Saturday, February 26, 2022

Musings on Russia, the Ukraine and Nuclear War: Never?

             By Rudy Barnes, Jr., February 26, 2022

Ken Follett’s latest thriller, Never, offers some scary but plausible insight into the dangers of unintended consequences in diplomacy and limited conflict between nations with nuclear weapons.  The nuclear powers in Follett’s scenario are the US, North Korea and China; but the dynamics of Follett’s imaginative plot could apply to the Russian-Ukrainian imbroglio.

Putin has asserted a Russian version of the 1923 Monroe Doctrine as a vital Russian security interest that would treat any intervention by the US or NATO in Ukraine as a hostile act against Russia.  And after moving Russian troops into Ukraine, Putin has asserted that “There will be no compromise on Ukraine.”  So far, the US response has been economic sanctions.

Follett’s narrative describes how misjudgments in the use of force between nuclear powers can escalate into a nuclear holocaust.  Follett’s story was inspired by World War I, a war that nobody wanted but that happened anyway.  The Russian invasion of Ukraine follows a similar trajectory that could escalate from conventional conflict into a nuclear holocaust.   

I grew up during the Cold War and MAD: Mutually assured destruction.  It  deterred a direct military confrontation between Russia and America during the Cold War; but today there’s a real danger that a MAD strategy will no longer prevent a military confrontation between the US and Russia.  President Biden opposes the Russian invasion, while Donald Trump supports it.  

At this stage of the conflict, economic sanctions and cyberwar are the US means of challenging the Russian invasion of Ukraine; but a protracted Russian effort to control Ukraine will likely result in the escalation of US countermeasures, and the dangers are obvious:  As in Never, an escalation that produces US and Russian casualties could precipitate a nuclear war.

Cultural and religious values are involved, but only as a backdrop to national interests.  Communism is a secular religion based on national interests as determined by Party leaders; and as Follett speculated, the personal egos of communist leaders are more likely to guide their decisions on the use of nuclear weapons than any moral imperative of religion or politics.

Ken Follett’s book doesn’t have a happy ending.  Can the U.S. prevent a nuclear holocaust by an existing nuclear power or by a wanna-be nuclear power like Iran?  We can discourage a nation from becoming a nuclear power, but we can’t prevent it from happening, so we are doomed to live in the shadow of our own destruction, whether we like it or not.

Mankind has developed the technology to end the world, whether it’s a quick and dirty death by a nuclear holocaust or a slow death caused by a hostile environment.  We can’t blame God for the end times.  Democracy has made us masters of our destiny, and that destiny could be the destruction of the world if we don’t learn to live together in peace.      


Ken Follett’s latest epic is a cautionary tale of global catastrophe. “The central theme of Never is the never-ending possibility of nuclear catastrophe. In a brief Preface, Follett notes that the inspiration for Never came from the origins of World War I.  That devastating conflict was, in Follett’s view, ‘a war that nobody wanted.’ Yet it happened, anyway, the result of a complex series of treaties, international alliances and shortsighted decisions that would reshape the world and alter the nature of modern warfare. In Never, Follett posits a similar scenario, one made infinitely more dangerous by the worldwide proliferation of nuclear weapons. The resulting portrait of a world stumbling toward the unthinkable is credibly detailed and alarmingly plausible. Events in Africa take on international significance when an incident at the border of Chad and Sudan results in the shooting death of an American soldier. When investigators learn that the rifle involved was supplied by North Korea, major players from China and the United States step in, setting the stage for escalating actions and reactions. The United States President reacts by tightening existing economic sanctions against North Korea, a move regarded as ‘proportionate’ to the offense. But that proportionate response only exacerbates an already desperate economic situation, which in turn exacerbates the United States’ fraught relationship with North Korea and its principal ally, China. From this point on, things will deteriorate with astonishing speed, despite strenuous efforts by peacemakers in China and the United States. Shots are fired. Hard-liners on both sides push for increasingly violent responses, and the prospect of a peaceful resolution begins to fade. Matters take an even darker turn when rebel forces in North Korea revolt and take control of all nuclear bases in the country and bringing the prospect of an actual nuclear exchange that much closer to reality. Just as before the First World War, a variety of circumstances came together to create the conditions for a global catastrophe. Never is a cautionary tale about the power of unintended consequences, and it is disturbing and illuminating in equal measure. It reflects a sense of urgency that lifts it well above typical apocalyptic thrillers. Never is first-rate entertainment that has something important to say. It deserves the popular success it will almost certainly achieve.”  See

Max Boot has presented a stark contrast between President Biden and Donald Trump on how America should respond to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. “It’s commonplace on the right that the only reason that Vladimir Putin is invading Ukraine is that President Biden is too weak to deter him. As one right-winger tweeted: ‘I’m convinced that Putin would be a lot, LOT more hesitant to invade if Trump was President.’ To believe this is to suffer from temporary amnesia about how Donald Trump actually acted toward Putin while he was in office. The U.S. president rejected the findings of the United States’ own intelligence community about the hacking of the 2016 election and said: ‘President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.’ By the end of his presidency, Trump was surrounded by people such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has recently called Putin ‘a very talented statesman,’ ‘very shrewd,’ ‘very capable,’ and said, ‘I have enormous respect for him.’  Putin’s aggression against Ukraine is an act of ‘genius,’ according to Trump. He explained: ‘Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine — Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful. ‘I said, ‘How smart is that?’ And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper. ... We could use that on our southern border. That’s the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen. There were more army tanks than I’ve ever seen. They’re gonna keep peace all right. No, but think of it. Here’s a guy who’s very savvy.’ if Trump stages a comeback in 2024, he may well be counting on more political aid from Putin of the kind that he received in 2016. Trump is more about Russia First than America First.” See

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