As the ‘Doomsday Clock’ moves closer to midnight, the world is preparing for war. History teaches us the real risks of cozying up to brutal dictators. Here’s what you need to know.
Nobel Peace Laureate Michael Gorbachev knows a thing or two about war. Gorbachev was the last leader of the Soviet Union in the late 80’s and started the next decade as the first president of a newly democratized Russia. Alongside President Ronald Reagan, Gorbachev ushered in an era of openness to a country long shrouded by dictatorial darkness. By the early 90’s, the Cold War was over and the world entered an era of relative peace, free of the threat of nuclear war.
Today, Gorbachev sounds alarmed. “It all looks as if the world is preparing for war,” he writes in a Time Magazine op-ed. Not just any war, but a nuclear one. The post-Soviet Russia he helped create is now a dictatorship, masquerading as a democracy, with expansionist tendencies. President Vladimir Putin’s stated goal is to rewind the clock on history and rebuild a Soviet-style Russian empire.
Across the globe, major powers are ratcheting up weaponry and rhetoric. American and Russian troops are facing off along the Polish-Russian border. President Donald J. Trump intends to work with Russia to defeat ISIS. The Chinese have just deployed long-range nuclear missiles on their North-East border with Russia which can easily reach the US West Coast. An alarmed Germany is building up a military force not seen in the post-war era. From the Middle East, to the Baltics, from Europe to the South China Seas, the tension is palpable. As a result, the “Doomsday Clock”, which measures the world’s proximity to apocalypse, was just set closest to midnight in over 50 years.
Over the weekend, the heat was turned up with the US ban on refugees and immigrants from some majority Muslim countries. While the president surely does not want to provoke a major terror strike on the homeland, an agitated ISIS could provide reason to invade Iraq, setting off a tinderbox which could provoke Iran. This is right out of Putin’s playbook. Emboldened by his new Moscow ally, Trump might see this is an opportunity to correct what he views as a recent American mistake, providing “another chance” to get Iraq’s oil.
In exchange for this support in the Middle East, Trump might look the other way as Putin expands Moscow’s sphere of influence into the Baltics in his attempt to rebuild a new Russian empire.
Before leaving office, President Barack Obama sped up deployment of US troops in Poland in response to Russian warmongering. Moscow has moved substantial nuclear weapons into the tiny enclave of Kaliningrad, bordering Poland. President Obama’s directive lined up with America’s obligations to NATO, but that commitment is now in question.
“I think you said you were 100% behind NATO?” British Prime Minister Theresa May prodded a non-responsive President Trump at last week’s joint press conference. She added, “with Putin, my advice is to ‘engage but beware'”. If Trump stands down US troops in Poland, Putin will do what he wants in the Baltics, leaving Europe fundamentally exposed, but not unarmed.
May is sounding the alarm because President Trump is dancing with the most unscrupulous player on the world stage. Putin intervened in the US elections, slaughtered thousands of innocent people in Syria and annexed Crimea and a part of the Ukraine. Put simply, he cannot be trusted.
It’s been almost 78 years since the world saw a pact between two world leaders that went wrong and altered the narrative for all humanity forever. On August 23, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbenentrop Pact. It was an agreement between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin to not attack each others’ countries and it clearly delineated spheres of influence between the two great military countries.
A secret protocol between the countries not only foresaw the division of Poland but also sealed the fate of the Baltic states, giving the Soviet Union the go-ahead to invade and annex them. The Soviets also annexed Romania’s provinces of Bessarabia (today’s Moldova) and northern Bukovina (now in Ukraine) and the Czechoslovak territory of Carpathian Ruthenia (also now in Ukraine). The pact also declared Finland to be within the Soviet sphere of influence, and the USSR promptly invaded.
The Second World War started a week after the Pact was signed. The unholy alliance lasted 22 months until Hitler changed the rules and attacked the Soviets on Germany’s Eastern front. Stalin misjudged Hitler’s intentions and trusted a man who could not be trusted. The result was the most horrific genocide in modern-day history and it further embroiled the world in a costly and disastrous World War.
As President Trump moves closer to Putin, the world should be concerned. “I think that we have to understand Vladimir Putin for what he is,” says Senator John McCain. “He has taken Crimea. He is dismembering Ukraine. He used his precision weapons from Russian airplanes to bomb hospitals in Aleppo. That used to qualify as a war crime.”
The World War ushered in the Cold War and ramped up a terrifying nuclear arms race that took us to the brink of a nuclear Armageddon. We are a different world now. A world which disarms nuclear weapons, not one which uses them to bully smaller countries. We no longer teach our children to “duck and cover” and we don’t coddle dictators with dangerous intent and a terrifying track record. We should proceed with caution to avoid repeating history’s mistakes.