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Why warning Putin of ‘catastrophic consequences’ isn’t enough

Jake Sullivan
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during a press briefing at the White House on July 11, 2022.

Strategic sagacity in dealing with Russia is not our strong suit. After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, we sprinted toward a Belle Epoque with Russia. A young Navy lieutenant in 1993 was more grounded in his report: “Regenerating Russia as the superpower successor to the Soviet Union will be a threat to the security of Ukraine and Europe. … The willingness to allow Russia to become the sole nuclear and economic power to emerge from the Soviet Union is a dangerous prospect for Western security.  … The United States will have assisted in creating a regime that is a serious threat to the democratic community of states. Were Russia to embark on a campaign to reconstitute, what options would the West have?”

We did exactly that. So did Russia. We have been ingloriously wrong, time and time again.

With his nuclear rhetoric, Vladimir Putin cribbed from the trademark Soviet incantation, striking our Pavlovian nerve. Lithuania’s defense minister called out Elon Musk for reportedly taking the bait, to Moscow’s applause. Most recently, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry seemed to reverse, speaking of the “inadmissibility of nuclear war.” But that only repeated what Putin said in September, which contradicted what Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in April. Ricochets are disorienting, and repetition normalizes breach of the taboo. So much for the Geneva Summit lauding “progress on our shared goals of ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere, reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war.”

It is not enough to communicate to Putin that we would “respond decisively,” as national security adviser Jake Sullivan said recently. Words don’t sway tyrants. If we accept the premise that Putin has been misled by sycophantic courtiers about the ground realities in Ukraine, what will be/has been their distortion of Washington’s warnings? That the U.S. is weak, intimidated and will capitulate and force Ukraine to do so as well? Second, merely “responding” outsources initiative and situational control to Putin as we await vitrification.

Putin exquisitely understands raw strength and a steel resolve that will translate into unacceptable retaliation if Putin were to resort to nuclear weaponry. Our strength is not in question, but our credibility manifestly is. We must take concrete steps today to ensure Putin’s conviction of “catastrophic consequences” were he to use nuclear weapons tomorrow. 

Putin’s immediate GPS is Washington’s repeated assurances that the U.S. and NATO have said  they will not militarily engage, that World War III must be avoided at all cost, and that global “stability” is paramount. Despite our assistance to Ukraine, he sees as more impressive a foundational record of failed resolve. Fear works. A UN coalition of 35 countries ousted Iraq from tiny Kuwait, and a UN-sponsored and NATO-led force of some 50 countries joined in Afghanistan. It’s impressive that Ukraine is alone on the battlefield as the world sits in the Colosseum. It’s impressive that it is we who hectored Ukraine into surrendering the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal to Russia, with the U.S. and Russia both assuring Ukraine of its security. It’s even more impressive that the most powerful military alliance in history, including the world’s only true superpower, hasn’t been able to deter Putin since 2014, indeed even earlier. 

Since 1949, NATO intervened multiple times where countries were not NATO members. But protecting “every inch of NATO territory” is assurance to Putin of the opposite in Ukraine. It’s Crimea redux. With its new Strategic Concept, NATO largely stepped away from its role as the defender of “international rule of law, liberal democracies and our shared values and principles,” and made only peripheral reference to Ukraine and the region as a strategic matter. Putin is the doorman to NATO’s “open door” policy, and 20 of 30 members have failed to meet their paltry 2 percent military budget commitment.

It’s telling that, without basis, Washington ensured for Russia (never a United Nations member) the USSR’s seat on the UN Security Council. We then dutifully comply with Russia’s illegitimate veto on the Security Council as it inters the “international order” that the UN is to secure. For good measure, we  also capitulated to Putin’s “Minsk Arrangements,” which also negated that very order. 

Putin is not deterred; he is not afraid to escalate, to intimidate, to extort. We are. And he knows it. This must be reversed. Words alone won’t do it. We must demonstrate the credibility of our resolve by removing the handcuffs on the type and number of weapons and munitions that Ukraine needs, and empty the torture rooms and halt the massacres. “We need to get serious about supplying [Ukraine’s] army so that it can do what the world is asking it to do: fight a world superpower alone on the battlefield,” said former NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove. Likewise, his predecessor, Gen. Wesley Clark, said: “[We must] make Putin’s military defeat in Ukraine a reality.” 

We must lead an international effort to provide Ukraine with the capacity to stem the rain of terror from the sky, and enforce freedom of navigation in the Black Sea. If you viscerally recoil at the thought, welcome to Putin’s toolbox of “conditioned response” and “reflex control.”

But isn’t Putin “cornered”? Won’t this ignite what we are trying to forestall? We’re astigmatic, seeing only through Western eyes and underplaying in our mind his continuing grip on power.  Invaders, by definition, are never cornered. A tyrant can spin the narrative a thousand ways. If his grip is slipping, toggling down his self-directed orchestra and neutering the opposition by saving Mother Russia from Armageddon is his “out.” Regardless, Ukrainian cross-border raids and strikes into Russian-occupied Crimea didn’t elicit a nuclear response.

More fundamentally, however, those questions supplant mutual deterrence with unilateral blackmail. However evocative the moniker, mutually assured destruction (MAD) prevented nuclear afterglow precisely during the Cold War. Even a whiff of capitulation to nuclear blackmail guts NATO’s Article 5 and the remainder of our global security structures.  

Fearsomely, we would also green-light a new nuclear doctrine for not just Russia but also China, North Korea and Iran. Currently, nine countries control some 13,080 nuclear warheads. A frantic global free-for-all is in the wings, as non-nuclear states will race toward nuclear status or try to acquire the weaponry from others. Why even bother invading and holding a faux referendum prior to annexation? Simply extort x, y or z (whatever the demand) of a country. Nuclear blackmail makes MAD the acme of sanity and stability by comparison.

Our fear of provocation is our choke collar, never having absorbed that seeking to avoid it is precisely the provocation. Drawing “red lines” for ourselves, not for Putin, we surrender initiative, reduce our options, accept his fait accompli, and raise the risk of the confrontation we seek to avoid. Deterrence carries risk. But no deterrence is all risk. And dictionaries don’t deter.

Victor Rud is the past chairman of the Ukrainian American Bar Association and now chairs its Committee on Foreign Affairs. He is a senior adviser to Open Ukraine, a nongovernmental organization in Ukraine, and the senior adviser to the Centre for Eastern European Democracy in Toronto. The opinions expressed here are his alone.

Tags Nuclear weapons Philip Breedlove Russian invasion of Ukraine Sergey Lavrov Ukraine war Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin Wesley Clark

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