Tuesday, July 16, 2024

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Uncertainty surrounds the potential impact of Elon Musk on accelerating Armageddon, leaving us unsure of its proximity.


Sergey Radchenko holds the position of Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His areas of expertise include the Cold War, nuclear history, and foreign and security policies of Russia and China.

Historian Timothy Snyder recently published an editorial expressing strong disapproval towards tech mogul Elon Musk for his alleged decision to not activate the Starlink satellite coverage in Crimea, ultimately preventing a Ukrainian drone strike on Sevastopol.

Snyder claimed that the lack of Starlink coverage was unacceptable and blamed the entrepreneur for being deceived by Russian nuclear blackmail. This ultimately resulted in unnecessary harm and increased the possibility of nuclear warfare.

This argument is not only unsound, but its aggressive delivery does not meet the standards of academia, which should be the focus rather than political activism.

Snyder’s main argument is that Ukraine’s actions in Crimea, specifically attacking military bases, infrastructure, and the Russian fleet, did not lead to the feared escalation by Russia. In fact, he believes that these actions actually had a de-escalatory effect, as they reduced Russia’s ability to attack Ukrainian territory.

However, the statement is misunderstood. If it is accurate that actions that decrease an enemy’s ability to attack are considered “de-escalatory,” then any military action could be considered as such.

For instance, according to this metric, both sides experienced de-escalation during the Battle of Stalingrad. The entire Korean War can be seen as a de-escalatory event, beginning with North Korea’s attack on the South and ending with the involvement of the United States and China. The actions of former President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964-1965 to increase involvement in Vietnam could also be interpreted as de-escalatory, as the goal was to weaken Hanoi’s ability to sustain the war.

It is indeed possible for certain escalatory actions to have a de-escalatory effect.

For example, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (which was unquestionably escalatory) helped bring Japan around to capitulation — as did the Soviet entry into the war — and it can thus be said to have a “net de-escalatory effect.” However, this was only because Japan lacked the ability and the willingness to respond in kind.

If Germany or Japan had possessed atomic bombs during the conclusion of World War II, it is possible that they would have chosen to continue fighting instead of surrendering.

Snyder believes that Ukraine’s increase in conflict, whether in Crimea or elsewhere, could potentially lead to a decrease in overall tension. This idea is based on the belief that Russia would be unable or unwilling to continue their aggressive war as a result of this escalation. However, there is little proof to support this claim.

The statement deceives readers by using a clever wordplay to create a false sense of security, which actually causes confusion by presenting an increase as a decrease. As a result, we may become overly arrogant but ultimately lack clear analysis.

Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and X, was captured in a photo by Carina Johansen from NTB/AFP.

Historians attempt to make sense of the confusion of the past by stringing together facts and arguments from archives, memoirs and recollections. With luck, and a good deal of indulgence on the part of their readers, they may even succeed in putting forward convincing interpretations of what may have happened.

In contrast, historians who try to understand the chaos of the present have limited resources, relying mostly on intuition. While this is a respectable approach, it is often not enough.

Therefore, how should we interpret the claim that Musk’s actions have raised the likelihood of a nuclear war?

The logic of behind it runs like this: Musk became overly worried that Ukrainian strikes on Crimea would lead to Russia’s nuclear retaliation. This means that Russian nuclear blackmail was successful, which, in turn, means Russia will be more likely to resort to nuclear blackmail on future occasions, making actual nuclear use more likely.

Once more, the argument is based on a misinterpretation.

The potential for nuclear utilization exists in any dispute involving a nation with nuclear capabilities. American leaders considered deploying nuclear arms on numerous occasions during the period of tension known as the Cold War, ranging from the Korean War to the Second Taiwan Straits crisis, and from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Vietnam War.

During those instances, there were also notable figures such as China’s Mao Zedong who asserted that the atomic bomb was nothing but a symbolic threat. And perhaps he was correct, as despite the high levels of tension and brinksmanship, a catastrophic nuclear conflict was ultimately averted. Nonetheless, historians have noted that this outcome was largely due to chance.

In summary, only Russian President Vladimir Putin knows the true boundaries for retaliation, as it is unclear for Snyder and others. The lack of nuclear escalation after drone attacks on Crimea does not prove or disprove the possibility of it happening in the future for another threat.

The issue at hand is uncertainty at its core. We cannot eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons by simply ignoring its existence.

It is prudent to cautiously assess Putin’s supposed red lines in the face of extreme uncertainty, while also conveying to the Kremlin that deploying nuclear weapons will result in intolerable consequences. This is exactly the approach that President Joe Biden’s administration has executed with great success.

Have Ukrainian lives been lost as a result of this strategy? It is likely. However, has it also potentially saved Ukrainian lives by preventing further escalation? We cannot determine. Nonetheless, the consequences are too significant to assume that Putin will back down without a complete defeat.

As historians and intellectuals, we do not possess the ability to foresee the future or lead revolutions with grand gestures. Our responsibility is to approach words with careful consideration, using methodical and precise methods, while maintaining a humble perspective – this is where historians find solace.