Vladimir Putin’s indifference to the bleating admonitions of Western leaders will persist. These, and the President’s pathetic warnings that have followed, have all the credibility of promising a Red Line in Damascus. His invasion of the Crimea and the continuing Russian sustenance of the separatist movement in east Ukraine are accomplished facts. To send small bands of American paratroopers into Russia’s former republics, now members of NATO, reprises the function, in the early Cold War period, of “trip wire” troop deployments in the early days of the North Atlantic Treaty. By Article 5, still in effect, today’s 28 members remain obliged to provide appropriate support to any member under attack from another polity.
The “tactical” nuclear option is assumed off the table: just as it has been since August 9, 1945, when, three days after Hiroshima the War Department authorized a second attack on Nagasaki: its object certainly was to make the Japanese believe there were more bombs where these came from.
No power has used a nuclear weapon since, “tactical” or otherwise. Is it conceivable that, among the hundreds of such instruments still deployed, one, or some, might be used in desperation? Or by accident? Supposing America’s credibility as a guarantor of its NATO allies’ security suffers—if possible—further erosion? Supposing prospective perpetrators can secure “access,” against all security measures? A “tactical nuke,” in use, invariably invites a response in kind. Could this happen?
Wars, as the earliest pages of Thucydides remind us, (and as the death, in Sarajevo, of an Austrian Archduke, in 1914, and the events immediately following make plain) whatever their causes, are first the consequence of occasions of which contemporaries but rarely imagine the consequences that will follow therefrom. Non-strategic nuclear weapons, still deployed (however reduced their numbers) among the 26 European members of NATO and their prospective adversaries can be the bludgeons of fallible or aggrieved or purblind men. Thucydides offered another timeless admonition, to a set policy bent on war. He put it into the mouth of an ambassador from Corinth, now speaking to the Spartan Assembly: “You have not yet begun to consider what sorts of people are these Athenians whom you may have to fight.” Miscalculations take many forms. Miscalculation is, more often than not, the mother of war.