Russia and the United States have faced off in high-stakes games of nuclear chicken before, but this time it’s different, and it’s perilous.
Understand this: Putin has staked his future and his place in history on his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. And, yes, it is an unprovoked invasion. Russia is aggressively pursuing large-scale, violent combat against Ukraine, and, indirectly, he is fighting the United States and other NATO and non-NATO countries that are helping to defend Ukraine. Contrary to Russian propaganda, echoed by some in our own country, there aren’t enough right-wing nationalists, let alone Nazis, in the Ukrainian parliament to seat a friendly game of poker or even two-handed gin rummy, for that matter. Far-right, ultra-nationalists have gotten clobbered in Ukrainian elections, and Ukraine’s popularly elected president is a Ukrainian Jew whose family suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis in World War II. And for a country that Putin says is really Russia and populated by Russians, Ukraine is fighting valiantly to prove he is wrong. They are Ukrainians who want no part of Putin’s Russia.
Ominously, Putin’s war is going very poorly for Russia. His army has been stopped cold in its assault on Kyiv. His ground troops appear undisciplined, poorly trained, unmotivated, and ineptly led. He fires artillery shells and missiles and drops bombs indiscriminately, targeting civilian structures, including apartment buildings, schools, theaters, and hospitals. He is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Ukrainian men, women, and children. Latest reports from the new eastern front suggest that Putin’s ground forces are becoming bogged down, meaning his artillery and aerial bombardments will grow even more ferocious. Putin’s forces do much better attacking civilians than engaging Ukrainian defenders.
The toll of Russian war dead, estimated at 15,000 after two months of fighting, is catastrophic. Equally bad for Putin, his decision to go to war, has resulted in the most remarkable NATO resolve since its founding. Putin has also become the greatest recruiter for NATO membership in over seventy years. Even historically non-aligned Sweden and Finland are now considering joining NATO, a prospect, according to recent polls, strongly supported by the people of both countries.
From the Russian point of view, American involvement is largely responsible for the 15,000 Russian war dead and an untold number of Russians wounded. While Americans are not facing Russians on the field of battle, American munitions are. American and European economic sanctions are biting hard, and all of Europe is now focused on viable alternatives to Russian fossil fuels. The war, thus far, is an unmitigated disaster for Putin, the result of a colossal miscalculation.
Vladimir Putin’s world view is either that Russia must be respected or that Russia must be feared. Respect for Russia doesn’t seem to be in the cards for the foreseeable future. So, fear is the card Putin is playing. Neither Western Europe nor the United States need worry about an actual invasion by Russia any time soon. What, then, is there to fear?
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned on Russian TV that the risks of nuclear weapons being introduced into the war “are considerable…the danger is serious, real, and we must not underestimate it,” he warned. Putin, quite publicly, has placed his nuclear forces on heightened alert, and he has also, quite publicly, warned that direct interference by the United States or NATO would bring “lightning-fast” retaliation. He warned that those who interfere “will face consequences you have never seen.” His boasts and threats are severe and must be taken seriously. They are intemperate and have a hint of desperation. Putin warns that he “has all the tools (weapons) that no one else can boast of having. We won’t boast about it; we’ll use them if needed,” he boasted angrily.
“Think long and hard about the degree of assistance you are prepared to give Ukraine,” he seems to be telling the United States and other NATO countries. In other words, Vladimir Putin has carefully and very deliberately placed the nuclear card on the table. According to the Institute for The Study of War, Russia and the United States possess about 93% of the world’s nuclear arsenal, with Russia having a slightly larger nuclear cupboard. So, Putin has enormous capability to go nuclear. But would he?
Putin would almost certainly not choose to duke it out with the United States. It would be suicidal, a short fight with nuclear return mail from the United States quite likely arriving in Russia before Putin’s nuclear package arrived at its address in our country. A more realistic concern is that Putin would use a low-yield, so-called tactical nuclear weapon to drive home just how determined he is to bring Ukraine to heel. He has a sizeable inventory of such weapons. He might target some physical structures without causing enormous loss of life to demonstrate his rigid determination to reintegrate all or much of Ukraine back into the Russian Federation.
Such limited nuclear warfare would dramatically change the post-World War II calculus that assumes nuclear weapons will not be introduced into a military confrontation. This calculus has held firm for nearly eighty years. Putin might believe the West’s determination to stand by Ukraine would weaken considerably once Washington absorbed the reality that a nuclear weapon had been used in combat for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nuclear munitions would be on the table and have to be factored into every country’s contingency planning. The certainty of a new nuclear arms race would inform many countries’ defense planning and budgeting. Ominously, if Putin succeeded in introducing such a tactical nuclear weapon to make a point, the continued use of tactical nuclear weapons and, perhaps, an occasional strategic nuclear weapon, could follow. The world would find itself in a very dark and dangerous place.
Putin might offer to limit his objectives in Ukraine by agreeing to end the fighting by pocketing what he now, arguably, controls. That would be the border region from Belarus along the strip bordering Russia and on to the Donbas to the southeast, then south down to the Sea of Azov, and west along the coast to Crimea and on to the city of Odesa along the northern coast of the Black Sea.
That would leave Ukraine with most of its landmass minus the natural-resource-rich Donbas and Ukraine’s entire coastline and seaports. What would remain of Ukraine would be a fragment of its prior self; landlocked, poor, and with cities of post-war rubble. No one will agree to such a resolution. Bowing to blackmail, especially nuclear blackmail, would resolve nothing. We can assume that Ukraine and the nations that are sympathetic to Ukraine would scoff at such a demand by Putin. Putin may believe that such a move would fracture the remarkably united front the West has assembled in support of Ukraine—probably another poor assumption by Putin.
Russia has played chicken with the United States and the West before. The 1961 Berlin crisis represented a stand-off in which the United States mobilized for war, called up the reserves (including my old air force reserve unit), and raised its nuclear alert level. A year later, America and Russia faced off in a high-seas game of nuclear chicken during the Cuban missile crisis. A dozen years later, we raised our nuclear alert level again during the October 1973 war between Israel, Egypt, and Syria. The United States supported Israel against Egypt and Syria, which were Russian client states fighting with Russian arms.
The big difference, of course, is that neither the United States nor Russia was directly engaged in actual combat during any of those crises. This time it is different. Russia is engaged and doing poorly in a violent war. Given the relentless attacks Russia has mounted against civilian targets and the remarkable defense the Ukrainian armed forces are mounting in defense of their country, Putin has limited options if he hopes to prevail. He has warned the world that a nuclear response is one of the options he is prepared to use. The United States and NATO must be unequivocal, either publicly or privately, that the introduction of nuclear weapons, large or small, by Russia into this conflict will end very badly for Russia and, therefore, for Vladimir Putin.
Putin has, in no uncertain terms, warned us. We dare not blink.