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Chernobyl, the site of the most infamous civilian nuclear disaster in history, has been occupied by invading troops, disconnected from the power grid, and set on a path to a potentially massive radiation leak. What could possibly motivate this disastrous course of action by Russian combatants in Ukraine? If we ask why Vladimir Putin’s forces have shelled oil reservoirs in major urban centers, attacked humanitarian and refugee escape corridors, targeted maternity hospitals, and captured Europe’s largest operational nuclear power plant amidst heavy bombardment, the answer would be the same. Putin has shown himself to be a war criminal and a mass murderer, but that is not explanation enough for why he would intentionally pursue nuclear, ecological, and civilian damage. Putin is not crazy; in his own mind, he is both a realist and a bringer of apocalypse.
For this reason, it is a mistake to think of the Russian invasion of Ukraine purely as the launching point of a new Cold War. Of course, the war has been very hot from the beginning: witness the cluster bombs dropped on Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv; witness Germany’s moves to arm on a scale not seen since World War II. But the starting point of any conversation about the Russian invasion of 2022 is that its goals and rules are not at all those that guided the international order from 1945 to 1991.
The most important new rule is that apocalypse is now on the table as a serious option—and for Putin, it’s not a dirty word. During the Cold War, pundits and politicians occasionally borrowed the imagery of fire, brimstone, and the Antichrist from the Book of Revelation, but few seriously believed that the key to establishing effective nuclear deterrents lay in making sense of 666 and the seven seals. (To be reminded why, one need only re-watch Dr. Strangelove.)
This is one of many ways in which the world of 2022 is different from the world of 1962, when Kennedy bested Khrushchev to defuse the Cuban missile crisis. Khrushchev didn’t want to end the world; Putin just might. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is right that the Russian shelling of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant could have ended with “six Chernobyls”—and Putin would have embraced that outcome.
Scholars like Yale historian Timothy Snyder have been saying for years that Putin is a fascist leader of the global Right. In other words, like Adolf Hitler, Putin has a sense of world-historical mission. Indeed, Putin’s self-styled mission is to end history as we have come to know it since the end of the Cold War. Almost prophetically, Snyder called Putin’s a “politics of eternity.” The Russian president does not need to end biological life on earth in order to stop history because he believes that he holds cards strong enough to achieve a permanent “peaceful conflict settlement” on his own terms. That may not mean wiping the country of Ukraine off Europe’s map, but it does mean an end to Ukrainian sovereignty—and as firm a Russian grip on Ukraine as there now is on Belarus, where Putin was proud to see the democratic revolution of 2020–21 crushed with brutal efficiency.