Ukraine war could yet get far worse - and West should take nuclear weapons threat seriously

West must address real possibility messianic Putin may deploy nuclear weapons as part of Russian invasion effort

We are now six months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war has not gone well for Russia. Neither has it gone well for Ukraine, despite the dogged resistance of its military. The conflict is among the deadliest in recent times, with upwards of 40,000 deaths on the Russian side and probably similar numbers for Ukraine. Many thousands more have been injured. Millions have been displaced from their homes and whole cities flattened. This is a war in which everyone loses. And it could get worse.

From the outset, Vladimir Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons should he deem it necessary. Implicitly addressing the US and its allies, he announced that those who “stand in our way” or “create threats for our country and our people” will suffer consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history”. US policymakers were mindful of the challenge they faced in the months preceding the war. Gen Mark Milley, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, encapsulated the problem: “How do you underwrite and enforce the rules-based international order” against a country with extraordinary nuclear capability, “without going to World War III?” That’s one wicked problem.

The answer US and Nato policymakers adopted was to wage economic war against Russia through punishing sanctions while supplying Ukraine with the military means to defend itself. But President Joe Biden pledged not to send US troops and resisted Ukraine’s early plea to “close the sky” to Russian air power. Restraining the potential for nuclear escalation required this to be a limited war. Yet the US began sharing greater military intelligence with the Ukrainians and, as the war proceeded, western states moved toward supply of ever-more sophisticated weapons. This support had a significant impact on the war, allowing Ukraine to sink the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, kill numerous Russian generals and inflict devastating losses on ordinary Russian soldiers, many from impoverished regions in the North Caucasus. Russian war crimes against Ukrainian civilians made this deepening involvement easy to justify. As the crimes and casualties have mounted, the stakes for all sides have increased.

‘Non-Nato country’

During debates about how the US should respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, then president Barack Obama justified limiting US involvement by noting that Russia would always care more about Ukraine than the US did. “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-Nato country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.”

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The West’s current policies are testing these propositions. Officially the US justification for its escalating support for Ukraine is to strengthen Ukraine’s position at the negotiation table. But many of Ukraine’s most fervent supporters in the West believe it can win. So do great majorities of Ukrainians. Indeed, Ukrainians have some justification in viewing victory as a life and death necessity. As long as Putin is in power, they reason, Ukraine is imperiled. This attitude makes regime change in Russia the only acceptable solution. The feeling that the war is an existential civilisational struggle has only grown over the last six months.

All this has led Ukraine’s supporters to discount fears of nuclear escalation while simultaneously advocating intensified western military involvement. Putin is bluffing. Restraint is weakness. The West must do more.

Ukraine is escalating its defence by taking the war to Crimea, with a series of sabotage attacks over the past weeks including a drone attack against the Russian naval base at Sevastopol. This large military complex, it should be remembered, has been a Russian naval base since 1783. It is fighting back within Russia proper too where its agents have engaged in sabotage and possibly assassination.

Nuclear card

The West needs to take a lot more seriously the possibility that Putin may turn to nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Four reasons suggest this. First, Putin has shown himself to be motivated by a messianic vision of his role in Russian history, the hero that recovered historic Russian lands. Rational decision-making cannot be assumed. Second, Putin clearly has high risk-tolerance. The hubris of Russia’s invasion is evidence of this. He showed the nuclear card in the first act; he may well play it later.

Third, Russian military actions have been remarkably reckless with respect to nuclear infrastructure in Ukraine. Russian soldiers dug trenches in the radioactive “red forest” surrounding Chernobyl in late February while they shot their way to control over the vast Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, the largest in Europe, in early March. Their behaviour there since has been alarmingly irresponsible.

Fourth, Crimea is an existential issue for Putin’s regime. Putin made its “return to the motherland” in 2014 central to his continued rule. Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev declared that any attack on Crimea would trigger a “judgment day” response. If Ukraine were to destroy the Kerch Strait Bridge (opened by Putin in 2018), the reaction would be severe. Facing humiliation and loss more generally, Putin’s authorisation of punitive escalation involving battlefield nuclear weapons against Ukrainian forces is a real possibility. How the West responds will determine whether things escalate beyond that.

Thus, bad as it is, this awful war could get worse. Fortunately, there are some signs of hope. Patient diplomacy by United Nations and Turkish officials facilitated the resumption of foodstuff exports from Odesa. Similarly, pragmatic diplomacy by French president Emmanuel Macron has enabled a visit by UN inspectors to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. From these efforts, a broader negotiation process could be created. It is not likely to bring justice to the Ukrainian people soon. But it just might provide the freedom to achieve it in the long run.

Gerard Toal is professor of government and international affairs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University