Consequently, Piontkovsky argues, when Khrushchev defeated his rivals for supreme power, he also enshrined the idea that Moscow could fight and win a nuclear war, leading to his own adventurism in 1962 and to the nuclear sabre rattling increasingly characteristic of Vladimir Putin and his regime.
“Since 2014,” he writes, “Russia has been living in a state which represents an exceptional danger for itself and for the surrounding world.” As in the periods around the death of Stalin and at the end of Khrushchev’s reign, “the present-day Russian leadership is convinced of its capacity to win a worldwide nuclear war.”
And make no mistake, Piontkovsky says. They mean a nuclear war because the men in the Kremlin are very well aware that they don’t have sufficient forces of other kinds to win such a conflict. They no longer buy into the ideas of mutually assured destruction, and they aren’t playing nuclear chess: they are engaged in nuclear blackmail.
There is thus good reason to believe, as US Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently put it, that Moscow is “an existential threat to the US,” a conclusion he said he had reached after “some Russians warned him personally that they would be ready to apply nuclear weapons in the case of a conflict in the Baltic region” (news.err.ee/860764/woodward-in-baltic-war-russia-willing-to-use-nuclear-weapons-against-nato).
“At all levels – experts, propagandists, and officials – Moscow already for four years has posed to the West its version of Hitler’s question from the 1930s: ‘Are you ready to die for Narva (Danzig)?’” Will you invoke Article 5 of the NATO Charter when Russia’s “little green men” move into the Baltic countries?
Russians today certainly believe and from Piontkovsky’s perspective with complete justification that the current US president Donald Trump would not respond to a Russian move in the Baltics by invoking Article 5 even though the three countries are full members of the Western alliance.
The Russians may be right about Trump, he says; but they are wrong about the West. After two years of the Trump administration, “the psychological decisiveness and military readiness of NATO and the US to defend the Baltic countries from a Russian aggressor who is threatening to use nuclear weapons are significantly greater now than two years ago.”
“Action gives birth to counter action,” Piontkovsky observes. “The military-political establishment of the US is consolidated in its attitude toward the Kremlin regime as never before.” And the Russian people, various surveys show, want not a broader war with the West but some kind of détente.
A calm and rational Russian leader would thus take action to soothe the West and meet his own people at least half way; but, as Piontkovsky has written before, Putin is neither calm nor entirely rational. He reacts emotionally and even erratically. That makes his belief in the winnability of nuclear war so disturbing.
If the Kremlin leader feels he has been pushed into a corner, he may decide to go for broke, setting the stage for disaster not just for others but for himself and his system as well. In this situation, Piontkovsky says, there might be hope from an unexpected source -- a convinced Putinist who agrees with Beria and Malenkov rather than Khrushchev and Putin.
After all, the Russian commentator says, Claus von Stauffenberg who organized the assassination attempt against Hitler and then was executed for his role in that regard was “a convinced Nazi.” Today, the German count is celebrated as a hero of the resistance to the German dictator.