What to Do About Russia’s Nuclear Threats

Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of RT and one of Russia’s top propagandists, has in the space of seven months gone from supreme confidence that Kyiv would fall in days to something like despair at Russia’s shambolic mobilization and battlefield defeats. In addition to confessing to “terrible grief,” she admits that she now sings Russia’s national anthem using the old Soviet lyrics. That choice is appropriate, because Moscow now specializes in Soviet-style bluster and hysteria. Nowhere is this more evident than in the nuclear threats issued by President Vladimir Putin.

In his speeches announcing the annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts that his battered army do not fully control, Putin raised the specter of nuclear war. In the finest tradition of Soviet whataboutism, he spoke of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, calling them an American precedent for … what, he did not exactly say, but the meaning was clear. Since then, the menace has been amplified by subordinates like Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s security council, as well as panicky tub-thumpers like Simonyan’s colleague Vladimir Solovyov.

Any threat to use nuclear weapons by a country that possesses them has to be taken seriously. That’s particularly true of Russia, a country whose military doctrine has always entertained the deployment of relatively low-yield nuclear weapons in a war. To be clear, lowyield can mean a detonation equivalent to 5,000 or 10,000 tons of TNT. When Soviet war plans for Europe were revealed after the Cold War, analysts blanched at the magnitude of the nuclear assault the Soviet general staff had contemplated as the preparatory bombardment for a potential drive to the English Channel.

Putin is making these threats for several reasons. Russia is losing the war in Ukraine and losing it badly. It was routed out of Kyiv in the first phase, its forces were driven from Kharkiv oblast in the second, and its defenses—manned by ill-equipped, demoralized, and badly trained units whose positions have probably been compromised by no-retreat orders from Moscow—are being breached by Ukrainian offensives in the third. The fall of Lyman was but the first disaster; a still bigger blow will occur when the city of Kherson, which may have 10,000 or 20,000 Russian soldiers in it, falls to Ukrainian troops. In the meantime, in the words of the retired Australian general Mick Ryan, Russia’s logistics and command system are being corroded by incessant precision attacks.

Putin, one must always recall, is a former secret policeman, for whom mind games are always the first and rarely the last resort. Is former German Chancellor Angela Merkel known to be uneasy around canines? Bring a dog to the meeting. Fear is the Chekist’s chief weapon. Because some Western politicians and many Western pundits are known to get the shakes at the mere mention of nuclear weapons, Putin has an opening for the biggest mind game of all. Judging by continued and credible reports that the United States and Germany, among others, are withholding some types and quantities of weapons from Ukraine, it’s working.

Almost as bad is the chorus of cries to open negotiations, because “sober adults think about [the] world as it is,” as William Ruger of the American Institute for Economic Research put it. “Putin is more in a corner than anyone would like him to be, because that’s not good for anybody,” John Kerry, the current special presidential envoy for climate who cannot help but remind listeners that he is a former secretary of state, recently said. And thus, of course, he urges negotiations on current Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. So too does Pope Francis. So too do many well-educated observers who do not trouble to think hard about what lies behind the well-orchestrated pronouncements from Moscow.

To be sure, underlying the Russian threats is a stream of Russian paranoia about the West, which finds expression in all kinds of wild claims about satanism, the abolition of gender, and plans to turn Russians into soulless slaves. To the extent that this paranoia is not purely synthetic, it draws on a deep well of Russian ambivalence about the West—resentment and fear of it, a sense of inferiority toward it, and yet a deep awareness of its allure, which is why even Russia’s current leaders have sent their children west to be educated, their mistresses west to luxuriate, and their billions in loot west to be safe.

To yield to nuclear blackmail, however, would be folly. Give in now, and anyone with nuclear weapons will learn that the secret to success in a negotiation is to froth at the mouth, roll up one’s eyes, and threaten a mushroom cloud. To yield to Putin would be, as Churchill said in a different but not entirely dissimilar context, to take “but the first sip from a bitter cup.” What then to do, and to threaten to do, particularly if Russia does indeed detonate one or more nuclear weapons, either as a signal or against some Ukrainian target?

The West’s economic sanctions arsenal is far from empty. The United States, in particular, has not brought out the biggest weapon of all: unlimited secondary sanctions on anyone doing business with Russia, save under licenses granted by the U.S. Treasury. Nor has it moved yet to confiscate the roughly $300 billion Russia has in accounts held abroad. Use of nuclear weapons by Russia would justify that and more.

Militarily, American air power could take Russia’s dire situation in Ukraine and make it catastrophic. The Russian air force is a negligible factor at this point, as its astonishingly poor performance in Ukraine indicates. Western air forces understand Russian air defenses very well and have long worked on ways to dismantle them; the U.S. and its allies have plenty of air power available in Europe to do so.

Finally, diplomacy does indeed have a role to play here—but most definitely not in compelling Ukraine into a negotiation it abhors while a brutal invader occupies its lands. The diplomatic option consists rather in reminding key Russian leaders that should Moscow use nuclear weapons, it will soon see them sprouting in self-defense in Poland, Turkey, Kazakhstan, and quite likely Finland and other countries. That will not make Russia safer or stronger.

China has a stake in this, too: A world in which the nuclear taboo is broken is one in which Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea may feel that they need the security of their own nuclear deterrents. India, facing a Pakistan that may have more nuclear weapons than it does, and whose politics are terrifyingly unstable, has no interest in seeing nuclear use become acceptable. Those who can still talk to Moscow should be urged to convey that message to Russia’s leadership—if they are not, in fact, doing so already.

The fight in Ukraine is not, despite what some have said, an existential war for Russia. No one is claiming Russian territory, and no Ukrainian army is going to drive to Moscow. It may very well be an existential fight for Vladimir Putin as a leader and even as a human being, but that is a separate matter. He has not been put in a corner, but rather has put himself in one. For him to use nuclear weapons, many others—hundreds, if not more—have to go along. The United States and other countries probably have the means to communicate to each and every one of them that they will personally pay a price if they do so, if not at the hands of Ukraine’s friends, then under of a successor regime in Russia that will have to hold them accountable in order to be readmitted to the economy of the developed world.

The Ukraine war may be approaching its culminating point. All along, the prospect of Russian military collapse has been real: Many wars end with one or more spectacular defeats that dramatically change moods and atmospheres, front lines and governments. Russia’s call-ups are not a mobilization but rather a press-ganging of those too unfortunate or poorly connected to avoid service. Sending men with decrepit weapons and kit and minimal military training into ill-housed and depleted units filled with veterans suffering from post–traumatic stress is a recipe for more crack-ups and many more body bags headed back across the border. It will lead to further failure at the hands of an ever more skillful and victory-inspired Ukrainian military keen on liberation and vengeance for the pillage, torture, kidnapping, and massacre inflicted on its country. The sooner the ultimate shock is delivered and Russian forces shattered and driven from occupied land, the quicker the suffering ends, and the more swiftly the uncertain cloud of nuclear threats dissipates.

Pope John Paul II, who knew the Soviets all too well, repeated incessantly during dark times, “Be not afraid.” We should heed his counsel. And inspired by Ukrainian heroism as well as rational calculation, we should send them more and better weapons and ammunition now.

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