DOMINIC SANDBROOK: Can we be sure Putin won't press the red button?

Almost 40 years ago, in the autumn of 1984, the BBC broadcast the most frightening film I’ve ever seen.

Set in Sheffield, Threads follows two ordinary families through the nightmare of an imaginary World War III.

While they are absorbed in their own domestic dramas, the radios in the background chart the gradual build-up of tension, the outbreak of hostilities in Iran and the chilling steps towards full-scale conflict between the West and the Soviet Union.

Then comes the full horror. Early one morning, air-raid sirens go off across the city. We see shoppers and commuters running for cover, children sobbing, people screaming in panic.

As a Soviet warhead explodes over the North Sea, all Sheffield’s electricity is knocked out. The sky turns a dazzling, deadly white, and on the horizon rises a giant mushroom cloud. We see a woman in the street, her face stricken with horror, a puddle of urine forming at her feet.

Almost every week since Vladimir Putin launched his botched invasion, his little army of TV propagandists have hurled lurid nuclear threats at the West

It’s an utterly harrowing scene — and yet it’s just the beginning. As many older readers will remember, what follows is even worse.

With fires raging across Britain’s cities, law and order collapses completely. Some 30 million people are already dead; millions more will join them in the coming weeks, killed by hunger, disease and radiation poisoning.

For a year there is no sunlight. With no crops, Britain starves. The population declines to less than ten million, and civilisation regresses to the level of the Middle Ages, with the survivors engaged in a brutal struggle against darkness and hunger.

As the years pass, the English language degenerates into a broken argot. And in the haunting final scene, we realise that the future of humanity itself hangs in the balance, since all new babies are born with hideous mutations.

Threads may have been fiction, but it was fiction of an unusually well-documented kind. The producers had interviewed doctors, scientists and military analysts, as well as historians of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the narrator often provides facts and figures to back up what we’re seeing.

And we know now the Thatcher government’s experts agreed with them. As declassified documents show, Whitehall war games in the 1970s and 1980s envisaged that tens of millions of people would die in a nuclear exchange — and that life in Britain would be changed for ever.

It’s tempting, of course, to think all this is ancient history. After the end of the Cold War, many of us banished our nuclear nightmares to the mental equivalent of the attic, and treated films like Threads as relics of a bygone age.

But earlier this month, the Government released its latest National Risk Register, an annual survey of the greatest threats to our national security. And although I don’t tend to be a worrier, I found it chilling reading.

As always, the report lists a host of potential menaces, from a new Covid-style pandemic to cyber-attacks on the banking system. But it’s the possibility of a major attack with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons — given a likelihood of between 1 and 5 per cent — which really jumped out at me.

Although we usually think of nuclear paranoia as a hallmark of the Cold War, the world remains an extraordinarily dangerous place, and the threat of atomic Armageddon has never gone away.

A Russian Yars intercontinental ballistic missile system drives in Red Square during a military parade on Victory Day

A Russian Yars intercontinental ballistic missile system drives in Red Square during a military parade on Victory Day 

In the decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, two more countries — North Korea and Pakistan — have joined America, Russia, China, Britain, France and India in the nuclear club (in addition to Israel, although it has never officially admitted to having any such weapons).

Indeed, experts at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimate that these nine nuclear powers are sitting on some 12,512 warheads, enough to destroy civilisation several times over.

Until recently, most of us in Britain consoled ourselves that a major nuclear war was utterly implausible. But the war in Ukraine has changed everything.

Almost every week since Vladimir Putin launched his botched invasion, his little army of TV propagandists have hurled lurid nuclear threats at the West. Again and again, they’ve singled out Britain as a particular target.

In one especially demented rant a few months ago, for example, a retired Russian general urged Putin to launch his underwater Poseidon missile against our shores, triggering a 1,000-foot ‘radioactive tsunami’ that would mean ‘Great Britain would no longer exist’.

It’s easy, of course, to dismiss this as the empty posturing of a doomed regime. And, for my part, I’ve no time for the spineless appeasers who are so frightened of Putin’s nuclear blackmail that they would happily hand him chunks of Ukrainian territory.

Even so, should we be entirely complacent about these nuclear threats? After all, one of the most enthusiastic atomic warmongers is the former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy chairman of the Kremlin’s national security council.

Slavishly loyal to his autocratic master, Medvedev has reinvented himself as the most belligerent hawk of all.

He has consistently advocated the use of nuclear weapons against targets from the Dutch city of The Hague — the location of the International Criminal Court, which has charged Putin with war crimes — to the entire nation of Poland, which he wants to see wiped from the map.

Just two weeks ago, Medvedev issued yet another blood-curdling threat, warning that if the Ukrainian counter-offensive manages to liberate more territory, ‘then we would be forced to use a nuclear weapon’.

Again, it’s tempting to dismiss this as the hollow bluster of a Kremlin courtier. As many military analysts have pointed out, it’s hard to see how the Russian regime would benefit from using nuclear weapons.

Striking Kyiv with nuclear missiles would be insane, since it would almost certainly provoke overwhelming Western intervention and would make Russia a pariah for generations.

And using a so-called ‘tactical’ nuclear weapon on the battlefield would probably be counter-productive, too, since the Ukrainians have never concentrated their forces into a single target — and the fallout would surely affect thousands of Russian soldiers.

But does that mean it could never happen? Surely not. As history reminds us, human beings don’t always behave entirely rationally. If they did, the Russians wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine in the first place.

The more pundits and politicians bluster about using nuclear weapons, the more they normalise it. Imagine being an ordinary Russian, watching the Kremlin’s propaganda, night after night. Might you, perhaps, come to believe that firing a missile at Kyiv or Warsaw is the only positive step forward?

As the blockbuster film Oppenheimer recently reminded us, the world has already seen two utterly devastating nuclear strikes: the American bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the summer of 1945, which killed perhaps 200,000 civilians

As the blockbuster film Oppenheimer recently reminded us, the world has already seen two utterly devastating nuclear strikes: the American bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the summer of 1945, which killed perhaps 200,000 civilians

Or imagine being an ambitious Russian politician, pandering to a rabidly nationalist audience. Might you be tempted to keep brandishing the nuclear card — albeit rhetorically — until you get to the point when you feel you have to play it, or risk looking weak and cowardly?

And while we love to reassure ourselves that it would never happen, history suggests otherwise. As the blockbuster film Oppenheimer recently reminded us, the world has already seen two utterly devastating nuclear strikes: the American bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the summer of 1945, which killed perhaps 200,000 civilians.

The man who ordered those attacks, the U.S. President Harry Truman, was not mad, wicked or even especially warlike. Far from it: Truman was a former haberdasher and a man of the moderate centre-Left, who prided himself on his ordinariness and decency, but nevertheless thought it was the right thing to do.

The presiding genius of the U.S. nuclear project, the scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, agreed with him.

At first, Oppenheimer thought the atom bomb was a weapon to end all wars. But as the nuclear arms race got underway, he changed his mind, and became transfixed by the fear that it might mean the end of life on Earth.

Was he wrong to worry? History suggests not.

Almost 20 years later, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the world came perilously close to another nuclear exchange. We know from declassified papers that Cuba’s Communist leader Fidel Castro actively urged the USSR’s Nikita Khrushchev to launch a nuclear strike if American forces attacked his island nation, ‘however harsh and terrible’ the results might be.

Even more disturbingly, we know that some of President John F. Kennedy’s military advisers actively urged him to invade Cuba, despite the clear risk of nuclear war.

Again: they were not mad or wicked. They were seasoned, worldly, intelligent men, trapped by the remorseless logic of their own foreign policy.

Nuclear war never happened, of course, since the Russians backed down and removed their missiles from the Caribbean island. But it might have done. And you would have to be extraordinarily complacent to imagine that it could never do so in the future.

Given this background, it seems remarkable that we pay so little attention to the nuclear threat.

I think, for example, of my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s, when every other book in the local library seemed to be a dystopian Cold War fantasy about miserable ten-year-olds fighting for survival in the irradiated ruins of post-apocalyptic Wolverhampton. As many readers will remember, this was also the heyday of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, when hundreds of thousands of people routinely marched in protest at Britain’s engagement in the nuclear arms race.

And it was also the heyday of the infamous ‘Protect and Survive’ public information campaign — a series of short TV films advising people how to survive a nuclear attack, which had been prepared in the mid-1970s for release in the build-up to the next world war.

At first, Oppenheimer thought the atom bomb was a weapon to end all wars

At first, Oppenheimer thought the atom bomb was a weapon to end all wars

Even today the Protect and Survive films make for very bleak viewing. ‘If anyone dies when you are in your fallout room,’ says the narrator at one point, ‘move the body to another room in the house.’

But what if the rotting corpse of Great-Aunt Audrey starts to smell? ‘You should bury the body for the time being in a trench or cover it with earth,’ adds the narrator calmly, ‘and mark the spot of the burial.’

When the Protect and Survive campaign was leaked in the early 1980s, it set off a firestorm of anti-nuclear protest. So it’s hardly surprising that the Government hasn’t embarked on a similar initiative today.

And I can readily understand why the nuclear threat rarely commands the headlines. After all, we have so many other things to worry about, from existential threats like pandemics and climate change to the everyday reality of the cost-of-living crunch.

But if we think that nuclear war is impossible, I believe we are deluding ourselves. After all, people would once have said the same thing about the mass slaughter of men, women and children in industrial death camps — and not only do we know that the Holocaust happened, we know that it was carried out by intelligent, high-functioning people in one of the richest and most advanced societies on earth.

You don’t need to be a historian to know that human beings have a tendency to lash out, to react irrationally, gamble foolishly, or simply make life-changing mistakes. And although I pray that the terrible moment is delayed until my children and grandchildren are long gone, I would be very surprised if it never comes at all.

‘Every man, woman and child,’ John F. Kennedy told the United Nations in September 1961, ‘lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.’

Kennedy said those words almost exactly a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis. The world stepped back from the brink on that occasion, thanks not least to his own caution and good judgment.

But will we always be so lucky? And can we really be sure that one day, driven by hatred, rage or simply blind fear, one of the world’s leaders won’t press the button?

I’d love to pretend that the answer’s yes. But I fear history — and human nature — tells a different and much bleaker story.

source: dailymail.co.uk