The Doomsday Clock is ticking louder — opinion

How could the fate of the whole world once again depend on the aggression of a single country? How was it possible to sleep through the Russian threat, and now delay aid to Ukraine?

I gave a lecture in Uzhhorod in early April when linden trees were about to bloom there. A few weeks later in Lviv, peonies, the flowers I usually give to my wife on her birthday in early June, were sold at city markets.

In the context of the war in Ukraine, it might seem insignificant that pants that usually flower in summer, are now in bloom by April-May. But it is related to war, although in a rather roundabout way: we’re in the midst of global changes on which the survival of humanity depends.

In the late 2000s, experts warned that global warming and further population growth in the next two decades would lead to a 50% increase in food and energy needs, and a 30% increase in water needs. If fundamentally new technological solutions aren’t found by then, we’ll face a global crisis in 2030.

This prediction is in line with the so-called Olduvai theory.

It’s named after a gorge in Tanzania where the first and most primitive stone tools were found. According to the Olduvai theory, after intensive industrial development, our civilization will reach its peak in 2030, followed by a global disaster. Those who survive will return to stone tools, like our distant ancestors from the African continent.

Of course, all these predictions were made without considering that a major war might break out in Europe in the 2020s. Even before it began, UK historian Niall Ferguson made a bet with Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, known for his optimistic predictions. Pinker believed that wars and violence are becoming less prevalent in the modern world. Ferguson, on the contrary, predicted that at least one million people would die in wars by Dec. 31, 2029. He sincerely hopes to lose this bet. But this outcome has become more plausible since the beginning of the war in Ukraine.

Two questions are the most important for our time: will there be a human civilization in the 22nd century, and if so, what will it look like? In turn, Ukraine faces different questions: how far will the Russian army advance, and will it be possible to stop it?

Read also: US warns Russia of total destruction if nukes are used in Ukraine — Polish FM

Sleepwalkers

The disproportion of the first and second block of questions takes one's breath away: how do we find ourselves in a situation when the fate of the whole world once again depends on the aggression of a single country? How was it possible to sleep through the Russian threat, and when it became real, to delay aid to Ukraine for so long?

The situation resembles the days before WWI. Several dozen people, including European monarchs and their ministers, who underestimated the threat of a large-scale military disaster, slept through its beginning. Fast asleep, with their short-sighted decisions, they dragged the world into a carnage that cost tens of millions of lives.

When it comes to the current generation of politicians, former U.S. President Barack Obama deserves the title of Dreamer No. 1. Back in July 2009, a group of European intellectuals and former politicians, including two Polish presidents, Lech Wałęsa and Aleksander Kwaśniewski, Czech President Václav Havel, and Romanian President Emil Constantinescu, addressed a letter to the U.S. administration warning of the Russian threat. Russia, they wrote, is returning to 19th century policies, using modern tactics.

Obama didn’t heed that warning. On the contrary, five years later, when Russia annexed Crimea and unleashed a war in Donbas, he personally ruled out supplying Ukraine with lethal military aid. He believed the main danger came from China. Now we see how wrong that decision was. Yes, China can be a danger. But they’re not a direct and immediate threat, unlike Russia. Chinese leader Xi Jinping can be friends with [Russian dictator Vladimir] Putin and even admire him. But he never declared “why do we need a world if there’s no place for China in it” and that after a global nuclear war, all Chinese “will go to heaven as martyrs, and they [enemies] will simply die.”

During Obama’s tenure, [incumbent U.S. President Joe] Biden was vice president. Even then, he advocated providing aid to Ukraine and continues to insist on it now. With this, he deserves our respect and sympathy. But despite the difference with Obama, they both have one thing in common: they’re afraid of escalating the conflict with Russia. The adage says that generals always prepare to fight the last war. Biden became a politician during the Cold War when the position of the United States towards the Soviet Union was reduced to a policy of deterrence and containment. Accordingly, the current White House policy comes down to repeating the Cold War scenario, i.e. deterring Russian aggression, and preventing it from spilling over the borders of Ukraine.

But Putin’s Russia isn’t [Soviet leaders Nikita] Khrushchev’s or [Leonid] Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. Despite all the ineptitude of the Soviet leaders, they never threatened to take the world down with them. After all, Khrushchev was sensible enough to negotiate a resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Putin with his revanchist plans should be compared not to Khrushchev or Brezhnev, but to [former German dictator Adolf] Hitler. All efforts to deter Hitler before 1939 backfired: they paved him the way for WWII.

Anyone who wants to avoid escalation with a predator inevitably gets it. A shark cannot survive in a pond. It will expand its hunting territory. The only way to deter it is to destroy it.

Yes, the number of politicians who understand the reality and scale of the Russian threat is growing both in the United States and in Europe. The war in Ukraine became for them the alarm clock that made them wake up from a lethargic sleep. But most Western politicians remain dreamers in another sense: they still don’t know what to do with Russia, except to deter it.

The West had a strategy on Russia before 2014: to cooperate and do business with it with the hope that one day it will become a normal country. But they had no strategy on Ukraine and interpreted it almost exclusively in the shadow of Russia. After 2022, the situation looks exactly the opposite. The West has a strategy on Ukraine: to prevent it from losing the war. But they have no strategy on Russia, on how to defeat it. Accordingly, Ukraine finds itself in a military limbo: we cannot lose, but we aren’t to dare to win either.

The West’s position is partially clear. One of the main differences between Hitler and Putin is that Putin has nuclear weapons. One can only imagine how WWII would have ended if Hitler had nukes.

Read also: Russian nuclear exercises aim to deter the West, not indicate real threat – ISW

A new reality

But understanding Western fears doesn’t mean justifying them. There are serious reasons to believe that Putin is bluffing and using the nuclear rhetoric as blackmail. From the outside, Putin’s Russia may look strong. They coped with Western sanctions and have enough resources to wage a long war, but Russia has internal problems that could lead to its collapse.

Here’s one of them: mathematical and statistical calculations show that almost half of the votes for Putin in the latest presidential elections were fraudulent. This is a record scale of electoral fraud during the entire existence of the Kremlin regime. The image of a united Russia around one leader isn’t necessarily true.

Another example: a Gallup poll found that only 32% of Russians are ready to fight for their country, and that’s in a country where anti-war protests are criminalized. This Russian figure is almost twice as small as the Ukrainian one: as many as 62% of Ukrainians are ready to fight for their country. The latest Ukrainian polls show that after two years of war, exhaustion, losses and destruction, the majority of Ukrainians (89 %) continue to believe in Ukraine’s victory, while 73 % are ready to endure as much as necessary for its sake. This strongly distinguishes Ukrainians not only from Russians, but also from Europeans. Here [in Europe], the number of those who are ready to fight for their country is the same as in Russia, while the share of those who believe in Ukraine’s victory is only 10%.

I assume that, in addition to the failure of last year’s offensive, the decrease in faith in Kyiv’s victory in the West is connected with the growing number of media reports about Ukrainian who flee the country to avoid the draft. Obviously, this is a real phenomenon, and there are many people like that. But it looks like this narrative is used to reinforce Western deterrence policy: Ukraine’s cause is hopeless, Kyiv needs to be saved by negotiating to surrender some of its territory to Russia, and that would appease Putin.

The reality is different. Accordingly, strategic conclusions from it should be different. They can be described in the words of [former UK Prime Minister] Winston Churchill who addressed the U.S. Congress in December 1941: “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job!”

Churchill said these words a few weeks before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered WWII. Niall Ferguson quoted this phrase during this year’s discussion in Davos [the annual World Economic Forum in Switzerland], changing it according to the current circumstances: give Ukrainians the weapons and they’ll finish the job.

Historians have one important advantage over politicians: they don’t lack imagination. The historical perspective allows them to look at the essence of the matter more broadly and deeply. Politicians often need a Pearl Harbor to finally wake up.

We can only hope that their awakening won’t be too late this time. Because the Doomsday Clock is ticking louder and louder.

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