75 seconds to midnight: Ringing Doom's Doorbell

By RYAN LEE

A Russian intercontinental ballistic missile is launched in February at an undisclosed location, as part of the Kremlin's tests


The Doomsday Clock Statement is a report published yearly by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It describes, in a minimalist yet macabre fashion, how close the world is to collective suicide by nuclear fire. This year, the statement reads that we are “At Doom’s Doorstep: It is 100 seconds to midnight”. This is with reference to the geopolitical chaos as of late; with Iran continuing to build up its enriched uranium stockpile, and with China starting to build ICBM silos on a large scale.


This all certainly sounds terrifying; 100 seconds sounds far too close to an apocalyptic situation. Worryingly, however, the clock seems to be ticking closer to midnight by the day. Its last measurement, on the 7th March, was inconsiderate of the escalating situation in Ukraine - with Russia making ever more threats.


If we were at Doom’s Doorstep then, surely we are now at the stage where we are repeatedly ringing Doom’s Doorbell. Indeed, it feels like we are at 75 seconds to midnight. But are these claims exaggerated, or are we truly on the way to hell in a handbasket at the hands of Vladimir Putin?


Many of the experts that are proponents of the view that escalation is highly likely are also ones who subscribe to the now-vogue view that ‘MAD is dead’. The MAD Doctrine refers to Mutually Assured Destruction, essentially stating that ‘If we launch our nuclear weapons at the enemy, they will launch nuclear weapons back; so we shouldn’t launch our nuclear weapons’. This Cold War-era truism is being challenged by some who point at some recently revealed peculiarities in Putin’s personality.


The argument made is that Putin does seem mad enough to disregard MAD. Mikhail Zygar, a Russian journalist, has described Putin’s worldview to be one combining “Orthodox Christian mysticism, anti-American conspiracy theories, and hedonism”. Putin is said to be “obsessed with resurrecting the Russian empire”, being unconcerned with how present conditions and future possibilities might hinder this goal. If it really were the case that Putin has become an irrational actor, then, MAD - which assumes that all actors are rational - does not hold as a theory.


However, there is another school of thought that sees Putin as bluffing, and taking a page out of Richard Nixon’s playbook. Nixon employed the use of ‘madman theory’ during the Vietnam War, continually threatening Russia with the use of nuclear weapons and making supposedly irrational decisions. It was then hoped that Russia would feel compelled to back down and discuss ending the war. How ironic it is that the very same strategy is now being employed against the US. By threatening to make choices that are detrimental to both parties, the goal of Putin’s strategy is to force the US to try to pacify him. The US would be willing to do so because it is better for them to lose Ukraine to Russia than to risk losing the entire world on the off-chance Putin is actually serious about using nuclear weapons.


The likely case is that Putin is aware of the way he is viewed and is actively cultivating the image of himself as unstable. It is unlikely he is actually insane. Could a non-rational person truly rise through the ranks of the KGB, and serve in many billets requiring political savvy and diplomatic skill? It is implausible that a man without a keen understanding of geopolitics would be able to survive in the political arena for so long; let alone maintain the grip of power on Russia.


And just by looking at the results of this strategy, we can surely see that it is effective. This deliberate ploy from Putin (differing from Nixon’s initial attempt) has achieved significant success so far. The West has dilly-dallied in their discussion on the imposition of a No-Fly Zone and, in part through fear that Putin will pull the trigger, has committed no troops on the ground. Putin has effectively created a no-win situation, where the West cannot act through their fear of the possibility of nuclear war.


Whether Putin really is mad, or just bluffing, is secondary to the fact that he has put the West in an extremely delicate position. The West is damned if they intervene, given the ever-possible threat of nuclear war; and damned if they stay out, as they will surely lose Ukraine to Russia.


Putin’s seemingly ‘Cuckoo image’ is in fact a cleverly calculated strategy of clockwork precision. On a larger scale, what really causes the Doomsday Clock to tick closer to midnight is not Putin’s threats. What really causes the Doomsday Clock to tick forward is the deliberate manipulation of the MAD Doctrine and, with that, the uncertainty that Putin has implanted about whether MAD even applies in our present day.



Image: Flickr / Ben Mindall