Normalizing the abnormal

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Diplomat and nuclear nonproliferation expert Boris Bondarev has resigned. But before doing so he released a statement which says in part, “Never have I been so ashamed of my country as on February 24 of this year [the day Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine]. This aggressive war, unleashed by Putin against Ukraine, and in fact against the entire Western World, is not only a crime against the Ukrainian people, but also, perhaps, the most serious crime against the Russian people.”

I don’t know where Mr. Bondarev found the courage to take a position so openly defiant of Vladimir Putin. It can’t hurt that he was an attaché to the permanent United Nations Office at Geneva, Switzerland. At least in there he is kept from immediate danger of arrest. But Putin’s deadly reach is long, and has even found its way into the village in England where I live. So I do not discount this man’s courage by dint of one small geographical advantage.

But it’s the principle reason for his resignation that should give us all pause. As the New York Times pointed out, it’s the “nonchalance with which some of [Mr. Bondarev’s] fellow Russian diplomats chatted about possible nuclear strikes against the west,” that has caused Mr. Bondarev’s greatest alarm. “They think that if you hit some village in America with a nuclear strike then the Americans will immediately get scared and beg for mercy on their knees.”

This easy nuclear rhetoric is becoming more and more common on Russian state TV and therefore in Russia in general. It has all the usual “cold dead hands” machismo we’ve become used to in the West, with the added, deadly and chilling element that they’re not talking about mere guns but about nukes. It’s MAGA bluff and bluster with an apocalyptic flavor.

But like most propaganda such talk serves a direct strategic purpose. If there’s one thing the war in Ukraine has made clear it’s that the Russian military is weak, a toothless paper tiger. They have neither economic nor conventional military power equal to ours. Their one strength — if it can be called that — is nuclear weapons. So when you have just one saber it’s hardly surprising when it’s the one you rattle.


However cynically Moscow may be using this narrative to stir up fear, they are nonetheless playing a very dangerous game. If the last five years in America has proved anything it’s that when you repeat the same lie over and over, the liars themselves begin to believe it. Whether they understand it or not, the nuclear option is deadly dangerous to us all. In a war where nukes are involved the only enemy becomes war itself. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.

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