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Russian President Vladimir Putin is threatening to use nuclear weapons to achieve a victory over Ukraine that he has not won on the battlefield. He must not succeed.
The Kremlin is likely to announce soon that the people of Ukrainian provinces that Russia currently occupies by force have voted to join Russia and it is therefore annexing these territories. Russia could accompany this with a statement that it will defend all Russian territory, including the newly seized lands plus Crimea, which was previously seized and illegally annexed, with all means at its disposal, including nuclear weapons. Putin could add that these seizures mark his last territorial claims in Ukraine and that he now desires peace, achievable if only the West will stop prolonging the war by arming Ukraine and push its government to agree to “diplomacy” and accept its loss of territory.
The risk of Russia’s use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine — and threats by Russian TV personalities and even renowned experts like Dmitri Trenin that nuclear use against Europe or the United States is possible — cannot be dismissed.
That prospect may convince some political leaders and observers to urge that the West find a way out on Putin’s terms. Indeed, Putin may be counting on a potent combination to undermine Western support for Ukraine: his nuclear threats, sympathetic governments (Hungary’s certainly and the incoming Italian rightist coalition possibly), other governments worried about energy and economic pressures (Germany), opposition movements (especially pro-Putin Trumpistas in the United States), and various advocates either of a “peace first” or “Realist” school. The argument for pushing Ukraine into giving in will be that Russian interests in Ukraine are greater than the West’s, that the West should not give Ukraine veto power over Western policy, and that the attempt to achieve Ukraine’s total victory over Russia is both futile and risky, given the potential for World War III.
To give the devil his due, this latest referendum-annexation-nuclear threat gambit by Putin has already somewhat refocused attention away from Russia’s weak position following its military defeat in Kharkiv Province, the diplomatic pressure from India and Turkey to end the war, and a messy launch of mobilization in Russia.
But Putin’s apparent terms are no more a road to sustainable peace than were Hitler’s 1938 assertions that Czechoslovakia’s German-inhabited Sudeten province was his final territorial demand in Europe. A ceasefire now that leaves Russia in possession of conquered Ukrainian territory would allow Putin to rebuild his battered forces and resume his war at a time of his choosing, much as he did last February.
And Putin could sow chaos in the interim, just as he did after his annexation of Crimea, in Europe and in the United States: energy pressure (and sabotage, if Russia is responsible for the damage to the Nord Stream pipelines now spewing methane into the atmosphere), disinformation and electoral interference throughout Europe, new rounds of targeted assassinations of Russians and perhaps others, and more, intended to wear down Western resolve and encourage a “deal” over Ukraine’s head.
Giving in to Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons would create a precedent that he could, and probably would, use elsewhere within a few years: perhaps a fast Russian strike across the Estonian border, seizure and annexation of the Estonian city of Narva with its majority Russian-speaking population, and threats to defend this latest acquisition of Russian land with nuclear weapons. Of course, Putin might choose not to take on a NATO member state next time. He might instead move against the northern lands of Kazakhstan, with their significant Russian population, using the same methods. He could annex occupied Georgian provinces or the breakaway, Russian-supported Transnistria province of Moldova. Letting Putin succeed in his war in Ukraine through use of nuclear intimidation opens the door for more aggression to come.
Those who argue for pushing Ukraine to surrender its land and people to permanent control also need to face the consequences on the ground: Russian atrocities in Ukrainian lands they occupy are well-documented. Murder, rape, kidnapping of children, and eradication of Ukrainian cultures are the playbook. That reality should create a high bar for any settlement that surrenders Ukrainian land or people to Russia.
This is not an argument that only total victory is acceptable. The United States sought such a victory in the early phases of the Korean War. Total defeat of the North Koreans, who started the war, would have been a far better outcome for the United States, the world, and certainly the people of North Korea. But it wasn’t attainable, and when the United States sought to achieve it, the Chinese entered the war. The result was more war and a settlement that left half of Korean still in North Korean communist hands.
The time may come when the best option indeed is a negotiation that leaves Russia in possession of some Ukrainian territory. But that time has not yet come and may never come.
Russia is still in a losing position: its military seems unable to win, and it is not clear when or even whether mobilization will help. At every turn in this war, the Ukrainian military has done better — and the Russian military has done worse — than most in the West expected. The balance of economic pressure may turn against Russia, especially if oil price caps agreed to by the G7 and being considered by the European Union come into effect late this year and bite more deeply into Russia’s economy. Support for Putin’s war inside Russia seems thin and, in some areas like Dagestan, mobilization seems to have triggered active resistance in the form of protests, not to mention the reported exodus across borders of draft-age men. If Putin closes Russia’s borders to them, opposition could grow further.
Putin seems to be playing the nuclear card as a last, best option to avoid defeat in Ukraine that would mean defeat of his ambition to restore the Russian empire through war and threats of war. That doesn’t mean that he is bluffing. But his position is weak, if we keep our heads.
The United States has shown admirable steadiness in the face of Putin’s nuclear threats, warning Putin both publicly and privately against nuclear use. The Biden administration is likely consulting with fellow nuclear powers France and Britain, and (I hope) with other NATO allies, about options to deter Putin or act if deterrence fails. It will need that steadiness in the weeks ahead.
Putin wants the West to withdraw support for Ukraine. We should instead keep it up — military, political, and economic aid. The Biden administration in fact has shown a steady determination to increase the flow of weapons to Ukraine and no sign of a cave.
At the same time, the United States and its allies should not assume Putin is bluffing about nuclear use. While the odds of such use may be low, we should not assume it is impossible, lest the shock, if it happens, undermine our determination. The Biden administration needs to steady U.S. allies, some of whom have privately expressed nervousness in the face of Putin’s nuclear bluster, and decide what it will do should Russia detonate a nuclear weapon, either on the battlefield or as a “demonstration.”
Putin breaking the nuclear taboo, in place since 1945, would indeed be a shock. The world would look to the United States for leadership. Counteraction – political, economic, and military — should come fast, which means it should be prepared and consulted with allies (and with the Chinese and perhaps the Indians, both nuclear powers) in advance. The options for action are not easy (and worth a long look). But one option the West should reject in advance is to cave to an aggressor’s nuclear threats or actions.
Nobody wants a return to Cold War standoffs. But Putin has made the choice to be the aggressor. Our choice is how to resist.