We had hoped that after the horrors which turned the Balkans into a charnel house in the 1990s, the days of slaughter on European soil could be confined to the history books. How wrong we were.
But while the initial invasion was appalling, things have taken a serious turn for the worst. We’re now looking at the prospect of a nuclear device being used in anger for the first time since 1945 and that is a prospect guaranteed to send any sensible person into a state of high anxiety – as if we weren’t already anxious enough.
After all, there were already plenty of reasons to be fearful. The world is now teetering on the brink of a major recession, we have the cost-of-living crisis, the energy crisis and all the myriad 21st century problems that beset us.
Yet what seemed like a form of fanciful, paranoid speculation which first began to emerge when the Russians were beaten back from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, is now suddenly and firmly at the top of the agenda. Even the Pope has expressed his alarm.
During his regular address to the faithful in St Peter’s Square in Rome he implored Vladimir Putin to: “Stop this spiral of violence and death” before speaking of the “absurd” risk of the “uncontrollable” consequences of a nuclear attack. He further added: “How the war is going in Ukraine has become so grave, devastating and threatening that it sparks great worry.”
Regardless of your religious affiliation, Pope Francis deserves credit for his remarks, and also, ironically, for his understatement. Because we left ‘great worry’ behind us a few weeks ago and have now entered full-on panic mode. When the increasingly unhinged presenters on Russia’s state TV stations began to talk about nuking the West, most people dismissed such calls as the ranting of mad people – although I must admit that a shiver went down my spine when one of the news programmes showed a graphic of a large nuclear explosion off the coast of Ireland designed to flood the UK. We were just seen as an unfortunate piece of collateral damage.
It’s obviously unthinkable that Putin would ever countenance such a move. But then again, it wasn’t so long ago that people thought the idea of him using tactical battlefield nukes against Ukrainian territory was unthinkable. Well, the previously unthinkable has now become uncomfortably close to reality with the revelation that Nato generals are currently “seriously anticipating the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons.”
Most of the nukes at Russia’s disposal have a yield roughly comparable to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Former chief of the CIA and a retired, four-star general, David Petraeus was blunt and direct in his comments this week – any such attack would result in Nato forces ‘obliterating’ Russian forces, while the American-led coalition would also sink the entire Russian fleet in the Black Sea.
How on earth it ever came to this is one question, but the more important question is how do we de-escalate and step back from the brink of Armageddon?
The Pope and numerous politicians have urged Zelensky to sit down and hold peace talks, but there’s not much chance of that. As far as the Ukrainian position goes, there can be no peace until the ‘Orcs’ (as they refer to the Russian invaders) have been driven from Ukrainian soil.
That’s entirely understandable. The problem is Putin needs a way out of the mess he has needlessly created and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of one.
The increasingly irrational Russian dictator likes to recount the tale of him cornering a rat when he was a child in the ruins of St Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, only to be attacked by the creature. The
worrying aspect of this anecdote is that Putin likes to compare himself to the rat.
There have been plenty of calls for regime change in Russia, but that might not be the answer.
After all, some of the most serious criticism he has received from his own politicians and generals is not that he went into Ukraine in the first place, but that he has not gone in hard enough.
So the idea that the rat might be replaced by a dove seems fanciful because there are no shortage of hawks in the Politburo.
Such brutal realities are hard to write and even harder to read. Have we really, somehow, now reached the point where Nato is currently war-gaming a nuclear scenario in Ukraine? Have we really reached the stage where Putin’s nuclear forces have been seen assembling at the Ukrainian border?
It all sounds like the kind of dystopian, apocalyptic disaster movie I consume with relish. But this is no movie, this is real life.
And real life, at the moment, is bloody terrifying. There is always hope, of course. If and until the balloon goes up, we can fervently hope sanity will prevail and Putin will walk back.
The best hope, ironically, lies with China and its influence over him. But then again when the best hope for world peace lies with the Chinese Communist party, then you know we have really entered strange and terrible waters.
There was a time when Western observers who warned of Putin’s malign influence had a degree of grudging respect for his cunning.
But he no longer looks cunning – he looks deranged.