News of the Ukrainian army’s recent advances swept across western capitals like fresh air. A war that was for months mired in crushing artillery fire had suddenly opened up. Russian forces, outmaneuvered by the Ukrainian army, fled, again proving weaker than anyone expected. Hopes lifted that Ukraine could win the war and force their tormentor back to the prewar battlelines – and perhaps further.
Russia shared the same assessment. Vladimir Putin knows his military is badly damaged and getting weaker. The Russian president responded with military mobilization and preparations to annex the Ukrainian regions Russia now controls, just as he did in Crimea in 2014. He also threatened to use nuclear weapons to “protect Russia” – implying he may use them to defend the regions he is annexing.
Meanwhile, Ukraine, emboldened by the success of its Kharkiv operation, wants advanced tanks and other new weapons systems from the west. In the face of Putin’s wanton disregard for human life and reckless nuclear threats, they may well get them.
No one should conclude that Putin would use a nuclear weapon just because he threatened to do so – the credibility of his words alone is nil. His nuclear saber-rattling is condemnable, and Joe Biden rightly attacked it on Sunday and again at the United Nations on Wednesday. The president is also right to maintain ambiguity about how the United States might respond if Russia detonated a nuclear weapon.
But just because Putin has threatened nuclear attack doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Sadly, it isn’t that hard to see a path to nuclear use from here. There are many variants, but the basic story goes something like this:
Western support to Ukraine increases this autumn, with new weapons systems and larger quantities of the weapons already deployed. Western intelligence gives the Ukrainians an even sharper edge against a Russian force that is large but poorly trained, under-equipped and demoralized. The Russian military takes heavy losses. It’s routed from one of the Ukrainian regions it has annexed.
In this scenario, Putin’s grand project is now collapsing once and for all. Protests in Russia intensify. He fears losing his grip on power and being dragged, Gaddafi-like, through the streets. So he strikes Ukrainian forces with a tactical nuclear weapon in a gamble to underscore the risks, stop the war, and avert disaster for himself. His aim is not to gain a military advantage, but to raise the stakes so high that western capitals are forced to rethink their strategy.
After that, de-escalation would be hard. The United States and Nato nuclear powers would come under pressure for a nuclear strike of their own – probably on Russia itself, due to a lack of other options. With its conventional forces in disarray, Russia’s likely response to this strike would be to broaden the nuclear conflict to Nato.
The US might try to avoid such an escalating nuclear scenario by deploying a large conventional US force to Ukraine, but this would be almost as escalatory from Russia’s perspective as a Nato nuclear attack. Even if such a strategy did work to de-escalate, the nuclear taboo is broken, and with it, the possibility that other despots use nuclear weapons in the future is much higher.
The whole world should want to avert this scenario. The United States and its allies need to deploy all the leverage they can – carrots as well as sticks – to get China, India, and other G20 countries to condemn Russia’s nuclear threat. The tepid reception Putin got from India and China earlier this week seems like a sign these rising powers understand the stakes for their own futures. China is conflicted about Ukraine because it views Russia’s operation there through the lens of its own aims for Taiwan. But Beijing should still appreciate the disastrous consequences a nuclear conflict – even if contained to Europe – would have for its economic future.
Peer pressure alone, however, is not likely to be enough. Biden should also find a way to reinforce that the US is not aiming to oust Putin – although it may be difficult to make this case convincing given the extensive sanctions regime, Biden’s own statements about Putin, and the past US record of overthrowing despots.
A ceasefire would help to calm the situation and avoid further escalation, but convincing the Ukrainians to accept one is going to be extremely hard now that they have the momentum on the battlefield. Russia’s disastrous plan to annex the regions makes negotiations all the less appealing because it effectively takes these regions off the table.
Western capitals should at least point out to Ukrainian leaders that their prospects of retaking all their territory may not be as bright as they hope. There is a very long way to go – their operation in Kharkiv was dramatic, but only bought them back a fraction of their territory. Whether it can be replicated for the remainder is uncertain. At a minimum, now is not the time to offer the Ukrainians advanced new weapons systems.
Putin has presented the world with impossible choices. Russia must emerge from this crisis chastened for its recklessness. But in the next few weeks, leaders need to find offramps to prevent the worst. This will take maximum flexibility and creativity from all sides.
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