The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, September 26, 2022

It’s Monday, September 26th, 2022.

I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

An Ominous Turn in the War of Ukraine: Russia Threatens Use of ‘Tactical Nuclear Weapons’ — How Far is the US Willing to Go to Aid Ukraine?

You may have noticed that what happens far, far away often simply won’t stay far, far away. International headlines have a way of working their way into American urgencies, and regardless of where you live in the world the fact is that headlines from elsewhere in the world can land right on your urgencies as well. Now, in order to understand this, we’re going to begin today in Ukraine where the Russian invasion of Ukraine is now well over seven months old. And let’s just remind ourselves that all this happened when Russian President Vladimir Putin who, after all, functions, basically, if not as a dictator, then at least as an autocrat.

Vladimir Putin, began several years ago to annex Ukrainian territory and to threaten to do more of the same. Years ago, it began with the Crimean Peninsula. That’s an incredibly valuable piece of territory throughout much of world history. And it had been a part of the U.S.S.R., the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. With the breakup of the U.S.S.R., Ukraine became an independent state and Ukraine included within its territory, and this goes back to the age of the U.S.S.R., the Crimean Peninsula. But Russia wanted it and what Vladimir Putin wants, well, he may take by military force. He did that a few years ago with the Ukrainian Peninsula and now he tried it just a matter of the last several months with a land invasion and air attacks and a coordinated military effort that was clearly intended to seize if not all of Ukraine then most of it and to destabilize whatever might remain of Ukraine so that it was no longer a threat to Russian superiority nor Russian identity.

But let’s just note that Russia has faced several setbacks. Even as the Russian Army was considered to be incredibly powerful, the world has been surprised and clearly Russia has been surprised by the inadequacy of the Russian effort. First of all, it was clear that Russia in the early months of the war intended to take Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. It failed to do so and it’s actually hard to overestimate the nature of that loss, of that setback to Russia. But the setbacks continue and you can simply look through successive months in which Russia has basically faced very bad news. And you also have the more recent headlines about major territory that Russia had held inside Ukraine that have simply now been lost. And even as this week begins, Russia is in danger of losing even more of the territory that it had previously invaded and occupied.

But this weekend also brought several new dimensions, and a part of this was something else that we have seen Russia do in the past, but now it’s happening in Ukraine. Having invaded and occupied Ukrainian territory, that is the territory of a neighboring sovereign nation, Russia then declared that it would hold a publicit. It would hold a vote in that occupied territory in order that the people there may vote that they want to be a part of Russia rather than Ukraine. Now, that is voting, and in the case of the elections that began just over the weekend, or the so-called elections, they are literally at the point of a gun. They’re at the rifle of a gun. You have a rifle pointed, you have Kalashnikov and other automatic weapons openly seen as these elections, or actually sham elections, are taking place. And you’ll notice what Russia is trying to do here, or what at least Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is trying to do. Here he is trying to claim legitimacy for Russia’s seizure of that territory.

Now, this is where Western nations understand if that can happen to Ukraine, it can happen to any nation, certainly any nation which is bordering on Russia. And let’s just remember the sad lessons of the 20th century. As those borders move outward, you may think you’re not on any border with Russia only to wake up in Europe and find out you certainly are. But we have now reached a very critical, a very crucial moment in terms of the struggle over Ukraine and this represents a very clear challenge to the United States and other allied nations seeking to support Ukraine, to arm Ukraine, to encourage Ukraine. We are facing some questions as to the limits of that encouragement, that arming, that defensive backing of Ukraine under the situation of Russia’s invasion because here’s what has changed and here’s what we need to watch.

It’s not just the sham elections that are taking place. It is also Vladimir Putin’s desperation. Here’s something you just need to think about, and this is the biggest issue perhaps in worldview analysis. If you are an autocrat, if you operate as a dictator, as Vladimir Putin clearly is in Russia, then if you basically bare the solitary or at least overwhelming control of the government, and that includes the military, and the military operates on your orders, eventually a military failure is your failure. And that’s what is now endangering Vladimir Putin. The danger to Putin right now is not just, say, the loss of his advance by Russian military forces into Ukraine. It’s not just the international loss of face. It is a loss of necessary fear and support within the Russian political system, fear of him and support for him.

There are good signs that the great fear that should be felt by every autocratic leader, and that is not that one would fall by some kind of external pressure from un neighboring nation, but rather that one would fall by enemies within. Vladimir Putin, who got where he is today by skill and by deadly cunning, certainly has to understand that his unnumbered enemies, there’s so many they are unnumbered, are sharpening their knives in order to bring him down. Now, this is where Christians understand that when you have power concentrated, and let’s face it, the Christian dimension of this is understanding that, that means sin concentrated, temptation, totalitarian temptation, concentrated in the hands of a few or in the case of Russia overwhelmingly in the hands of one, then eventually what you have is a situation in which a downfall is inevitable. The question is, how long will it take?

Now, as you look through the medieval periods of world history, you look to some other places like North Korea in current history, evidently that can take a relatively long time, even centuries in some cases. But in Russia, the time is running out and Vladimir Putin and his regime, they do not have centuries. They may have a matter of months. And, furthermore, we don’t know what’s going on inside Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but we have to imagine that what is setting in, in Vladimir Putin has to be something very close to paranoia. One sign of the anxiety that is being experienced by Vladimir Putin and, of course, military frustration as well, is the fact that he is calling out between a quarter of a million and 300,000 army reservists to enter active service. Now, this has led to not only protest in the streets, it has also led to an exodus of qualified Russian males trying to get out of Russia rather than serve in the Russian Army and become another casualty of Vladimir Putin’s war.

So you had several nations including Poland and neighboring Finland there to Russia announcing that they were not going to accept any men trying to come into their nations on this basis because they were about to be flooded with men running from Russia rather than to be re-conscripted or reactivated into the Russian military. And, furthermore, even though an autocratic government has an enormous amount of control over information in the information age, even Vladimir Putin can’t keep everything out, and that includes the fact that even as thousands and thousands of Russian casualties are coming home in coffins, there are also an awful lot of photographs and there is a great deal of video showing the carnage that the Ukrainian Army and Armed Forces have put on the Russian Army and Russian Armed Forces after the invasion began.

And we are really looking at a lot of smoldering ruins. We’re seeing a lot of abandoned and bombed out tanks. We’re seeing a lot of evidence of why those Russian soldiers do not want to be reactivated in Vladimir Putin’s army. And they are often making that statement with their feet or they’re attempting to in their cars.

Part II

‘Then the Eyes of Both were Opened, and They Knew That They Were Naked’: The Morality of Knowledge After the Fall — You Can’t Unknow What You Now Know

But there are two other dimensions we need to think about right now as we’re thinking about Russia and Ukraine, and that is because Vladimir Putin in speeches over the course of the last several days has been saying something out loud that American intelligence and military sources have basically understood as a threat for a much longer period of time. Russia’s official military doctrine calls for a relatively early use of what are called tactical nuclear weapons. Now, this is something that should certainly have our attention. Now, the distinction between strategic and tactical nuclear weapons may or may not be a major distinction.

Actually, there are defense experts and there are nuclear weapons experts who differ in terms of that analysis, but at least in theory the distinction between a strategic nuclear weapon and a tactical nuclear weapon, or what’s sometimes called a battlefield nuclear weapon, is that the latter are supposed to be small targeted. They are not intended to be a part of an overwhelming nuclear strike that basically would add up to global Armageddon.

American military doctrine calls for the use of those weapons only defensively, never offensively. And, basically, although not explicit, that is generally understood to mean no first use, which is to say that the United States and its allies would not use those weapons, even tactical nuclear weapons, first. Someone else would have to deploy and use that kind of weapon and then American military strategy could justify the use of tactical nuclear weapons defensively after a tactical nuclear attack. But over the course of the last several days, Vladimir Putin in desperation has been making an argument that we had better listen to closely and it’s also been affirmed by other officials in the Russian government, and it comes down to this. Russia is now claiming, and, again, I want to make clear that Vladimir Putin is very much behind this claim himself, they are claiming that there could be incursions or threats to what they would declare to be Russian territory.

Now, remember those sham elections? That conceivably could include Ukrainian territory that Russia is falsely claiming as its own territory and Russia has said that it reserves the right to use tactical nuclear weapons. Now, the way it has stated that in recent days is that it would fight by any means necessary. But just to state the obvious, and sometimes the obvious isn’t as obvious as we would like to think it is, the threat of that kind of use of a nuclear weapon is truly a game changer. It is also an inherently immoral act that is undertaken by a reckless and ruthless regime. This really does even by the nature of this threat put Russia in the position of being an outlaw nation, a pariah nation. Now, here’s where, again, Christian worldview analysis reminds us of the fact that when we are looking at politics and morality at a global scale, here’s the problem, and we’re going to be looking at this more closely, there is no global police force. There are no truly global courts.

There is no global morality that is simply accepted by all, not even a global political or judicial authority that is accepted by all. And you might say, “Well, what about the United Nations?” Well, we’re going to return to that in just a matter of minutes. But the point is, at this point, let’s just say the United Nations can’t stop Vladimir Putin from using a tactical nuclear weapon. Now, all this should remind us of a basic question of the Christian worldview that comes down to what we call the morality of knowledge. And this really is a very weighty issue. Once you know something, then you bear the moral responsibility of knowing it. Now, that can be generalized to a nation or even to, say, a global population. But when it comes to something like nuclear weaponry, it really is limited to a few people with the scientific background and others with the political and military authority to genuinely threaten nuclear weapons and the use of those weapons.

You could put it another way. The Christian worldview reminds us that the first temptation that came to Adam and Eve was in the form of God’s command that they should not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And then once they did, once humanity had eaten of the fruit of that tree, Adam and Eve knew what they had not previously known. And here’s the human quandary, here’s the quandary of sin. Once you know what is forbidden to us to know, you cannot unknow it. You then bear responsibility for knowing it. And you’ll recall that, that is exactly why God cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. And we know that because God revealed this to us in the book of Genesis in chapter 3. Back especially during the 1980s, there was a movement, particularly in Western Europe, it was often referred to as a nuclear freeze. It was certainly anti-nuclear weapons, and the argument was we should try to unknow the danger, the nearly incalculable danger of nuclear weapons.

But here’s the problem, and Christians understand this, once you know it, you cannot unknow it. The knowledge of how to create a nuclear weapon is not limited to the United States and friendly nations. It was very early and tragically largely due to espionage also something that ended up in the hands of the Soviet Union, and then before long it ended up in the hands of the Communist Party in China, and then eventually it ended up in the hands of forces that include the totalitarian and utterly dangerous regime of North Korea under the rule of the totalitarian Kim Family. So what are we to think of Vladimir Putin’s obvious threat to use so-called theater or tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine? Well, let’s just say that would be an absolute game changer, and not just a game changer in terms of the Russian war against Ukraine, but a game changer in the course of Western history.

And here’s where I am afraid many Americans, and that would include American Christians and perhaps it might even be a temptation to listeners to The Briefing, this is where we might think this isn’t a rational possibility. There’s no real chance this might happen. But here’s where we need to recognize that Vladimir Putin is in one sense like a caged animal, and he is going to have to win somehow or at least be perceived to win somehow or it becomes virtually implausible that he can continue in office. And, by the way, if you are an autocrat, as the Chinese parable said, “If you’re riding the back of a tiger,” Churchill reminds us of this, “the one thing you cannot do is get off that tiger,” which is to say the history of the world includes very few retired dictators.

Argentinian dictator Juan Perón from the 20th century, as fictionalized in the musical Avita, actually said that “the course of retiring for a dictator was attractive because after all, more important, you’re not dead.” The problem is the list of not dead former dictators is incredibly small, and Juan Perón knew that quite well.

Part III

‘The History of the World Includes Very Few Retired Dictators’: The Predicament of Vladimir Putin and Danger of an Autocrat Backed into a Corner

Another dimension of this is raised by Ross Douthat in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times, and he’s stating the obvious and I appreciate it because the obvious is missing from a lot of other conversation. A lot of people, including America’s President Joe Biden, seem to be saying that the United States and allies will support Ukraine all the way to the end, and for that matter will not be satisfied until Russia has abandoned all of its military gains. And the implication is that, that includes the Crimean Peninsula, even though there is right now no military plan whatsoever for how Ukraine could regain the Crimean Peninsula. More likely, from the very beginning it has been understood this will end in some kind of negotiated settlement, not because that will be just and right. We’re talking about the international situation in which the result is often not just, the result is often not right. But sometimes people around the world have to come to the conclusion that this is at least a less worse option than continuing a war.

And with the threat of tactical nuclear weapons, we just have to face the fact that the United States and its allies will find themselves faced with an existential crisis over Ukraine, which is I simply want to believe not what the American people nor the people of other European nations were bargaining for in supporting Ukraine. Speaking of what he calls a nuclear shadow over the Ukraine war, Ross Douthat writes, and I think he’s absolutely right, “So I return to a point I’ve made throughout this war, American support for Ukraine is good and necessary, but there is a point at which Ukraine’s goals and America’s interest may diverge, the point where the Ukrainians may want to go all the way and we require negotiation and restraint.”

He goes on to say, “I say this understanding why Kyiv might be willing to accept an unusual degree of nuclear risk for the sake of its own territorial integrity. Why the Ukrainians,” he said, want their children to look back and say that in the battle for their freedom, the blood of the fathers ran strong.” But he concludes, “But just as Reagan’s horror of nuclear war turned out to be crucial to his legacy, Joe Biden’s policies will be judged not only in what they achieve for the embattled Ukrainians, but for the peace of the entire world.”

Part IV

Who Would Globally Police Russia and Hold It Accountable for Its Crimes? The Failure of the United Nations Was There from the Beginning

But, next, as I said, this really does point to the failure of all internationalist organizations. It points to the fact that still right now the most important political unit is the nation state. Certainly, as you look at a globe, certainly as you look at the international situation, and I think as you look at it honestly as Christians, you can understand that the reason Ukrainians are fighting so courageously is because their nation has been invaded and it is being threatened for its very existence. The reason why Russians are not so eager to fight is because their nation is not endangered. They simply are not wanting to die for an autocrat’s ambitions. That’s a very different situation.

People will die for their nation. They will sign up to fight for their nation. Just think of the United States and how many people were resistant to the very idea of war before Pearl Harbor but eagerly signed up for the war effort by the millions as soon as the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. That’s because we understand a threat to our nation. We would like to think that international organizations or a body like the United Nations might be able to put a stop to this, but the fact is that throughout its history the United Nations has been spectacularly if tragically inept at trying to prevent this kind of development. And one of the reasons is that the United Nations was itself the result of what you might even call a well-intended negotiation among those who simply turned out to be the victors of the Second World War and those they invited into the United Nations Club.

And from the very beginning there have been inherent moral contradictions in the United Nations and one of them is that if you look at the real power in the United Nations, it is not and has never been in the General Assembly. The superpowers, the big powers are not about to turn over the global situation to a majority vote from a lot of little nations that, quite frankly, they want to be a part of the United Nations, but certainly not to be near control of the United Nations. No, the real power is in what is known as the Security Council. And here’s the thing, guess who has a seat on the Security Council, which means an absolute veto of actions by the United Nation Security Council? Yes, you have that right, Russia and also China. So even as the United States and several of our allies have a permanent seat on the United Nation Security Council, it turns out to be incredibly ineffectual if the actual attack is coming from another nation that has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

So even in the last several days with all the addresses given to the United Nations by world leaders including President Joe Biden, the fact is that the United Nations will listen and deliberate, but in the end it will be able to do absolutely nothing about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And let’s just get to the point. If the United Nations is ineffectual to deal adequately with something that is such a blatant violation of international law and the international Order, then quite frankly it becomes a place for a lot of international bureaucrats to have an office and for international officials to make speeches, but not much else. And that gets back to a Christian principle of subsidiarity, which tells us that the greatest meaning and authority, the greatest truth and legitimate power exists in a unit that is organically defined. And, basically, subsidiarity says that those things most importantly subside at the most basic level.

Now, in one sense, even a nation is very large. It’s not the most basic identity, but compared to what is declared to be the so-called international community, well, subsidiarity makes very clear that nations are not going to surrender their sovereignty to the United Nations, and thus the United Nations turns out to be a lot of nations but not united. The biblical account of the Tower of Babel might remind us that it has ever been so.

Part V

The Shifting Political Tectonic Plates in Europe: Conservatives Win Italian Elections Likely Resulting in First Woman to Lead Italy’s Government

But, finally, we end the briefing today on another international headline, but this one’s not from Ukraine. This one is from Italy where Italy’s voters went to the polls on Sunday and apparently elected the first major conservative government there in Italy for a very long time. And it’s likely to lead to the first woman Prime Minister there in Italy. Giorgia Meloni Is likely to be the head of the coalition that will form the Italian government.

She would become the first woman prime minister there in Italy and she is identified in the international press often as the head of a political party that is on the Italian right. Some claim the far Italian right, or the Italian far right. And she’s also described as a conservative. Now, on The Briefing, I often point out the fact that the words the right and conservative are often used as if they’re equivalent, but they’re not. There are those on the right who are profoundly not conservative. They are ideologues who are not seeking to conserve anything but just represent a rightist philosophy. And so time will tell whether this is a government merely of the right or if it’s a conservative government. And, in some sense, every conservative government is on the right, but it just gets back to the fact that the self-conscious motivation of conservatives is to conserve by political, legal, legislative, judicial means what must be conserved for human flourishing and human society to be rightly ordered.

It is very interesting that a lot of words are being thrown out. Some of them come from Italy’s history. Some even from the history we are told of this particular politician’s own party, at least in decades past. The word fascist is being used. But the Wall Street Journal and others are basically saying it’s likely that this is going to be a conservative government of the right, the first headed by a woman, which also leads to another very interesting observation, and that is that when women are elected to high national office, they very often are not liberal women that would be backed by say, feminists, but more conservative women such as Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Or even, in a generalized sense, Germany’s longstanding Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Now, Angela Merkel wasn’t a conservative the way I might hope most American conservatives would be conservative, but certainly within the spectrum of German politics she was more often described as conservative than liberal.

But it is also interesting that Giorgia Meloni is being attacked by so many on the left precisely because she is underlining the importance of family, the importance of morality, and yes, the importance of the sanctity of human life, which means that pro abortionist feminists and others are very, very much opposed to her. They’re not taking to the fact that a woman will likely become the Prime Minister of Italy as a feminist gain because she is an anti-feminist herself. This headline in combination with a very recent similar headline coming from Sweden, also a conservative party first time big victory in a national election there, these headlines tell us that the political landscape of Europe is changing fast. And it’s also interesting for Americans to reflect upon the fact that a political shift here often follows a political shift in Europe, more specifically in Great Britain.

Time will tell. But it is really interesting that the first woman to hold many major political offices is a woman whose victory is not celebrated by feminists on ideological, not gender terms.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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