.
Moreover, a promise to do so may prevent Putin’s march into Eastern Europe. Provided – and this is a sine qua non proviso – both sides are sure that the West is ready to impose such sanctions. In the absence of that certainty, the threat of sanctions is no more effective than threatening a thug with a gun he knows isn’t loaded.