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Deterring Putin from going nuclear

Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu attend the opening of the Army’s 2022 International Military and Technical Forum in Patriot Park outside Moscow on Aug. 15, 2022.

A number of ideas have been proposed as possible U.S. and NATO responses to any use of nuclear weapons by Vladimir Putin, especially any detonations that caused military and/or civilian casualties. NATO could attack and destroy the offending Russian military units that had launched the nuclear strike with its conventional airpower. NATO could sink the Russian Black Sea Fleet, as retired Gen. David Petraeus has discussed. Presumably, the West also would work to make Russia an international pariah, strongly pressuring countries such as China to choose sides in a war that some have sought to straddle, as Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and former Ambassador Steven Pifer have proposed. Eliot Cohen has specifically suggested employing secondary sanctions against any country that deals economically with Russia after such a strike — forcing them into a choice of trade with Russia or trade with America and allies.

Since we cannot be sure what would best deter Putin, I would add four more ideas to the mix. It is good that Putin knows there are a range of options — especially options that do not require us to use nuclear weapons in response, given the dangers of escalation — and that we would continue to develop more, if and when he took such a horrible and foreboding step in his war in Ukraine. Consider these:

First, the United States should join the International Criminal Court and pursue indictments of Putin and his top military leadership. The ICC was created in the late 1990s in the aftermath of terrible massacres, genocides and crimes against humanity in places such as Rwanda and the Balkans. It was designed to complement, not replace, national jurisdiction over war criminals. But that formulation meant that, in a case like Russia’s, where the rule of law as regards its president has become moot, the ICC has a right and even a duty to consider indictment in extreme situations. Most of its cases to date have involved Africans. A number of cases involve suspects still at large, including former President Omar al Bashir of Sudan, for example. Trials do not occur in absentia; were Putin indicted, he would be subject to arrest anywhere he traveled internationally in a state that is party to the treaty, but no proceedings would begin unless he wound up in custody.

The ICC is empowered to begin cases on its own — that is much of the reason the United States wound up not joining the body a quarter-century ago. But the court has proven itself responsible since its inception. Hypothetical worries that an American president might, for example, be indicted for largely political reasons now have even less credence than they did back then. As such, the United States could join the body to lend its support, and it could work with other parties to pursue an indictment of any Russians directly involved in giving orders to conduct lethal nuclear attacks — beginning, to be sure, with Putin.

Second, if a comprehensive policy of cutting off Russia from the world economy proved too much, the notion of a price cap on Russian oil exports could be dramatically expanded and tightened. At present, G7 countries are taking steps to adopt a price cap on Russian oil exports — a ceiling on the price paid by any nation buying from Moscow. The idea is to recognize that not every nation will join the majority of Western countries in outright boycotts of Russian oil; indeed, western European nations still hope to buy Russian gas, even if Putin is himself interdicting such flows at the moment. But even for those unwilling to abstain entirely from buying Russian oil, limits could be placed on the price paid, so as to limit Russia’s ability to profiteer from the turmoil that its war of aggression has created in global energy markets. Any country exceeding the cap would be subject to sanctions by participating states. In the United States, Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Patrick Toomey (R-Pa.) are proposing legislation that would mandate such an approach under American law.

After a possible Russian nuclear weapons strike, even if it were not possible to agree on an immediate global ban on any purchases of Russian oil (or natural gas), the cap on prices paid to Russia could be lowered incrementally to the point where it effectively turned into a comprehensive boycott over time. The pacing of the reductions could be in part a function of how fast the world could increase production from other locations and how fast it could accelerate the transition to green energy sources.

Third, the world community could dismantle the existing United Nations and build a new one without Russia. Unfortunately, with Moscow wielding a veto at the Security Council, it will be unrealistic to expel Russia from the United Nations even after a nuclear strike. Article VI of the U.N. Charter allows the General Assembly to expel a member only upon the recommendation of the Security Council. Moreover, the charter does not envision the dissolution of the organization or even provide a specific path for any country to withdraw. 

But member states have an inherent sovereign right to conduct their foreign policies as they see fit. As such, withdrawal from the United Nations is arguably an implied right, even if not an explicit one. In a situation where Russia used nuclear weapons against defenseless human beings, circumstances would be extreme enough to consider such an extra-legal step as the mutual and simultaneous withdrawal of all countries (or almost all) from today’s United Nations followed by the creation of a new system. The new UN would begin with just four veto-wielding members of the Security Council — but agreement could be reached that there would be a process to rebuild a new Security Council, perhaps with more permanent members, within say two to three years. Whether Russia could ever rejoin the new organization would be an issue left for a different day, presumably to be considered only once Putin was out of power.

Fourth, deploy NATO forces in defensive positions onto Ukrainian territory for the duration of the war. This idea would be the most fraught of my four proposals, and presumably would be considered only after the most heinous of Russian actions. Obviously, it would carry major risks.  But it would not imply Ukrainian membership in NATO in the future and would not require NATO forces to engage in combat operations in the country’s south or east. Rather, the deployment could be a bulwark against any further Russian advance and a strong deterrent against additional Russian employment of nuclear weapons against previously spared parts of Ukraine. The deployment could be designed to remain in place as long as hostilities continued, or as long as Putin remained in power in Russia.

Heaven forbid that it comes to this. But in the interest of making any Russian nuclear use less likely, we need big ideas for how to respond that stop short of steps likely to lead to World War III.

Michael O’Hanlon is the Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy at the Brookings Institution and the author of several books, including “The Art of War in an Age of Peace: U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint,” “Defense 101: Understanding the Military of Today and Tomorrow,” and the forthcoming “Military History for the Modern Strategist.” Follow him on Twitter @MichaelEOHanlon. 

Tags Mitt Romney Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian nuclear threats Ukraine war Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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