The return of the nuclear threat?

(Photo: Getty/iStock)

In 1992, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama published the provocatively titled book, The End of History and the Last Man. It was not an eschatological text, despite the dramatic first part of its title. Instead, it celebrated the – alleged - ideological triumph of Western liberal democracy and the free market in the wake of the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991. While its content has been much debated, to many observers it seemed to point the way towards a positive (indeed triumphant) future for these institutions.

The year before, in his Nobel Peace Prize speech of 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev (the last leader of the USSR) stated that "the risk of a global nuclear war has practically disappeared". It really seemed to be the case at the time. It does not feel that way now, when as recently as the evening of 25 April, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, asserted that NATO is "in essence engaged in war with Russia" and added that there is "considerable" risk of the conflict in Ukraine going nuclear.

The Return of History

In mid-March 2022, the front cover of the latest edition of Time magazine featured a Russian armoured vehicle driving down a Ukrainian road, under the headline "The Return of History". It was an arresting and shocking title - and thought. It was as if the intervening thirty years had simply rolled away and we were back where we had started in the 1980s. Only the Cold War in Europe never actually developed into the horrific Hot War that has engulfed Ukraine since February.

Last week we got another reminder that the world of the 1980s is back. On Wednesday 20 April, Russia successfully tested the RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The weapon – capable of carrying 10 or more independently targetable nuclear warheads – was launched from Plesetsk, in northwestern Russia, and hit targets in the Kamchatka peninsula, in the Russian far east. The distance was approximately 3,540 miles (5,700 km).

It should be noted that Moscow informed Washington of the test. In so doing, it fulfilled its obligations under the 2011 "New START Treaty". In addition, it will be some time before the new weapon system will be able to replace Russia's aging SS-18 and SS-19 missiles.

However, the context of the test-firing could not have been more turbulent and worrying: the largest war in Europe since the Second World War. And the rhetoric that accompanied the test-firing matched the current state of international relations. President Putin remarked that the missile is "capable of overcoming all modern means of anti-missile defence" and added that it will make Russia's enemies "think twice".

The head of Russia's state aerospace agency called it "a present to NATO". And Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief of Russia's National Defence magazine, told RIA news agency that the missile's launch was a signal to the West of Russia's ability to deal out "crushing retribution that will put an end to the history of any country that has encroached on the security of Russia and its people".

In short, he threatened a physical, not an ideological "end of history". These were chilling words. The threatening Russian rhetoric explains why NATO has not imposed a no-fly-zone over Ukraine.

The Russian missile launch came six weeks after the USA postponed a test of its own Minuteman III ICBM, in order to avoid escalating the current tensions with Russia following the invasion of Ukraine.

In terms of nuclear capability, it has been reliably estimated that, today, Russia has just over 6,000 strategic (intercontinental) warheads; the USA has 5,500. This is the product of the scrapping, over time, of all but one of the treaties designed to limit strategic weapons. The "New START Treaty" is the only surviving bilateral pact; in 2021 it was extended until 2026. Regarding tactical (short-range) nuclear weapons, it is estimated that Russia has about 2,000, while the USA has around 200.

The threat of nuclear war?

When Putin publicly announced the start of the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, he accompanied it with a veiled threat: "No matter who tries to stand in our way or ... create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history." The threat of the mushroom cloud once more hung over the global community.

On 27 February, Putin went further. He ordered his country's nuclear forces to a "special regime of combat duty" (stage 2 of the 4-stage Russian ladder of nuclear deployment) and blamed "illegal sanctions" and "aggressive statements" from countries in NATO for causing him to take this step.

The lack of personal responsibility for the crisis was, of course, wholly predictable. At the time, many observers read it as a threat to NATO not to directly intervene militarily against Russia, rather than an indication of the proximity of nuclear conflict. Nevertheless, the use of nuclear weapons as a threat was a return to a historic period that most of us thought was never likely to be repeated.

However, the current situation is arguably more volatile than the 1980s. Today, one man's will is unchallenged within the Russian state. The way Putin dominates the "siloviki", the 'people of force' who surround him and constitute his core support, is a feature of the Putin regime. It has accompanied his dismantling of even limited democratic checks and balances; and the silencing of critics through force.

Furthermore, his mental and moral isolation has increased since he resumed the presidency in 2012 and has accelerated during his obsessional physical isolation since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Putin has added a whole new dimension to the concept of a "bunker-mentality".

In Putin's mind his personal status and fate is indistinguishable from that of Russia. This has been increasingly seen in his thin-skinned responses to perceived slights; and revealed in the anger and resentment he increasingly feels towards the West on behalf of himself – and, of course, Russia.

He shares this with many extreme Russian nationalists, for whom the "Russkiy Mir" (Russia World) view outweighs all other global considerations. Such an outlook can soon become apocalyptic if such a self-described "beacon state" faces apparent defeat or frustration. Thus framed, global survival takes second place to defence of Russia.

This view was reflected in late February 2022, when the Russian news channel's anchor, Dmitry Kiselyov, commented – regarding the sanctions being applied by the USA and European countries – that if there is no Russia, then why do we need the world? Such an extreme outlook has the potential to short-circuit the very thinking that has held back nuclear war since 1945: "Mutually Assured Destruction" (MAD).

This has become particularly dangerous as Russian frustration at the progress of the war in Ukraine and high Russian military losses is now combined with sanctions likely to degrade Russia's long term military capability.

In addition, Russian military doctrine countenances the potential use of nuclear weapons "when the very existence of the state is threatened". But who decides that it is really threatened in an autocracy where the wellbeing of one man and an entire nation have become inextricably mixed? A Russian resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons – while short of full-on nuclear action – as well as being appalling, would almost certainly simply be the prelude to it.

At the same time, the most extreme members of the Russian Orthodox Church have contributed a particular spiritual tone to such apocalyptic mindsets. In 2014, as Russian-backed rebels sought to establish a separate political identity in the eastern Ukrainian region of the Donbas, one priest claimed that Ukrainian forces and those supporting them in the West were seeking "the establishment of planetary Satanic rule". The liberal West was castigated in apocalyptic terms for "intentionally hastening the reign of Antichrist".

It is clear from other evidence that this was far from a lone voice and the outlook is extensive among the most extreme nationalists within the Russian Orthodox community. For this influential minority a fusion of nationalism and Orthodoxy has clearly occurred, along with a very particular interpretation of the arc of Russian history.

As a result, the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 – while primarily driven by Russian nationalist geo-politics in the post-Cold-War world – is also rooted in a spiritual outlook held by some within the Russian nation and church. The geo-politics of apocalyptic nationalism is in the mix. To such an outlook, the nuclear threat is all too appealing.

Where does this leave us as Christians in the West?

Firstly, as serious as the current level of division and threat is, we should never allow anxiety and fear to dominate our thoughts. Our God reigns! However dangerous the world looks – or is – creation exists within the purpose of God and is loved by God. He gives inner peace and certainty, though everything else can be shaken.

Secondly, keep praying: for transformation in the minds and outlook of those in the Russian government driving the war in Ukraine, this includes Vladimir Putin; for the people of Russia, that they will be able to see through the fog of misinformation disseminated by the Kremlin and its supporters, in order to perceive the true nature of the war in Ukraine; and, of course, for the suffering people of Ukraine and all those (in Ukraine and Russia) who are grieving and in pain because of this war.

Thirdly, pray also for the leaders in the West who face very difficult decisions as they seek to oppose aggression – but also to manage risk. And, in the long term, it is crucial that the international community revives efforts to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons; and redoubles efforts to limit nuclear proliferation.

Fourthly, if we needed a reminder of the toxic nature of nationalism, the current situation provides it in a dramatic form. This is not to suggest that all forms of nationalism (so prevalent in the modern world) pose the same level of threat to peace. However, it is necessary to recognise its toxicity, even at dilute levels.

As members of the international community of the church, we must be on our guard because Christians are as likely to be drawn into it as are non-Christians. Also, we should be aware of the way that faith-driven nationalism adds a particularly dangerous, and incongruous, feature to the toxic mix.

Finally, we should be on our guard against end-times-driven interpretations of current events; and also a sense of passivity in the face of them. Predictably (and coming on top of the pandemic) such ideas have emerged in some Christian communities and can be noted on social media.

As recently as the end of February, US televangelist Pat Robertson reprised interpretations of Ezekiel concerning Russia that have rarely been aired since they failed to materialise in the 1980s. But these particular apocalyptic interpretations are going the rounds again. In contrast, I would strongly advise, leave the circumstances, and the timing, of the second coming to God.

Martyn Whittock is an evangelical historian and a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. As the author, or co-author, of fifty-four books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for several print and online news platforms; has been interviewed on radio news exploring the interaction of faith and politics; appeared on Sky News discussing political events in the USA; and recently has been interviewed regarding the war in Ukraine, including its religious dimensions. His most recent books include: The Secret History of Soviet Russia's Police State (2020), Daughters of Eve (2021), Jesus the Unauthorized Biography (2021), The End Times, Again? (2021) and The Story of the Cross (2021). He has just completed Apocalyptic Politics (2022 forthcoming), which examines apocalyptic beliefs driving political radicalization across global cultures, including in Russia.