As you are probably aware, Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently repeatedly threatened to use so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons as a way to reverse Russia’s no-longer-deniable battlefield debacle in Ukraine. At a gathering on October 6, President Joe Biden reportedly observed, “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.” The President’s comments are obviously the most authoritative allusions to the risk of nuclear holocaust arising from the Russian invasion.
On October 1, Wall Street Journal Columnist Peggy Noonan quoted former President John Kennedy from June, 1963, when Mr. Kennedy asserted, “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 defeat or a nuclear war,” and “[Leaving a nuclear-armed adversary no option but a humiliating defeat would be] a collective death-wish for the world.” She also quoted former President Ronald Reagan’s well-known declaration, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
On October 2, Wall Street Journal Columnist Walter Russell Mead wrote, “As the Biden administration scrambles to manage the most dangerous international confrontation since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, it must see the world through Mr. Putin’s eyes. Only then can officials know how seriously to take the nuclear saber-rattling and develop an appropriate response. … Mr. Putin sees global politics today as a struggle between a rapacious and domineering West and the rest of the world bent on resisting our arrogance and exploitation. … Mr. Putin’s version of the anti-American world view gives a special role to Russia.”
On October 7, MSNBC’s Morning Joe’s Joe Scarborough declared: “I know people love to say … that there’s no substitute but the complete destruction of Vladimir Putin. No! … They have more nuclear weapons than anybody else on the face of the earth, and we’re … going to have to be creative as Kennedy was when you got the missiles out of Cuba but quietly got the missiles out of Turkey. We’re not dealing with Belarus here. We’re dealing with a country that has nuclear weapons and doesn’t have any problems threatening to use them.”
The President is obviously the best judge regarding the likelihood of escalation if Russia chooses to use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine conflict. That said, I completely disagree with the implication of Ms. Noonan and Messrs. Mead and Scarborough (which, no matter how obliquely they phrased it, I submit is inherent in their comments) that we should look for a way to – there is no other word for it – appease Mr. Putin’s delusions. It’s too late for that. Such perspective is akin to someone saying in 1940, “We need to see the world through Herr Hitler’s eyes. He sees the extermination of the Jews as existential to Germany’s survival.” At this point, the Ukrainians (with our and NATO support) should be – as they clearly are — in it to win it. Mr. Scarborough’s reference to Mr. Kennedy’s order removing our nuclear arsenal from Turkey following the Cuban Missile Crisis is inapposite. In October, 1962, no shot was fired, no lives were wantonly sacrificed, no property was needlessly destroyed. Here, we have a campaign of unbounded barbarism – the latest intense barrages against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure coming this week — intended to destroy a people and its culture. These losses cannot be undone. Since the invasion began, media talking heads have constantly intoned about the need to provide Mr. Putin an “off ramp.” Putting aside the fact that the Russian President has shown no indication that he is looking for an off ramp, I don’t see how any just settlement could include allowing Russia to retain any of the territory that it has stolen from Ukraine or releasing Russia from its obligation for reparations for Ukrainian losses (reportedly over a trillion dollars; a knotty problem obviously not yet ripe for consideration). Most strategically, I myself can never get beyond the question I’ve already posed in these pages: Unless one believes – and I do not see how one could – that following any Russian-Ukrainian settlement, Mr. Putin would cease attempting to undermine Ukraine’s and other democracies across the world, what long term value does an inevitably temporary settlement bring? The Ukrainians and NATO must unreservedly press their advantage to culmination here – which, I concede, is more likely than not to involve the deposition of Mr. Putin.
I also take issue with those that conflate what may be politically (and perhaps literally) existential for Mr. Putin with what is existential for Russia. U.S. and NATO officials need to continue to emphasize that they have no designs on Russia beyond reestablishment of Ukraine’s borders as they existed prior to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Among the audiences for such reassurances are members of the Russian leadership and the Russian populace (for the latter, to the extent that the messages get through.) Although Mr. Putin is reportedly now only surrounded by hardliners, perhaps these reassurances about the limits of NATO’s aims combined with Russia’s battlefield losses will ultimately cause some of Mr. Putin’s advisors to ask themselves: Is our floundering attempt to expand the Russian Empire worth nuclear Armageddon? However, declarations regarding the limits of NATO’s mission apparently also need to be reinforced with the Ukrainians. Washington Post Columnist David Ignatius reported this week that many Ukrainians see Russia, not Mr. Putin, as the enemy. While those sentiments are certainly understandable, Ukrainians must come to recognize that while they deserve recompense for what has been done to them and protection against future Russian imperialism, any aspirations to bring about the dissolution of a nuclear-powered Russian state are neither attainable nor even advisable.
I’ve heard any number of commentators inquire of any idea to avoid a possibly approaching nuclear confrontation. I have one. If this hasn’t already been tried, I would counsel Mr. Biden to quietly – with no notice to news outlets before or after — call the one man who probably still has significant influence on Mr. Putin: Chinese President Xi Jinping. I would propose that the President make clear to Mr. Xi that if Russia uses nuclear weaponry in Ukraine, we are prepared to respond in kind. If Mr. Biden is serious – and he’d better be — I would suggest that the President specifically state that he understood that his credibility with Mr. Xi would be forever lost if he did not follow through as he was indicating that he would. I would recommend that the President reiterate his recent observation that he saw little hope for avoiding a nuclear Armageddon if such an exchange began. I would advise that the President then suggest to Mr. Xi that Mr. Xi call Mr. Putin and indicate that if Russia initiated the use of nuclear weapons in its Ukraine struggle, China would join the international community in opposing Russia. Additionally, Mr. Biden might suggest to Mr. Xi that since China undoubtedly has sources very close to Mr. Putin as we obviously do, Mr. Xi might instruct his agents to do what they could to impede Mr. Putin if it seemed likely that Mr. Putin was about to resort to a nuclear option.
I’ve recently heard our current relationship with China described as “cold,” “almost nonexistent.” No matter. Nuclear issues transcend all others. The question would be how Mr. Xi would react to any overtures from Mr. Biden as outlined above. The primary principle of foreign policy would apply: nations will act in what they consider their own best interest. Presumably, Mr. Xi wants China to ultimately control the world, not have it blown up. If Mr. Xi either doesn’t take Mr. Biden seriously or calculates that there is better than an even chance that China will ultimately benefit from a U.S. – Russian nuclear exchange, he will stand back. If Mr. Xi instead determines that China and the world he seeks to dominate will be engulfed if the U.S. and Russia so engage, he might well act as Mr. Biden suggested – even if he indicated on the call that he wouldn’t.
I disagree with the notion that China may view the U.S. support of Ukraine as an opportunity to expedite any plans it has to invade Taiwan. America retains the Pacific strength to effectively support Taiwan’s resistance to any Chinese aggression, and I would suspect that Mr. Xi views the U.S. support of Ukraine as evidence of a greater level of American resolve to support its allies and protect its interests — at least while Mr. Biden is President — than was apparent before Russia invaded Ukraine. There is, of course, a concession somewhat corresponding to our 1963 removal of our nuclear missiles from Turkey that Mr. Xi might raise if Mr. Biden indeed suggested that he intercede with Mr. Putin: our private assurance that that we would not aggressively aid Taiwan if China chose to invade the island. While from Mr. Xi’s perspective there would be significant benefit to asking, Mr. Biden would certainly and properly reject such a suggestion out of hand.
Some might say that this note borders on rant; I would timidly venture that it is but an expression of fervent belief 🙂 . [I suspect that right now, many of those that follow these pages are exceedingly glad that I am not advising President Biden 😉 .] I concede that I might feel less strongly if the Ukrainians were seeking a compromise with Russia – after all, it is they who are dying, it is their existence that has been forever altered, while we sit here spouting about strategic options – but they understand that it is their (and our) freedom they are fighting for. Too often strategy and sentiment are in conflict; in Ukraine, they align. For those of us of or approaching Medicare eligibility, any manner of U.S. accommodation to Mr. Putin’s nuclear threats would be the easy course; given America’s nuclear armament, any material threat from foreign adversaries will never reach our shores in our lifetimes. That said, for our children’s and grandchildren’s sake, America cannot allow itself to become the “lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force” that former President Franklin Roosevelt warned against in 1940. We should continue to vigorously support Ukraine no matter what nuclear threats Vladimir Putin makes.
One thought on “On the Nuclear Challenge”
I wish you were advising the President!
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