It is said that whoever first diagnoses a situation as dangerous is wise, and whoever first accuses someone as responsible is foolish. Of course, what if these are the same person? For Thomas Hobbes, there are two kinds of people — natural persons like you are me, and artificial persons like states and corporations. Among states are great powers like the United States, wannabe great powers like China, and once-was great powers like Russia. Great powers, as Hobbesian historian John J. Mearsheimer argues, aim to dominate their region of the world. China, Mearsheimer’s argument goes, wants to dominate southeast Asia just as America dominates the western Hemisphere. To be the only great power in a system of states is to be a regional hegemon. America is the only regional hegemon at the moment, but that might change soon. So where does that leave the resurgence of Russian power, and the prophesied return of a great Eurasian power?
It leaves Russia as it always was — paranoid, fearful, and cautiously ambitious. The idea that Russia has a distinctively imperialist mentality is silly. That’s what Russia says about the West. And there is truth to both allegations, as western democracies are what Jeffrey Winters calls ‘civil oligarchies’, just as Russia is more akin to ‘sultanistic oligarchies’, while China echoes the Roman model of ‘ruling oligarchies’. Russia’s connection to petrol states in the middle East through OPEC introduces the fourth of Winter’s classification schema: ‘warring oligarchies’. The inflationary consequences of Russia’s invasion of — or ‘special military operation’ in the eastern part of — Ukraine echoes the rise of resource wars around our climate change-stricken world. The world’s reemergence from coronavirus-induced lockdown compounds the pressures a transnational conflict would produce anyway. But these are no normal times.
And yet, the logic of great power conflict, as the LSE’s Christopher Coker puts it, remains the same. MAD or mutually assured destruction effectively rules out use of nuclear weapons against another nuclear-armed country or a country under another country’s nuclear umbrella. Now, Ukraine is in no such formal situation, but since this conflict is being fought by Russia’s fear that Ukraine will join NATO, any use of nuclear weapons would be completely against the moral and political purposes of Russia’s actions. How are denazification and dewesternisation connected to nuclear detonation? The last time nuclear weapons were used in wartime was when America detonated atomic bombs above the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to hasten the end of the war in the Pacific. That was before more than one country possessed useable nuclear weapons. But if Russia were to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, it would not hasten the end of the conflict, but constitute a step towards further escalation that could plausibly lead to mutual destruction of the great powers whose money and power run through this minor power conflict. It would also be horrific and wrong.
It is disturbing that this possibility is even considered, yet alone recklessly entertained in article after article. What use does it do? It merely incentivises escalation by western politicians, eager to please the blood-goading media corporations that wish to see the world burn before we take a calm look at things. So get a grip: Russia is not going to nuke Ukraine. But the media’s rhetoric may just encourage western leaders with poor foreign policy experience in great power conflict to make a mistake that cannot be reversed. May the heavens have mercy on us all.
Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?