– The Russo–Ukrainian war rages on. Last year, the presumed quick Russian victory went aglimmering. This year, the presumed grand Ukrainian victory vanished when Kiev’s counteroffensive failed to break Russia’s lines and recapture the Donbas and Crimea. Today, Ukraine looks closer than Russia to failure.
The Biden administration continues to escalate, but slowly. It fears Moscow’s response to policies that kill more Russian soldiers and destroy more Russian materiel. For all of its faults, Washington seems to not want to trigger war with Russia. Especially not the nuclear Armageddon threatened by Russian officials—“nuclear apocalypse,” as warned by former president Dmitry Medvedev, and “global catastrophe,” in the words of Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of the State Duma.
Less concerned about a nuclear exchange are Kiev’s partisan defenders in Washington, as well as most Ukrainians, whether in or out of government. Indeed, Kiev’s fondest, though rarely explicitly articulated, desire is for the U.S. to enter the war. Last November, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sought to lie America into the conflict, claiming that a Russian missile had struck Poland. In fact, the missile was Ukrainian. Zelensky’s actions revived international as well as American concern over potential nuclear escalation, despite the allies’ limited strategic interest in the current war’s outcome.
The American and European governments possess a decided economic and military advantage over Moscow. To counter its decided conventional weakness, Russia has set its nuclear threshold lower than in the West. Moscow long has professed to be less averse than America to using nukes. Explains Valeriy Akimenko of the Conflict Studies Research Centre: “Disagreements over the precise threshold for Russia to use nuclear weapons risk obscuring the key point that that threshold is far lower than for Western nuclear powers. Acceptance of the possibility of nuclear warfare permeates Russia’s military theory and practice.”
Some analysts predict that the disparity between the U.S. and Europe versus Russia will cause Moscow to rely even more heavily on tactical nukes in the future. Doing so would prevent the West from trusting its conventional superiority to yield victory. A similar dynamic is at play in the Ukraine conflict.
Russia’s invasion was unjust and has resulted in horrendous humanitarian consequences. Though it was not justified, it was provoked. The allies recklessly sought to enforce military primacy up to Russia’s borders. Had Moscow behaved similarly, expanding a hostile alliance and promoting regime change in the Western Hemisphere, the U.S. would have responded with aggressive, even provocative, action. For the Putin government, the current conflict is existential, which means that Russia is willing to spend and risk much more than Washington, for which the conflict, and especially such details as final territorial boundaries, are peripheral matters at most.
Although the U.S. has increased its contribution to the proxy war-plus against Moscow, so far the latter has responded guardedly. There has been no attempt at total war in Ukraine or any cross-border attacks on weapons shipments to Kiev. Most important, Moscow has not employed nuclear weapons, whether tactical or strategic, against Ukraine. Nevertheless, the possibility of the latter in particular continues to dissuade Washington from taking the “everything all the time” approach favored by Ukraine partisans.
Hence, ongoing demands that the U.S.—when it comes to nuclear policy, no one else in NATO is much relevant—toss caution to the wind and call what it hopes is Russia’s bluff. For instance, the Atlantic Council’s Olivia Yanchik recently complained that Moscow had caused “hesitation and procrastination” in arming Kiev. Moreover, she added, “Unless the West confronts Vladimir Putin’s nuclear intimidation, there is a very real chance that he will continue with such tactics. Inevitably, others will seek to emulate him. This could plunge the entire world into a new era of international instability as countries scramble to secure a nuclear deterrent of their own.”
Yet Yanchik’s call to arms is much too late. Since the development of nuclear weapons, governments have threatened to use them. Far from being an innocent ingenue beset by nuclear-laden bandits, Washington has routinely treated nukes as the ultimate means to both deter and compel behavior. This goes back to “massive retaliation,” a mirror image of Moscow’s present strategy, intended to deter a Soviet invasion of Western Europe when allied conventional forces were notably smaller than those fielded by the USSR. Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea also have either threatened to use nukes if threatened by superior force or allowed other governments to believe they might do so.
Moreover, the fact that nuclear weapons are the best deterrent to threats from the world’s premier conventional power, which routinely imposes regime change to enhance its political influence and/or commercial advantage, already creates a significant incentive for proliferation. For instance, Pyongyang’s intentions might well mix offensive and defensive objectives. Nevertheless, any North Korean leader relying on U.S. goodwill for his survival would be a fool. Once the North completes its deterrent with ICBMs capable of targeting the American homeland, Washington will have to be far more cautious with even conventional military involvement on the Korean peninsula.
Perhaps most importantly, Yanchik offers no solution, what she describes as “a decisive response from Ukraine’s partners.” It is hard to oppose “a decisive response” when it is unspecified. However, what should the West do to counter Russian nuclear threats? Add more economic sanctions, which so far have had only limited effect? Cajole Global South states to pass more resolutions criticizing Moscow? Lauren Sukin of the London School of Economics proposed: “Moscow ought to be certain that any use of nuclear weapons will not, in any way, be tolerated. If such a tragedy happens, it must be met with immediate, resounding, global condemnation, as well as a laundry list of accompanying punishments, from even more sanctions to Russian exclusion from international regimes.” However, these consequences would matter little if Moscow viewed the situation as warranting use of nuclear weapons.
What about more extreme “remedies”? Four years ago the Rand Corporation detailed a range of steps Washington could take to weaken and threaten Russia. Many were indirect and long-term, unlikely to offer much deterrent effect against the use of nuclear weapons. Others were expensive, further entangling the U.S. in the defense of a continent already far too reliant on Washington. Finally, some suggestions, most notably to destabilize the Putin regime, might encourage Moscow to take more extreme countermeasures.
Most extreme have been proposals to threaten war if Russia uses nukes against Ukraine. Or, worse, initiate hostilities, including use of nuclear weapons. The Ukraine hawks are frankly mad, with no sense of proportion. David Petraeus, a failed policy architect in Afghanistan who disclosed classified information to his biographer and mistress, proposed potentially full-scale conventional war against Moscow, apparently assuming that Putin would accept national and personal humiliation. It would be a wild and irresponsible gamble, especially since America’s stakes, in contrast to those of Ukraine, are at most a peripheral interest. Sen. Roger Wicker proposed that the U.S. consider intervening in the conflict with nuclear weapons even without Russian first use. It is hard to imagine how a murderous nuclear war could be prevented in such a case.
Nuclear threats naturally have deterrent effects. This is the foundation of deterrence theory and Mutual Assured Destruction, which governed U.S.-Soviet relations during the nuclear age. Moreover, the issue applies not just to Russia, since, “NATO is a nuclear Alliance.” NATO continues to rely on nukes to fulfill its promise to defend the indefensible, most notably the Baltic States, and the alliance’s access to nukes surely discourages Moscow from considering military action against them.
Russia’s nukes have a similar deterrent effect today. No doubt, nuclear powers have reason to bluff; however, not everything said is a bluff. LSE’s Sukin warns that such threats are serious: “States use nuclear threats to draw boundaries around the issues that they care most deeply about. Second, the frequency of threats matters. Even with a noisy baseline, periods with high volumes of threats see their messengers taking accompanying aggressive actions.” Moscow’s threats look especially credible given Russian nuclear doctrine.
No doubt, Putin does not want to be seen as unnecessarily unleashing nuclear weapons and doing so for frivolous purposes. Moreover, he undoubtedly recognizes that his government would pay a high price for becoming the first nation since the U.S. to use nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, circumstances highlight the serious nature of Russian threats. Military defeat, especially if resulting in territorial losses, such as in Crimea, likely would be seen as unduly costly politically and personally.
Assuming that the Russian Bear is actually a paper tiger is dangerous. Rather, caution, along with what Yanchik derides as “hesitation and procrastination,” are called for. Anything else would be utterly irresponsible, perhaps even suicidal. But Ukraine’s struggle against Russian aggression is an attractive cause for many U.S. policymakers: Hence the willingness of some to play chicken with nuclear-armed Russia, ignoring the very real threat of a potential nation-ending nuclear exchange.
The U.S. government’s top priority should be America’s interest. We see through a glass darkly, wrote the Apostle Paul. Surely that is the case regarding Vladimir Putin’s willingness to use nuclear weapons in his nation’s war against Ukraine. Nothing in that tragic conflict warrants U.S. involvement. And surely Washington should avoid risking a nuclear confrontation over issues which are of far greater significance to Moscow.