Will Putin go nuclear?

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

A ghastly tragedy Ukraine may well be, but it is coming to the rescue of a number of British Conservative politicians. Most notably Boris Johnson, of course, who would surely be out of a job by now if Vladimir Putin had not rolled those tanks across the border on 24 February, just as Sue Gray was getting her act together. A little later, Ukraine gave David Cameron a facelift as he was photographed driving a van full of supplies to the transgressed country. Supplies of what? Large sacks full of smuggery and emollience, one supposes. Or tiny wind turbines like that one he shoved on the side of his house to buttress his green credentials and which would take seven years and three months to boil water for a cup of tea.

The latest is Brooks Newmark. I had forgotten all about Brooks and it would not surprise me if you had, too. A former Conservative MP, he has been funding – and indeed taking part in – rescue missions to bring Ukrainian refugees to the UK and has (according to the Times) ‘almost single-handedly’ delivered to this country more than 7,500 Ukrainian women and children.

Brooks is a former Conservative MP, rather than a sitting one, because in 2014 it was revealed that he had sent naked photographs of himself to an undercover reporter posing as a nubile Tory activist. He had previously co-founded the organisation Women2Win, which was designed to ‘encourage women to enter into politics where they can become better acquainted with my penis’, or something. Anyway, as a consequence he was forced to stand down at the 2015 general election and saw his very safe Braintree seat eagerly snaffled up by James Cleverly. Perhaps in the days to come we will see news reports of Neil Parish MP driving a Dominator combine harvester to the vast and fertile underbelly of Ukraine to help with the harvesting of their neglected wheat fields. I do hope so.

Perhaps he had better hurry and not be too distracted on the way. The noises emanating from the Kremlin and its increasingly absurd propaganda news channels have been described in our morning papers as ‘chilling’. This, I suspect, is because that is their sole purpose. The latest came from Dmitry Kiselyov, the dim-witted son of a peasant appointed by Putin to be head of the state-owned media group Rossiya Segodnya, and a regular performer on the current affairs show News of the Week. Kiselyov posited that Russia should detonate a Poseidon thermo-nuclear missile off the coast of Great Britain which would cause a 500m-high tsunami, thus engulfing the entire country and killing us all. ‘This wave also carries extreme doses of radiation. Having passed over Britain, it will leave what is left of them in a radioactive desert, unfit for anything for a long time,’ Dmitry added with a smirk.

Earlier the editor of Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan, had suggested nuking the West with one of the country’s famous and exciting ‘Satan 2’ missiles (‘Hey, tovarich, are we the badguys?’). Importantly, Simonyan added that the West would respond similarly and that while the Russians would go to heaven, everyone else would simply ‘croak’.

This echoed – in almost identical language – a statement made by Putin in 2018. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian government’s foreign minister, on detachment from the Addams Family, has spoken about the inevitability of nuclear war too. Kiselyov has expressed the same fatalism as well, asking rhetorically of nuclear war with the West: ‘Why do we need a world if Russia is not in it?’ These statements, carefully choreographed and designed to have the heftiest possible impact on countries which, perversely, Putin thinks of as ‘aggressors’ are intended to convince the West, should it need such convincing, that Russia is ready to deploy nuclear missiles and that it is almost inevitable it will do so. More crucially, they are also intended to convince us that Russians do not give a monkey’s if they are wiped off the face off the Earth as a result.

This tells us two things, First and most obviously, that Russia does not think that it is remotely capable of winning a nuclear exchange with the West. Second, that Putin has identified the West’s weakness in our fight against Islamic extremism. As the jihadis would often triumphantly proclaim: ‘You fear death – we do not. We welcome it.’ The West is not prepared to risk everything because it is too comfortable and, in any case, is not entirely convinced by the concept of a welcoming and lavishly furnished heaven, still less the generous provision of 72 virgins per person etc.

It is interesting, then, that Putin would go down this route, learned from religiously inspired belligerents who have been Russia’s adversaries every bit as much as ours. But it is all there in the statement – first made by Putin – that ‘we will go to heaven, they will just croak’, and echoed in the sangfroid with which every official spokesperson bandies about the prospect of nuclear war.

Does it work as a threat? For it to do so, we would have to believe that the lives of the ordinary Russian people are every bit as destitute and miserable as those of the impecunious ragtag cave-dwellers who comprised al Qaeda or the Islamic State. I do not think this is the case. Russians don’t enjoy a standard of living that equates to our own, but in general they graded themselves a 6.0 out of ten for life satisfaction in 2017, only a little below the OECD average of 6.7.

We would also have to believe that Russians invest in their leader and in their country the same religious certitude and absolutism in which Islamic extremists invest in their faith. It is certainly true that Putin has fostered a quasi-fascist, quasi–spiritual nationalism in his country, but it is still nowhere near the unquestioned sanctity with which an Islamist regards Islam. I think, for the moment, my Geiger counter can stay in its box under the stairs.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments