By Steve Huntley
October 14, 2022
Well, Joe Biden certainly got our attention with his “Armageddon” talk about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine. Okay, Mr. President, now what?
Biden’s response was to shuffle off to his Delaware home and ignore reporters’ questions about his warning that the world was closer to nuclear confrontation than any time since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Then after a few days he resurfaced to say he doesn’t believe Putin actually would explode a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine. That’s his view today, maybe tomorrow he’ll be back at Armageddon.
He made his frightening remarks at a political fundraiser, talking of Armageddon as if he were some outsider, a casual observer at the end of the bar, rather than a key player who helped set it in motion.
Whatever Biden thinks at any moment, the threat remains, and more than a few Russian and foreign policy experts insist it is a credible one. So much so that Biden’s national security adviser says the administration warned Putin that Russia would face “catastrophic consequences” from the use of nuclear weapons, though the official didn’t say exactly what those consequences would be.
Let’s see, Russia escalates with a nuke, we then escalate with a “catastrophic” response. Then what?
You have to wonder if all this rhetoric is wandering into Dr. Strangelove territory.
Maybe it’s time for some new thinking about this war.
New thinking like the United States and the European Union should start pushing Ukraine and Russia toward talks, a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement of their war.
Endless bloodletting won’t benefit either side in the largest land war in Europe since World War II. Continued conflict with every increasing escalation might draw the West into a confrontation with Russia or, as Biden put it, “the prospect of Armageddon.”
Admittedly there are sound reasons why no one has thus far pressed for talks.
Putin is the bad guy here. This war is entirely his fault, he invaded a neighbor who posed no threat to Russia and started this war.
Ukraine, under the courageous leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky, confounded the predictions of military experts and inspired the world with its stunning battlefield successes against its larger and more powerful enemy. America and our European allies have been in the right in supplying the advanced weaponry making those successes possible.
In the best of all possible worlds, Putin would lose this war and his dictatorship over Russia.
But we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds.
In the real world we have to worry about the uncertain prospects for the days, weeks and months ahead.
It’s great that the Ukrainians have recaptured so much native soil from the Russian invaders with U.S. weapons and help. But Putin has called up a couple of hundred thousand reservists to throw into the fight in the months ahead, so there’s no guarantee all the Ukrainian advances will hold.
Moscow has raised the stakes by flinging missiles, artillery shells and explosive drones at Kiev and other Ukrainian cities, inflicting civilian casualties. And of course, that nuclear threat looms ominously.
Furthermore, let’s not forget that Europe faces the prospect of a freezing winter and economic recession from the loss of Russian oil and gas.
That’s where we stand now.
As for the future, each side has embraced war goals that are hardly realistic and verge on fantasy.
Zelensky talks of recovering all Ukrainian soil lost thus far to Russia, including Crimea and other lands taken in their first confrontation in 2014. Crimea is historically important not just to Putin but to the Russian people. Its potential loss would mark a crushing, humiliating defeat for Putin, endangering even his rule in Russia. Such a prospect would push him to reach for desperate measures.
Despite Zelensky’s lofty hopes, there is no certain Ukrainian victory in this war.
For his part, Putin already has, through sham votes in occupied territories and Kremlin edict, incorporated four Ukrainian provinces as part of Mother Russia. The rest of the world doesn’t recognize that annexation and Ukrainian battlefield advances have already reclaimed parts of them.
Putin’s goal of a greater Russia is a dream that has degenerated into a nightmare of failed ambition.
So why not talk?
A proposal for negotiations will run headlong into strenuous objections, as entrepreneur Elon Musk found out when he suggested talks.
First, the argument goes, a negotiated settlement would reward Putin with territorial gains, afford him an off ramp from a deteriorating predicament, constitute surrender to his nuclear blackmail, ignore his war crimes, and even encourage aggression at a later date.
Those arguments ignore the simple reality that Putin has suffered a massive, embarrassing setback.
His army has been exposed as more a paper tiger than the mighty Red Army that pushed the Nazis back from Stalingrad to the ruins of Berlin. It is a military crippled by low morale, poor training, inferior weaponry and incompetent leadership.
Moscow’s weapons turned out to lack the sophisticated precision-targeting technology of the West’s missiles and artillery. The universally predicted easy victory of the behemoth Russia over puny Ukraine was turned on its head by this reality, Ukraine’s resistance and American tactical assistance.
Putin’s goal of weakening NATO is also an abject failure. His invasion united NATO nations and spurred them to funnel weapons to Ukraine. An alarmed Sweden and Finland, long neutral in the East-West competition, clamored to join NATO.
Despite the omnipresence of Kremlin-controlled media, most Russians know that Putin’s war is going badly. Witness the tens of thousands of Russian men rushing for the borders to avoid Putin’s military call-up.
There’s next to no danger of Putin coming out of this looking like a winner. Putin’s strongman prestige is in the toilet and even a negotiated peace likely would leave him weakened in the Kremlin.
A more credible objection to a negotiated settlement is that it would represent a sellout of Zelensky and the brave Ukraine soldiers and population who have thrilled freedom-loving souls everywhere with their intrepid and inspiring resistance to Putin’s invaders.
Still, that must be weighed against the costs and threats of a war with no end in sight. The Ukrainian people have suffered terribly. They have demonstrated that their will can’t be broken. But Russia’s indiscriminate bombarding of civilian areas portend much more bloodshed.
Carrying on a war based on Zelensky’s grandiose war goals as the rest of Europe descends into a dark, freezing winter could threaten the solidarity that’s armed and fueled Ukraine’s army and its successes.
With inflation and the very real menace of recession looming, Americans may tire of sending billions of dollars to Kiev. From the start of this conflict, a not inconsiderable number of Americans have wondered: What’s our national interest in that war over there?
And in a world with other foreign policy dangers — China issuing threats against Taiwan, North Korea recklessly shooting missiles this way and that, Iran pursuing an atomic bomb while promoting terrorism — generals in the Pentagon and lawmakers on Capitol Hill may start to worry about Washington persistently drawing down America’s arsenal for Ukraine’s sake.
Finally, there’s the objection that both sides could reject talks out of hand.
The United States is in a powerful position to push the cause of negotiations.
If Russia accepted talks and Ukraine didn’t, support for U.S. aid to Kiev would start falling, maybe even plummet. If Kiev said yes and Russia rejected negotiations, the United States could tell Putin that more and more lethal high-tech weaponry is on the way to the battlefield.
A further incentive for Putin is that Moscow friends such as China and India are tiring of this war.
An international conference is coming up next month, but Biden says he won’t meet with Putin. Perhaps someone might mention to the president that a no-talk stance only guarantees more bloodshed. I’m not here to argue against the decisions of past leaders, but there’s little doubt that the unconditional surrender demands of America and its World War II allies kept Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan fighting long after it had become obvious they had lost the war, costing countless allied and enemy lives.
Biden’s no-talk stance can only paint Putin into a corner, a dangerous corner for the people of the region and for the rest of the world.
Should we keep the war going just to punish Putin more than he’s already been punished?
Should we risk a gradual escalation until we wake up one morning and find a line has been crossed from the United States being in a proxy war to fighting an actual war with Russia? Anyone who has read Barbara Tuchman’s classic account of the start of World War I, The Guns of August, is familiar with how great nations can stumble into catastrophe.
Perhaps a push for a ceasefire and talks might fail for some unknown reason, or some unpredictable development might doom Putin. But there are no signs of that happening.
Some of the experts claim the prospects of Putin using a nuclear missile are low. But why gamble? Are the stakes in this war so high to justify nuclear brinkmanship?
Why shouldn’t we at least start to try to end this bleeding ulcer with its potential to drag us to the precipice of nuclear war? Once the first nuke is fired, it’s easier to use another one.
In other words, Armageddon.
The return of Steve Huntley.
Huntley, a veteran Chicago journalist now living in Austin, Texas has contributed several columns to johnkassnews.com, ranging from his examination of Chicago’s secret prison for the jailed statues of Christopher Columbus, to a piece about Americans suffering from Biden gas pain.
For almost three decades Huntley spent most of his career in Chicago journalism at the Chicago Sun-Times, as a feature writer, metro reporter, night city editor, metropolitan editor, editorial page editor and columnist.
He’d also been a reporter and editor with United Press International (UPI) in the South and Chicago, and Chicago bureau chief and a senior editor in Washington with U.S. News & World Report. Northwestern University Press has issued soft cover and eBook editions of Knocking Down Barriers: My Fight for Black America by Truman K. Gibson Jr. with Steve Huntley, a memoir of a Chicagoan who was a member of President Roosevelt’s World War II Black Cabinet working to desegregate the military.
It is an honor and privilege to have Mr. Huntley, who spent decades as a newsman of the old school in Chicago, writing pieces here.