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How to read perversion
Kremlin nuclear propaganda and Russian war aims
Ukrainians have been fighting for a whole week now, defending their country. Every day that they resist the Russian invasion gives the rest of us time: to do something to help, to reassess and affirm our own values, to think about the future, to consider how it came to this.
A week ago, Vladimir Putin gave a speech meant to provide a rationale for an invasion that he had already ordered. Among much other nonsense, he claimed that Ukraine was about to acquire nuclear weapons. This argument was repeated by Russia's foreign minister in Geneva on Tuesday.
It is not just that there is no basis for this claim. It is contradictory and perverse.
Ukraine has no nuclear weapons, and no nuclear weapons program. Ukraine has done more for the cause of nuclear non-proliferation than any other country. In the early 1990s, Ukraine had the the third-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world, a legacy of the Soviet Union. It agreed to disarm itself entirely in 1994, in exchange for security guarantees from the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Russian Federation. In 1996, when its nuclear disarmament was completed, sunflowers were planted around Ukraine's empty silos as a sign of peace.
One has to stop and take a deep breath before enunciating the contradictions and perversions of the Kremlin's argument about nuclear weapons, because they are so deep and so numerous. In invading Ukraine, in 2014 and again now, Russia has done more for the cause of nuclear proliferation than any country in the world. It has taught the lesson that countries should keep or build a nuclear arsenal, in order to deter large aggressive neighbors from invading them.
It is not just that Russia has broken its promise to defend Ukraine, which was spelled out in something called the Budapest Memorandum in 1994. It is blaming the country that abandoned nuclear weapons for acquiring them, while itself holding the world's largest nuclear arsenal. And even as Russia does so, Putin is brandishing his own nuclear weapons in a way that is highly irresponsible, suggesting that their use would be acceptable in a senseless war that Russia began without provocation.
Like Russian propaganda generally, the attention to nuclear weapons is meant to shock and confuse, to create a psychological opening. We are supposed to yield to the pressure inherent in the subject, imagine that there must be some defensible element in what the Kremlin says, and make a concession that suits the Russian leadership.
We are being invited to participate in the generation of nonsense. When we repeat contradictory and perverse arguments, we commit part of our minds to them, and start to become less reasonable ourselves.
Nothing that the Kremlin has said about Russian war aims actually makes any sense. But it does make nonsense. The war on the ground in Ukraine is all too real. But the Russian war is also fought in and for unreality, to extend its hold on our minds as far as possible. When unreality spreads, reality becomes more murderous.
The senseless talk about nuclear weapons is an example of this. But, as I will hope to keep showing, the creation of of nonsense is an essential element of Russian warfighting. As such, it calls for analysis, and resistance.