How to make sure Putin never uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine

The entire world is responsible for maintaining the taboo on nuclear weapons, not just the United States. Putin plays the nuclear card again.

Since the early days of the war in Ukraine, the Russian leader has regularly tried to remind his adversaries in the West that he remains in possession of a large nuclear arsenal and that these weapons could be used if Ukraine, the United States, or other countries in the NATO crosses a Russian “red line.”

This is the context in which many analysts have understood Putin’s latest announcement to “suspend” participation in the New START agreement. While the deterioration of the arms control regime is certainly regrettable in itself, it’s the not-so-subtle reminder of Russia’s nuclear capabilities that have Westerners worried. But to what extent should they be? And what, if anything, should be done?

Obviously, nuclear escalation threats should cause widespread anxiety around the globe. The use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine cannot be ruled out. Thus protecting against this catastrophe calls for constant attention, caution, and strategic empathy.

Yet, the best strategy to prevent war from “becoming nuclear” is not addressed here. To many Americans, the war in Ukraine is seen through the lens of US global leadership, making this a trickier question to answer.

 Whenever the United States talks about the possibility of a terrible outcome—whether it be the collapse of Ukraine, a humanitarian catastrophe, or the use of nuclear weapons —the inevitable response is to ask what Washington could and should do to avert disaster.

Example: in the event of a nuclear explosion, retired General David Petraeus last year recommended that the United States military should wipe out all Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and the Black Sea. Other countries have resorted to equally aggressive strategies to keep others at bay.

But threatening massive military retaliation is the wrong approach to avoid what President Biden has rightly called the prospect of a devastating nuclear “Armageddon.”

First, there is an evident lack of credibility. Why would Putin imagine the United States will go to war with Russia in response to a nuclear explosion? Why not instead conclude that the United States is bluffing and that there will be no military reaction to its use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine?

This relates to a second related problem: the problem of unnecessary and risky commitments. Suppose it is accepted that Putin could dismiss US threats of military intervention. Is it in the national interest of the United States to articulate a policy of starting World War III in reaction to the use of nuclear weapons?

Think about if the US launched major conventional strikes against Russian military objectives, destroying tank formations, sinking ships, and killing thousands of soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Would Moscow submit to a foreign power? Possibly.

Alternatively, it may retaliate in kind (to the extent possible) or resort to the use of even more nuclear bombs. The administration in Washington would be helpless to stop or even slow the escalation.

Simply put, waging a conventional war against Russia would irreparably endanger the United States national security. The political leaders would lose any possibility of controlling the military situation. The security of Eastern, Central, and Western European societies would also be seriously endangered. Ukraine would turn into hell.

Fortunately, it’s not just the American people who are interested in discouraging Putin from using weapons of mass destruction. The rest of the world also has something to say. So as the risk of nuclear escalation increases, Washington would be better served by prompting other governments to make their own (more credible) threats to retaliate against Russian barbarism.

Putin must be told in no uncertain terms that breaking the nuclear taboo would be an offense against the entire international community. It is essential that Putin knows that crossing the nuclear Rubicon would mean his complete isolation and delegitimization.

Worst yet, the international community must persuade Putin that unleashing nuclear weapons would severely damage Russia’s economy, national security, and even the survival of the current administration.

Yet, other actors, especially India and China, have significant political, diplomatic, and economic leverage over Russia that must be exerted. The United States has very few options in this regard.

Expecting Xi Jinping or Narendra Modi to threaten Putin publicly may be too much. But both leaders have a vested interest in preventing the normalization of the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield. It is realistic to hope that they can privately warn Moscow of their intentions to withdraw their life preservers in the event of a nuclear attack on Ukraine.

Most of the other great powers that have refrained from punishing Russia for the invasion of Ukraine —Turkey, Brazil, Argentina, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa—have even stronger reasons to discourage Putin from using nuclear arms. 

In a world where nuclear blackmail becomes widespread, and proliferation is harder to keep in check, these and similar countries would face a threat that borders on existential.

For almost 80 years, the nuclear taboo has held firm. Since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no nation has used nuclear weapons in anger. All governments have benefited from this de facto ban on nuclear attacks. That is why dissuading Putin from using nuclear weapons is paramount for the United States and the entire international community.

Via: 1945