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Monday 28 February 2022

Midnight ?

This is not a post about geopolitics. It's important to remember that, because I will be making geopolitical statements. These, however, are only intended to explain why I feel the way I do, not as any claim on political reality.

How I am feeling is, to be blunt, terrified.

As I noted in the last post, the pandemic has been getting to me a lot in the last couple of months or so. I felt increasingly anxious and paranoid about even the most minor deviation from ordinary of any health matter at all. All of which I'm entirely confident was pure paranoia. I'm pleased to say that in the last weeks I've been doing very much better on that front. Every day I go outside for an hour or so at lunchtime for a good trudge through the city, and slowly and surely that's been working wonders. Seeing parts of the city I never knew were there, finding new parks and experiencing fresh air and the vitality of sensory stimulus, has helped enormously. I no longer fret about nothing and I feel a lot happier in myself. In fact, I'm even contemplating going back to the office again, at least once in a while.

All that has been thrown into disarray by the Ukraine crisis. Needless to say, like everyone else in the western world I side with the people of Ukraine and against Russia. I literally do not have the words to express how impressed I am with the Ukrainian courage and heroism, and the European response to helping those who are in such desperate need through no fault of their own.

When I do eventually, one day, find the words, I will write them. For now I will not try, as I could not do it justice.

What has really, really gotten under my skin is the nuclear announcements coming from Putin. Honestly, I have never been so scared of a news announcement in my life. Though I lived through the end of it, I am not quite old enough to remember the end of the Cold War.

Unlike some commentators, I was never under any illusion that Putin wouldn't follow through on various threats he's made over the years. For the most part I had no doubt he'd go through with them. My impression, for what little it's worth, is that Putin is a man who will go exactly as far as he thinks he can get away with but not an inch further. To be fair I did not think he actually would invade Ukraine - there didn't really seem to be any need to - but I had no delusion that he couldn't or wouldn't if he wanted to. So I wasn't all that surprised when it happened. Horrified certainly, but not surprised.

Let me emphasise again how little I know here. When I had to look up the population of Ukraine, and when I found that it's a lot higher than I expected (it's 44 million), I immediately realised that I know practically nothing. I'm a pig-ignorant westerner when it comes to certain issues. I probably shouldn't be, but I am.

I have also been under no illusions that Putin wouldn't hesitate to threaten the west with nuclear weapons. We've heard plenty of nuclear rhetoric from Russia over many years, even just throughout the Putin era. It's never occurred to me that he'd ever follow through on that particular threat, which I largely deem to be quite different from other barbarous actions. And to be honest, I still don't. Not really. At least, not intellectually. But...

What's new is the context. What's changed is whether Putin can be said to be rational but horrible, or just plain unhinged. And this uncertainty terrifies me. I still don't think he'd actually do it. But the uncertainty has me seriously, gut-wrenchingly scared.

If I think about it as calmly as I can, I do not think a pre-emptive or retaliatory strike is likely. What would it accomplish ? It would be an act of suicide for Russia and, perhaps, the world. This is several orders of magnitude different from ordering assassinations or even invading other countries. It's been about brinkmanship the whole way through, for Putin to try and extract something by force or threat or both. The nuclear option doesn't get that; the doctrine of mutually assured destruction still holds. If it were more one-sided in Russia's favour, that would be a different story.

But this does not really help. Physically, I feel sick to my stomach, a tension in my sides, a need to move around more. I'm not ashamed to say I cried a little. When I say I'm terrified, I'm not using hyperbole. There is a huge, painful tension between what I think we should do, morally, and what I think would be pragmatically responsible. If this is cowardly, it probably is. So be it.

All this may seem incredibly selfish. There are people experiencing actual horrors right now, whereas mine are all worries about what might happen. For now, my actual living conditions are lovely. I have a wonderful girlfriend, two fabulous little dogs, and a thoroughly pleasant home. This doesn't stop me from being scared though. I can't stop thinking : I don't want to lose it all. 

There are a few things I worry about. First, that Putin might after all be not so much competent-but-horrible but actually having slipped off the edge a bit, becoming more genuinely erratic and unpredictable and not prone to rational action. Such a man might launch an attack purely out of retaliation rather than strategy. Of course, it could also of cause be that this is all the same carefully stage-managed propaganda we've seen for many years -  a way of making himself seem all the more intimidating and dangerous as a way of extracting concessions. I don't know. I just don't know.

My other major worry, which I think is more probable than a random nuclear launch, is that he might offer some direct ultimatum to the western powers : stop supplying arms, say, or I'll launch. And I have no clue at all how the west would or should respond. Not a clue. If he is playing mind games, it's worked : he is now unpredictable, even if he does have a more coherent strategy underneath it all. I worry that such a threat could be imminent, not in the weeks and months ahead, but in days.

I just don't know what to do. For now I'll be turning off notifications from social media and limit how much I follow the news. Since the invasion I've been checking the BBC's live updates page quite frequently, and every bit of positive or negative news causes me quite extreme mood swings. It's not healthy. I do take some solace, though, in that western intelligence has been on the money lately, albeit with the timings being a bit off, so clearly these people do know more than I... and they're saying this is a distraction, a reminder - not a specific threat. It is not another Cuban Missile Crisis, not yet.

Yet the uncertainty of it all... the audacity to actually even consider using the nuclear option as a threat. I don't understand it. I mean, it's not surprising, but it feels oh so very different when this actually happens during a conflict. When there's nothing much going on, it's easy to dismiss as hyperbole. When there are tanks rolling through a European country, even - perhaps especially - one which is resisting so valiantly, it's altogether different. I want to run away. I want to hide. I want to curl up in a ball. I just don't know what to do.

So yeah, I just wanted to let everyone know how bloody scared I am. I've never felt like this because of politics before : it's always been the case that politics is worrying because of the potential for us backsliding into some more totalitarian, less liberal regime, not that we have to deal with existential threats. I never, never appreciated before just how awful the Cold War must have been. Not even close. My God, you people deserve a medal for enduring that.

For now, I shall distract myself. More walks, less news. I wish I had more words of comfort, but I don't. As I said, I'll be turning off social media notifications for the foreseeable future as I can't handle that right now. If any of my followers do want to reach me, you can do so here or via email - you can find the address easily enough. I'm sorry to burden you all with my worries, but I just needed to get my thoughts set out in order publicly. I'm doing my best to abide by a biblical quote :

And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.

Perhaps I just need time to process all this. I hope so. The western world, for all its deep and serious faults, is nonetheless a wonderful, marvellous place. No amount of cynicism will ever convince me that is isn't worth preserving. I will be getting back to lengthy monologues on science and philosophy just as soon as I am able, but for now, I need some time out.


EDIT : I decided to keep an ongoing record of events and how I feel about them. I originally started doing this here, but moved them to their own post instead.

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