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Six decades after the Cuban Missile Crisis, diplomacy must again prevent nuclear war

FILE – Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with a soldier as he visits a military training centre of the Western Military District for mobilised reservists as Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, center, smiles in Ryazan Region, Russia, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. The mobilized reservists that Russian President Vladimir Putin visited last week at a firing range southeast of Moscow looked picture-perfect. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

Sixty years ago, the world slid to the precipice of nuclear war as tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union escalated into the Cuban Missile Crisis. Just as President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev came to recognize during 13 days in October 1962 that nuclear escalation would only bring their countries more suffering, the United States must now work with the international community to show Russian President Vladimir Putin the same.

For over a month, Putin has threatened Ukraine with Russia’s nuclear arsenal, as his hopes for victory fade with each successful Ukrainian advance. Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling is related to a Russian military strategy known in the West as “escalate to de-escalate”: using small, tactical nuclear weapons to make gains on the battlefield in order to achieve broader de-escalation and more favorable negotiations, rather than prolonged conflict. 

Regardless of whether Putin’s aim is to intimidate Ukraine into further negotiations, to pursue an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, or to elevate the conflict into total war, it is imperative that the United States joins together with both its partners and Russia’s to send the unequivocal message that there can be no de-escalation after nuclear escalation.

This is not a threat of American or NATO reprisals, but a statement of the reality Putin would create by committing such a catastrophic mistake. Along with taking other potential military measures, at a minimum President Biden and the U.S. Congress would likely take bipartisan action to designate the Russian Federation a State Sponsor of Terror, marginalizing it to the degree of Iran, while seizing all Russian foreign reserves under American control, a move that allies would likely follow. In military aid terms, with all fears of escalation fallen by the wayside, limits on lethal aid to the Ukrainians would be lifted. Ukraine would likely receive fighter aircraft, drones, additional missile systems, and other military hardware that it currently doesn’t have. And despite any NATO efforts to discourage it, Ukraine would likely seek to take control of tactical nuclear weapons anywhere within or near its borders to deliver a retaliatory attack. Putin may intend to escalate to de-escalate, but the Ukrainians would be unlikely to play along.

Even more significant than American actions alone would be the international consequences, as many more nations would come together, despite current divisions, to fully implement withering sanctions on Moscow while adding secondary sanctions on those still doing business with Russia, therefore completely unplugging the country from the global economy. Despite previous European Union reticence over sanctions on Russia, the first use of nuclear weapons in Europe would represent a paradigm shift in European diplomacy and rally the continent against Putin out of outrage and fear. While India remains one of Russia’s biggest trading partners, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a clear signal to the Kremlin, weeks after telling Putin that now is “not a time for war.” Similarly, President Xi Jinping passed along his own concerns about the ongoing war to Putin shortly after the latter’s nuclear threats began, as they make difficult for the PRC to maintain a veneer of international leadership as Russia’s leading enabler and customer.

Though it is impossible to predict all the consequences of a Russian nuclear weapons launch, the unassailable reality is that the position of Russia and Putin’s regime would be even worse than they are in now in the face of direct American action and similar global outcry. As Putin makes these threats, the preservation of his regime remains his primary focus. Because of this fundamental motivation, it is essential that the United States uses every tool at our disposal to work with allies, security partners, and other nations from across the world to demonstrate to the Kremlin that there is no nuclear endgame in which Vladimir Putin is better off for having used his weapons of mass destruction.   

Raja Krishnamoorthi is a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Tags Biden Nikita Khrushchev nuclear threat nuclear war ukraine war Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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