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Putin’s Crazy Game

The Russian president’s nuclear threats are intended to intimidate, not to incinerate, Ukraine. He knows that “small” tactical nuclear devices, once unleashed, become the first rung on the ladder to the apocalypse.

HAMBURG – Hardly a day goes by without Russian President Vladimir Putin waving his nuclear bludgeon to cow Ukraine and the West. Is he crazy? Maybe, because launching such weapons would break a 77-year-old nuclear taboo.

Ever since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the unthinkable has been kept in check through some 200 conventional wars – even where nuclear powers were involved on one side or the other. Only once did the Soviet Union and the US come close to the edge of the abyss – exactly 60 years ago during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Why did they pull back, and what are the lessons for our time?

Recall how, in 1914, the great powers stumbled into World War I. Then imagine that kaisers, czars, and kings could have looked into a crystal ball and seen the world of 1918. Twenty million died, along with four great empires: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman. In Russia, Bolshevism won, and Fascism would soon follow throughout Europe. Only British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey had it right in 1914: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”