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On the brink of a dangerous new nuclear era

FILE – Russian President Vladimir Putin holds binoculars while watching the military exercises Center-2019 at Donguz shooting range near Orenburg, Russia, in Sept. 20, 2019. Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that he wouldn’t hesitate to use nuclear weapons to ward off Ukraine’s attempt to reclaim control of its occupied regions that Moscow is about to absorb. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bizarre, harrowing speech last week – part Dostoevsky character, part Trump rally rant, detached from reality – has ominous overtones. Ostensibly, Putin’s remarks were to declare the annexation by Russia of 15 percent of Ukraine (Donbas) though Moscow doesn’t fully control these areas, where Ukrainian forces on the march have taken back key towns. Never mind that other than North Korea and Syria, the world has rejected Putin’s fictions and the bogus referenda on which they were based.

But Putin’s speech was, in effect, a declaration of war against the West, which he accused of “satanism,” hinting at nuclear escalation if he is losing. Most menacing was Putin’s citing of the U.S. nuclear use against Japan to end World War II, which he casually said, “by the way, set a precedent.” By which he presumably meant the precedent of the first and only nuclear use — to end a conventional war.

From the start of Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, the big fear has been of nuclear escalation. That is one reason why President Biden made clear at the outset that no U.S. troops would be sent to fight in Ukraine for fear of “starting World War III.” Putin’s rhetoric is an unprecedented public threat of nuclear use, moving the world closer to nuclear war than at any time since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

The farce of Putin’s annexation of Donbas was made obvious as Kyiv took the town of Lyman, a key hub for Russian operations, the next day. But by defining these formally annexed areas as Russian territory that he will defend “by all means necessary,” Putin has moved a step closer to nuclear war.

This lowering of the threshold of nuclear use rises in direct proportion to Ukraine’s success on the battlefield. The increasingly capable, sophisticated weapons systems (such as the HIMARS mobile rocket launchers) the U.S./NATO are providing to Ukraine have upped the ante, helping Kyiv’s counter-offensive. Putin’s response has been to escalate, doubling down with national mobilization of some 300,000 forced draftees and the political gambit of annexation.

But throwing more bodies into an exhausted, demoralized military is unlikely to turn the tide. More likely, Putin is trying to buy time with the coming of winter freezing the war and threatening to use his trump card — low-yield tactical nuclear weapons if his losses continue to mount.

Breaking the 77-year nuclear taboo would be a game-changer for international politics.  In a world of nine de facto nuclear weapon states (the U.S., Russia, China, France, Great Britain, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel) amid rising geopolitical tensions, the risk of new chains of proliferation are growing. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, the Saudis and Turkey would likely not be far behind. Polls in South Korea show overwhelming popular support for acquiring nuclear weapons. In a world more geopolitically fragmented amid growing strategic competition, we are entering a new nuclear era.

Putin cares not about what the larger consequences of use of any of his roughly 1,900 tactical nuclear weapons would be — beyond his own political survival. To be fair, the risk is still low and not imminent. But it is growing as Ukraine continues to recover Russian-occupied territory.

Putin’s nuclear use in Ukraine – perhaps a demonstration shot over a Ukrainian town or attack on a Ukrainian military base – would be the first display of the Russian military doctrine of “escalate to deescalate.” The idea is that in a situation where Russian conventional forces could not prevail, limited nuclear war (an oxymoron) would deter by intimidating the adversary into deescalating.

This gets to Putin’s motives. His nuclear threat seems to have multiple aims. It may be intended to warn U.S./NATO forces against increasing more technologically capable weapons to Ukraine, or against direct U.S./NATO military involvement. But it also appears aimed at sowing division between the U.S. and its NATO allies, and putting more pressure on Kyiv to negotiate a compromise.

Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, says the U.S. has warned Moscow of “catastrophic consequences” if Putin uses nuclear weapons. It is unclear whether that would mean tougher sanctions, like a complete cut-off from the international financial system, or U.S./NATO direct military intervention against Russian forces in Ukraine. If the latter, it would reinforce Putin’s narrative of a West out to destroy Russia and increase the chances of nuclear escalation.

In an important speech eight months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy, reflecting on its lessons, said:

“Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.” Choosing that path would be evidence of a “collective death-wish for the world.” That is why U.S. military forces are “disciplined in self-restraint” and our diplomats “instructed to avoid unnecessary irritants and purely rhetorical hostility.”

Nuclear conflict was averted in the Cuban missile standoff by a combination of U.S. resolve and a willingness to risk nuclear war but also by offering Soviet President Khrushchev a face-saving way out: Kennedy quietly removed U.S.-installed Jupiter nuclear missiles installed in Turkey.

What is particularly chilling about the current Ukraine predicament is that it is difficult to conceive of what the equivalent of removing Jupiter missiles would be to offer Putin a path to deescalation.

Robert A. Manning is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. He served as senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs, on the U.S. secretary of state’s policy planning staff, and on the National Intelligence Council Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012. Previously, he was director of Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.

Tags Biden Cuban Missile Crisis NATO Nuclear weapons Russia Russia-Ukraine war russian invasion of ukraine Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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