Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons if his nation’s “territorial integrity” is threatened has been widely denounced, and rightly so. But paradoxically, it is a sign of Russian weakness, not strength.
As Ukrainian forces regain ground occupied by Russia and the Russian military continues to struggle with respect to morale, logistics, and battlefield competence, the danger that Russia might fall back on its nuclear forces as weapons of last resort grows. Putin says he’s not bluffing, but a number of Western analysts have argued otherwise, asserting that his statement is mere bluster. But the potential risks are too great to put that proposition to the test.
Providing Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defend itself while holding back on supplying long-range systems that are capable of striking targets deep in Russia – as the Biden administration has been doing – makes sense. But the talk of defeating Putin or hastening his demise that is coming from a chorus of analysts outside of the Biden administration is decidedly unhelpful, to put it mildly.
In their recent piece in Defense One, Tom Collina and Angela Kellett of the Ploughshares Fund put the situation in its proper perspective:
“[T]here are dangers ahead. Despite recent Ukrainian successes, the war has no end in sight and there will be more opportunities for escalation. Colin Kahl, defense undersecretary for policy, said . . . that ‘Ukraine’s success on the battlefield could cause Russia to feel backed into a corner, and that is something we must remain mindful of.’ Former NATO senior official Rose Gottemoeller said she fears that Russia ‘will strike back now in really unpredictable ways that may even involve weapons of mass destruction,’ including nuclear weapons.”
Collina and Kellett go on to underscore the need to revive arms control talks between the United States and Russia to forestall an open-ended nuclear arms race that could proceed without any guardrails if the New START nuclear reduction treaty is not extended beyond its current end date in 2026. They fully acknowledge the difficulty of our current predicament: “Above all, the United States and NATO will need to balance the need to support Ukraine, prevent nuclear conflict, and seek a diplomatic end to the war.” But even given these daunting challenges, Collina and Kellett suggest that the two sides should at least start meeting informally or through third parties to sow the seeds of more serious discussions down the road. Establishing some channels of communication will be one critical tool for heading off the worst case scenario of a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine.
Meanwhile, hawks in Washington are having a field day using the Russian invasion as a rationale for increasing the Pentagon’s already enormous budget. But these arguments are deeply flawed, as Lyle Goldstein has made clear in a new paper for the Brown University Costs of War Project, under the lengthy but informative title “Threat Inflation, Russian Military Weakness, and the Resulting Nuclear Paradox: Implications of the War in Ukraine for U.S, Military Spending.” The paper is well worth reading in its entirety, but for the moment it’s useful to focus on some of its main arguments.
First, the U.S. and its NATO allies already vastly outspend Russia on their militaries, by a margin of 10 to 1 for the U.S. and 5 to 1 for non-U.S. NATO nations as a group. If spending was going to make a difference, these overwhelming margins would have been adequate. But even if Washington spent 20 times what Moscow does for military purposes, it would not have dissuaded Putin from invading Ukraine. He’s not sitting in a room with a calculator deciding what level of U.S. spending would be enough to make him change his plans, as devastating and disastrous as those plans are.
Second, Russia’s poor performance in Ukraine indicates that it has no capability to successfully attack any NATO nation. And to the extent that nations bordering Russia want to bulk up their forces to provide further insurance against that eventuality, they have more than enough resources to do so without significant U.S. assistance. This is especially true now that Germany, Poland, and other European powers have pledged to substantially increase their military budgets.
Last but not least, the U.S. is already supplying record levels of military aid to Ukraine, mostly via emergency packages outside of the Pentagon’s regular budget. The portion of U.S. aid packages set aside for military aid to Ukraine and front-line NATO states since the beginning of the Russia invasion on February 24th of this year has already reached $23 billion, with $7.2 billion more on the way as part of a request by the Biden administration earlier this month. Taken together, this totals almost three times the peak year of U.S. assistance to Afghan Security Forces during America’s 20-year war there, and almost eight times annual U.S. military aid to Israel.
Using the Ukraine conflict as a rationale to increase the Pentagon’s regular budget would be double dipping, diverting funds from other urgent national needs in the process. Rather than succumbing to a fear campaign spearheaded by long-time advocates of overspending on the Pentagon, we need a vigorous national conversation about what makes America and the world safer. Throwing more money at the Pentagon is not the answer.
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