Documentary filmmakers understand the power of moving images and the candid moment.
HBO’s six-part series “The Jinx” revealed evidence that may seal the conviction of its subject, Robert Durst. More importantly for the world, however, was the new Russian state television documentary about the Crimean crisis, starring a President Vladimir Putin who raised the specter of nuclear war.
When Putin said he was ready to put nuclear forces on alert during last year’s Russian invasion, he lowered the nuke threshold. The world is, after all, mostly operating under the hair trigger nuclear military doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. This doctrine is the global murder-suicide pact tacitly entered into by all declared member nations of the nuclear club.
Putin is redefining and reassessing the MAD doctrine in the post-Cold War era. But he is not alone.
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Military planners and political leaders around the world are both gaming and training for the tactical use of nuclear weaponry – from field weapons to medium-range missiles – that would cause limited damage but incalculable consequences.
These new weapons and tactics would aim to destroy adversaries’ will to fight or retaliate, but not necessarily their capacity to do so. As a result, Putin is actively changing the unwritten rules of atomic age warfare.
The mere conceivable willingness or desire by an embattled, enraged or simply aggrieved leader to use nukes could be enough to prevent any real or perceived challenge to his nation or leadership. This threat is a strong check on any adversary.
Serious questions arise in this refreshed strategic environment: “What’s it worth to you?” is the unspoken question a sabre-rattling Putin posits.
Is the West willing to risk nuclear war by supporting or intervening in Ukraine, for example? Suddenly nuclear winter becomes imaginable simply by turning the unthinkable into a plausible military option and strategic plan.
Is Putin bluffing? If so, what are the costs of calling his hand? And who is willing to do it? NATO? In 2014, Putin warned: “It’s best not to mess with us.”
We have seen scenes from this movie before. Despite the general and deserved lauding today of Ronald Reagan’s success at arms control, there was always an outsider’s sense that he was so steely and ideological in his worldview that he had an itchy trigger finger and, if threatened, would not hesitate to launch a Peacekeeper.
This impression was reinforced when he offhandedly (or intentionally) made the hot-mike comment: “We begin bombing in five minutes.”
If allies or adversaries were worried that Reagan was unafraid to use nukes, this casual (or calculated) off-air radio remark reinforced that belief.
During his time in office, Reagan often was caricatured as a cowboy willing to shoot nukes from the hip. This image created great tensions with citizens at home and in allied nations, but it may also have helped bring the Soviets to the arms negotiating table.
Putin is no Reagan – not by a long shot – but is Putin raising the nuclear stakes to intimidate America and her allies to move toward a negotiating table favoring an otherwise relatively weak and reckless Russia?
Did he use his documentary appearance and recent military war games to force the West to think twice about further tightening the screws on Russian economic sanctions? Whatever high-stakes game Putin is playing, it is a dangerous game to play.
Putin may be the most recent leader to articulate the dynamic shift in approach toward the tactical use of nuclear weapons, but he represents a shift taking shape in militaries around the world.
Not every launched nuke needs to be a city-destroying, bunker-busting, command structure-wiping blow. But one thing is true in every capital where these discussions are taking place: The more imaginable the use of nuclear weapons, the more imagined their use.
Without a shared understanding of doctrinal shifts, however, we must also be aware that one country’s imaginably tactical use of a weapon could easily be interpreted by another as an existentially threatening strategic strike. Which leads us back to the MAD path of escalation and nuclear retaliation.
Or not. We do not know, because this is a whole new world – with new players like Iran on the horizon – and a whole new approach, technologies, weaponry and military theories that have never been tested.
What we do know is that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists keeps time on a Doomsday Clock ticking down toward global annihilation. That timepiece is now three minutes to midnight following years of slowly moving the hands back.
Late night TV reruns of “Dr. Strangelove” are as close to nuclear war as our world should ever get. It should be everyone’s hope that no nuclear holocaust documentaries soon play in a military theater near you.