Don't drop that bomb on me
This weekend I was preoccupied with two real-time events. One was Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge’s hunt for 62: the team and American League single-season home-run record. (Yes, I’m a fourth-generation Yankees fan, sorry if this offends.) In both games over the weekend, every time the 6’ 7” slugger got up to to the plate I had the same thought: Sure there’s only a small chance that Judge will hit a homer with any individual pitch, or in any particular at bat. But in the aggregate, and given his recent track record, it’s ultimately inevitable, right? Things were ultimately quiet on that front.
The other event is the war in Ukraine — a war in which, somewhat paradoxically, every Ukrainian rout and advance (and there have been a lot of them lately) makes the Russian Federation and its leader more dangerous. I probably don’t have to rehearse the widely shared concern here: If Vladimir Putin fears the imminent collapse of his invasion force, and the personal and military humiliation that collapse will entail, he may be tempted to put in play the only powerful piece he’d have left — a bomb, of some size, from his vast nuclear arsenal.
Indeed, when Putin declared his (illegal and immediately untenable) annexation of the Ukrainian Donbass, he said, alarmingly: “The U.S. is the only country in the world to ever use atomic weapons. They destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By the way, that created a precedent.” This evening, as I write this, the Telegraph is reporting that a “nuclear weapons convoy” has been “spotted in central Russia … heading toward the front line in Ukraine.” (Some U.S. nuclear-weapons experts cast doubt on that report. More on that below.)
As with Aaron Judge and the home run race, nearly all of us are just spectators when it comes to Putin. Sure, much like an opposing manager, President Biden and his advisers can choose how to approach him — whether to ask (or try to force) the Ukrainian army to pitch around him, as it were, or keep up the indirect pressure in hopes that Putin will strike out on his own. They should be, and presumably are, thinking about how to respond. The rest of us can try to influence all of that for the good. But at the moment those are all second- and third-order concerns. Just as with the invasion itself, what Putin does next is ultimately his decision alone.
So will he or won’t he? Again, I don’t know — and neither does anyone else, possibly including him. But I do know whose opinions I’m listening to on the question. And whose I’m not. I tend to lump those people into one of three categories:
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