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In 1985, in the waning years of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, the rock musician Sting recorded a song called If The Russians Love Their Children Too. It was an appeal to Russia (and the U.S.) to forsake nuclear war. It included these lines:
We share the same biology, regardless of ideology
What may save us, me and you
Is if the Russians love their children, too
Sting just recorded a new haunting, acoustic version of the song that you can view online.
On Instagram, Sting wrote: “I’ve only rarely sung this song in the many years since it was written, because I never thought it would be relevant again. But, in light of one man’s woefully misguided decision to invade a peaceful, unthreatening neighbor, the song is, once again a plea for our common humanity.”
We might now be asking ourselves if or how much Russian President Vladimir Putin loves Russian children.
On February 27, Putin raised the specter of the biggest saber in his arsenal when he announced that he was putting Russian nuclear weapons on alert or, as he put it, in the tortured government speak that would have offended George Orwell, he placed Russia's nuclear forces "on a special regime of combat duty." It is still not clear what that means, if anything. One view is that he is bluffing, wanting his adversaries to think he would or could use nuclear weapons. Another view is that he isn't.
"I believe that when he says something, we should listen very, very carefully and take him at his word," Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said in testimony before Congress onTuesday (3/8).
Fiona Hill, a veteran Russian analyst who served on the National Security Council, said in an interview with Politico, "He's making it very clear that nuclear is on the table."
On CBS This Morning (3/6), Former CIA director Leon Panetta said, "It's a dangerous moment. Nobody can deny that. We're dealing with somebody who might very well resort to some kind of nuclear weapon or worse."
On the other hand, Andrei Kozyrev, former Russian foreign minister under Boris Yeltsin, wrote on Twitter that Putin was too rational to go nuclear. "Given that he is rational, I strongly believe he will not intentionally use nuclear weapons against the West."
There are plenty of theories about and analyses of Putin's intentions, goals and thinking in invading Ukraine, including how far he is willing to go to subdue or obliterate Ukraine, and whether he would stop at Ukraine or make a move against a NATO member state, such as the three nations of the Baltic, which would trigger NATO's Article 5 mutual defense pact. There's even a belief by some experienced Kremlinologists that Russia might detonate a low-yield nuclear bomb over an unpopulated area somewhere to show they mean business.
Another is that, if Putin perceives that Russia is losing its conflict with Ukraine and confrontation with the West, he could go nuclear.
If the war goes badly, "the risk of using nuclear weapons could be seen as lower than the risk of not using nuclear weapons," James Acton, co-director of Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said on a Center for the National Interest webinar today (3/9).
In an effort to try to get a better understanding of the Ukraine crisis, where it may be headed and whether a nuclear confrontation with Russia is possible, I spoke with retired Air Force Major General John L. Borling.
Gen. Borling served as Head of Operations for the Strategic Air Command. He also helped design the U.S. nuclear war plan. He also served at NATO's Supreme Headquarters in Belgium under the NATO Supreme Commander and Chief of Staff. He retired in 1996. He writes a weekly newsletter, Third Degree (www.third-degreeus.com).Our conversation, which took place March 4, has been edited for brevity.
RC: We don't know what goes on inside Vladimir Putin's head, but what do you think he was thinking when he made this move (to invade Ukraine)?
JB: What goes on in the heads of men, especially Vladimir Putin, is only able to be reflected in his speech and writings over an extended period of time where he laments the demise of the Soviet system and viewed it as his sacred duty to reinstate it and this is a step in that direction. I think he did anticipate easier going.
RC: Without the intervention of other countries -- NATO, the U.S. -- can Ukraine prevent defeat?
JB: I think we all have a problem seeing how Ukraine can prevail with strictly a defensive effort. I can imagine partition. I have a hard time imagining victory absent some pretty different approaches on the part of, I'll say the West, or on the part of America and NATO.
RC: I'll start with your question (from his newsletter) which is "What is required to counter the Russian invasion?" What can be done?
JB: We're in the too little, too late mode a bit. Or a lot. But if you segment it by financial or energy standpoint, we should have, in fact, cut everything that can be cut and we should have done that at the get go. I think this weak argument that is made by the Administration that, "well, we don't want to disrupt," that is absolutely wrong. You have to disrupt that. We're paying, basically, for Putin to fight. [a few days after our interview, President Biden announced the cut off of Russian oil and natural gas imports].
Remember, what we may be doing is inviting an attack on NATO territory, or at least providing additional justification. At that point, Article 5 kicks in and you'd expect that hostilities, world war, and, again, big time. The difficulty with that, of course, is we're into the nuclear context.
RC: Why do you think the Russians, Putin, raised the nuclear alert? Do you think that's a threat?
JB: He said he put his forces on alert and I don't know if we have validated that he did or if he was just saber rattling [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley has said there is no evidence that that has actually occurred.]
RC: Is there a scenario that could lead to a nuclear exchange?
RC: What is that scenario?
JB: That scenario is super power troops in contact.
RC: Isn't that what happens if Article 5 is activated?
RC: What would be in Putin's interest in provoking that kind of confrontation?
JB: He thinks he can win.
RC: Well, can anyone win if that happens?
JB: We used to say when the world was safe with ten or twelve thousand warheads on each side, you couldn't come to an operational decision that made any sense. But we're down in the three or four thousand range and the problem operationally, according to some people who I believe may be a bit unhinged or I know very much (are) unhinged, you get into the area where things may be seen operationally more attractive (pause) if you go first.
RC: But you said if this were to happen -- and we don't know, obviously -- if the Russians were to decide to strike, your supposition is that they would target the U.S. rather than Europe?
JB: I think it would be simultaneous. I don't think once nukes are started to be used that you get into tit for tat business that you do it a little bit.
RC: All in?
JB: That is my sense. I don't think the Russians are going to be selective. I think they're going to be out for societal destruction. But I'm just one small, ancient voice and whatever you report that the general said, you should please note that I caution my own words with the (former Massachusetts Rep.) Barney Frank statement, "I don't always agree with what I say."
RC: Can you imagine -- you probably have a pretty good guess -- what is being discussed at the highest levels of NATO, the Pentagon, the White House right now? What are they trying to figure out?
JB: There will be one set of thinking that goes 'What can we do without cornering the rat?' The other side will be 'What should we do even if we corner the rat?' and everything in between.
Gen. Borling cautioned more than once -- and it is worth emphasizing again here -- that he is no longer in the military and therefore no longer privy to the strategizing, planning and posture of the U.S. military right now.
Next week, Part 2 of my interview with Gen. Borling.
Cover photo: Destruction from Russian bombing of Kharkiv, Ukraine
Credit: Getty Images