AMAC Exclusive – Daniel Berman
Talk of nuclear war has dominated discourse over the past few weeks. Vladimir Putin brought it up several times in his speech “annexing” four Ukrainian oblasts, declaring that the United States itself had set a precedent for the use of nuclear weapons against Japan, an example obediently tweeted out by the Russian embassy in London. Joe Biden then suggested at a fundraiser that the world was closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Is panic justified? In short, no.
The actors in this conflict are not irrational, and the mutually assured destruction of a nuclear war is by definition irrational. Nevertheless, there does exist some risk of irrational escalation toward nuclear conflict as so many different players, from Putin and Biden to advocates for and against aid to Ukraine, have their own rational reasons to create the impression that nuclear war is plausible if not imminent.
It is vital to keep in mind that the U.S. response to Russia’s invasion is not a game, but a high-risk conflict which was undertaken to defend American interests and must be ended in a way which secures them. Nuclear war is not one of those interests. That means engaging with the one man, who, pushed into a corner, must decide between escalating or ending it.
That man, Russian President Vladimir Putin, has not had a good two weeks. Coming as it did on the same day Ukrainian forces surrounded as many as 5,000 Russian soldiers in Lyman in northeastern Ukraine, Putin’s entire annexation speech, heavy on bombast, full of resentment, and containing defiance and threats, displayed a raw air of desperation. Putin’s spokesmen, along with Russian state TV, were unable even to answer basic questions about whether the annexation applied to only the areas Russia controls, or the actual administrative borders of the oblasts, including Ukrainian-controlled areas where no referendum took place. When a truck bomb hit the Kerch bridge connecting Crimea with the Russian mainland, Putin’s escalation in the form of sending hundreds of missiles against civilian targets in Ukraine looked equally haphazard.
For Putin, the goal of not losing the war and avoiding the resulting consequences at home has eclipsed all other objectives. All one had to do to recognize this was to listen to his speech and witness his subsequent behavior.
First and foremost, Putin’s “Special Military Operation,” launched in February, has failed. Forget any of the spin from some Western “pundits” about the drive on Kyiv being a “feint” or things going according to plan. None of the justifications provided by Putin upon launching the war in February are still present today. Gone is the charade of “de-Nazification.” Gone is any pretense that that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, and that the war is not between Russia and Ukraine but between Russia and an illegitimate, pro-Western, “Nazi” clique that rules Ukraine. Putin, in justifying his annexations, discussed the “longstanding oppression of Russians” by Ukraine – not Russian-speakers, not Ukrainians by the West, but Russians by Ukraine.
Despite analysts who claim that Vladimir Putin is a delusional madman entirely detached from the real world, this was in fact a significant concession to reality. It was one confirmed throughout the rest of his speech, and the actions which preceded it. Russia entered the war with justifications which, if laundered through respectable academic voices like Professor John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago, could be sold not just in the developing world, but to some in Europe and the United States. Some of Russia’s complaints about the approach of the Obama and Biden administrations even bordered on legitimate. While no evidence has ever been produced that George Bush Sr. or James Baker made promises to prevent any eastward expansion of NATO, and they clearly could not have bound any future administration or the American electorate even if they had wished to do so, Russia could feel that the voluntary relinquishment of empire had only brought hostile alliances closer without reducing that hostility.
By contrast, this speech did not seem designed to convince anyone of the ethics of Putin’s course. On the contrary, his examples seemed the product of emotion, designed to offend potential supporters. Condemning the U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki without context seemed certain to outrage Chinese nationalist opinion, while his discussion of British despoilation of India waded into domestic history wars between Hindu nationalists, Muslims, and secularists. When it came to the United States, Putin’s invocation of segregation and the mistreatment of Native Americans, while short of fully “woke,” was most likely to appeal to those who he identified as ideological enemies (with his attack on transgender ideology) and offend those most likely to call for a realist approach to Russia.
Instead, Putin’s argument for annexation was raw power. Russia, facing hostility from Ukraine and the West, had to act. As Russia could not negotiate, it was forced to seize these territories. Ukraine and the West must recognize them not on the grounds of justice or history, but under threat of nuclear war. When Putin chose to retaliate for the bombing of the Kerch bridge, he did not even attempt to hide the fact that he was targeting civilians.
Politically then, Putin has already lost. While he might have claimed to be fighting a war of decolonization against “colonialist” elites who rule the West, the message was the same to India and China as it was to Britain and America: Either let me win, or I will threaten to blow up the world. Even if the West is persuaded by this argument (and it is not an entirely unpersuasive one as some analysts have dared to note) they will have appeased Putin under extortion, and will remember afterward that he was the man who started a war, lost it, and then blackmailed everyone to save himself. Either way, Russia’s prestige is lost.
That is an important consideration when we consider how to respond to the risks of escalation. As desperate and immature as Putin’s threats are, they should nevertheless be taken seriously. Figures such as Fiona Hill, who suggested to the New Yorker that the U.S. and the West are already engaged in a Third World War against Russia and hence have no reason to hold back, have lost any sense of perspective, as have figures who assume that there is some level of conventional retaliation against Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons which would somehow deter further usage and yet avoid risks of escalation.
This does not mean that the risks of nuclear war are so great that Putin’s threats are reason enough to concede his demands. If the reaction of Putin’s move to declare Ukrainian oblasts part of Russia and subject to a nuclear umbrella is to immediately concede them, that is not an incentive for Putin to end the war. On the contrary, it is a message that if Putin were, for example, to declare Odessa or Kharkiv or any other territory he does not control to be under Russian control, the mere threat of nuclear weapons would lead the West into forcing Ukraine to concede them. Even if Putin regrets the war, and genuinely wishes he could end it, Russian popular opinion, seeing the success of such brinksmanship and humiliated after recent defeats, would press Putin into escalating his demands. For that reason, Putin’s nuclear blackmail cannot be seen to succeed publicly.
However, Fiona Hill and her colleagues are also wrong when they argue the stakes have never been higher. Rather than increasing the geopolitical stakes, Putin’s actions have lowered them for the United States. The stakes in Ukraine for the United States were far more symbolic than physical. The dangers of a Russian victory for the U.S. were not Russian territorial gains, but rather the global perception that Russia would have defeated an American trained military, crushing an American-aligned government while the United States stood by. Coming after Afghanistan, the message would have been clear that the United States was a paper tiger, that it would not stand with its allies. As a result, the U.S. would find it impossible to form coalitions in the Middle East against Iran or in Asia against China.
U.S. prestige is no longer at stake. Ukraine has defeated Russia on the battlefield. American weapons and support have proven superior not just to Russian resources, but to anything China has been able or willing to offer Putin. If Putin emerges with territory after threatening to resort to the use of nuclear weapons, it will be perceived as personal and state weakness, as one man having endangered the world and the interests of his own people, not to mention his allies, for self-preservation. China can hardly welcome a major incentive for Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam to develop nuclear weapons of their own, nor will Russia benefit if Poland and Kazakhstan rapidly follow.
The United States, then, has already won. As has Ukraine, which, rather than collapsing as a state in February, has not only held off the Russian Bear but gained the better of it on the battlefield. The goal now must be to end the war on terms which consolidate these successes, rather than risk them. Here, the threat of nuclear weapons can be used to end this conflict without their use, allowing Ukraine to justify going to a certain point and no further, and for Putin to claim he salvaged something from the jaws of defeat.
After all, it will be harder to fault Ukraine for bowing to the force of a weapon they do not possess, having won on the battlefield. Arguably, if the war were to end with some territorial adjustments, it is probably easier for Ukrainians to make them having won on the battlefield only to be faced with nuclear annihilation, than to compromise when they could have won conventionally.
This will require a nuanced approach. The United States and Kyiv cannot give in to the mere threat of the use of nuclear weapons, lest they encourage Putin to escalate his demands. Yet they should not plan for open-ended escalation either. A risky but pragmatic middle-ground approach is to proceed as if Putin is bluffing. If he is, then all is well. If not, and he makes limited use of a tactical weapon or two, retaliation should be met with an acknowledgement that Putin bears full responsibility for endangering the world, and he will have to live with the consequences, while accepting that the U.S. will limit further offensive operations in the interests of peace.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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