For those of us of a certain age, the last few months have felt as if we have somehow time-warped back to the 1980s. Stranger Things, which is set in that decade, has been the biggest show on TV. Kate Bush – thanks, incidentally, to Stranger Things – is now regularly played on the radio and she has reached number one in 2022 with the re-release of her 1985 hit, Running Up That Hill.
In one particularly distressing flashback to my youth, I even saw a guy wearing stone-washed jeans the other day.
But there’s a reason why that once most derided of decades has suddenly seemed to capture the zeitgeist – we’re all beginning to worry the world could end in a catastrophic nuclear conflagration.
Forget, for a moment, about the current anxiety surrounding climate change – we Generation X-ers grew up with the fear that the temperature could rise suddenly by about a million degrees in half-a-second if, as looked likely at the time, insanity prevailed and a nuclear strike happened.
A few days into the invasion of Ukraine, I stayed up late to watch CNN’s coverage of the emerging battles between the Russian invaders and the Ukrainian defenders.
In one of the most terrifying live broadcasts I have ever seen, there was live footage of a fierce battle outside the old Chernobyl reactor core, complete with audio of Ukrainian commanders imploring their Russian counterparts to withdraw immediately because they were in danger of smashing the protective concrete barrier that had been built to contain the lethal radioactive material.
The Russians didn’t pay any attention to such entreaties. As a result, many of their troops have now died from radiation poisoning because they disturbed the irradiated soil when they were digging their trenches.
Combined with the increasingly deranged and bellicose threats from numerous Russian TV hosts, who now seem to be actively agitating for a nuclear strike against the West – including Ireland – everything has begun to feel like a very ugly example of deja vu.
However, while those of us who have been warning about the renewed threats of a nuclear attack were initially dismissed as cranks, on Monday there came an announcement that should have all of us quaking in our boots and searching Google for “fallout shelters”.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres used his address to issue a stark warning to the world. Even those of us who pay scant attention to the ordinarily banal witterings of that organisation sat up and paid attention.
According to Guterres: “Humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation. We are now in a time of nuclear danger not seen since the height of the Cold War.”
Guterres warned of the chaos in Ukraine, as well as other pertinent global issues, and urged the various leaders to go back to the spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which came in to force in 1970 and – fun fact – was so driven by Irish diplomats that it became known as the Irish Treaty, which shows we can punch above our weight when we really want to.
Guterres mentioned the Middle East and North Korea as potential problems, but we all know there are really only two elephants in the room we should be scared of – Russia and China.
While all eyes have obviously been focused on the carnage unfolding in front of us every night in Ukraine, China has been paying keen attention to the West’s response to Putin to see how far Beijing thinks it can go.
And how far does it think it can go? Well, the fact that it announced this week that it would simply shoot down Nancy Pelosi if she even attempted to visit Taiwan could lead many observers to conclude China doesn’t care about the West’s response.
The country is newly emboldened against what it sees as a weak and sclerotic American president in charge of a soft and selfish society that simply doesn’t have the stomach for a fight. It might even have a point.
However, while events in the South China Sea could yet result in the world being dragged into a mutually destructive battle, it’s only common sense to concentrate on what’s happening in Europe, and what’s happening seems to be getting worse with each passing day.
Contrary to popular opinion, every humiliating defeat suffered by Putin is making the world a more dangerous place. A man who seems to have abandoned even a pretence of sanity is surrounded by apparatchiks who have one major problem with their leader – and it’s not that he went into Ukraine in the first place. Instead, their hawkish gripe is that he hasn’t gone in hard enough.
It should be remembered that of the big nuclear powers, Russia is the only country to reserve the right to use a first-strike offensive tactic. Rather than nukes being a desperate, last-minute Hail Mary, as used by the other powers, they see tactical “baby nukes” as an entirely legitimate weapon to be launched when they are losing ground. And they have been losing ground.
At least during the Cold War calmer heads prevailed. The red phone hotline between Washington and Moscow provided a perfect funnel for off-the-record talks and, crucially, neither of the superpowers was led by a madman.
That has all changed, changed utterly.
Putin knows the only stick he has left to wave at the West is the fact he’s in possession of the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world, and he’s gambling on the fact that while numerous countries have been giving material support to the embattled Ukrainians, nobody is going to risk World War III over the matter.
This is bad. Really bad. In fact, it’s actually worse than any time in the 1980s, and I genuinely wouldn’t be surprised if we see a mushroom cloud on our screens. Let’s hope there’s a coup in Moscow, because this is becoming the gravest threat any of us have ever faced.