Putin waves the nuclear sword against the West
WARSAW, Poland (AP) — It’s been a long time since the threat to use nuclear weapons has been raised so openly by a world leader, but Vladimir Putin just did, warning in a speech that he has the guns available if anyone dares to use military means to try to prevent the Russian takeover of Ukraine.
The threat may have been meaningless, a mere show of fangs by the Russian president, but it was noticed. It has sparked visions of a nightmarish outcome in which Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine could lead to nuclear war by accident or miscalculation.
“As far as military affairs are concerned, even after the dissolution of the USSR and the loss of a considerable part of its capabilities, today’s Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states,” said Putin in his pre-invasion speech on Thursday.
“Also, he has some advantage in several edge weapons. In this context, there should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that any potential aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences if they attack our country directly.
By simply suggesting a nuclear response, Putin has brought into play the worrying possibility that the current fighting in Ukraine could eventually turn into an atomic confrontation between Russia and the United States.
This doomsday scenario is familiar to those who grew up during the Cold War, a time when American schoolchildren were told to hunker down and hide under their desks in the event of nuclear sirens, but that danger gradually receded from the public imagination after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when the two powers seemed to be on the road to disarmament, democracy and prosperity.
Before that, even young people had grasped the terrifying idea behind the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction – MAD for short – a balance in nuclear capabilities that aimed to keep each side’s hands off the atomic trigger, knowing that any use of doomsday weapons could result in the annihilation of both sides in a conflict.
And amazingly, no country has used nuclear weapons since 1945, when President Harry Truman dropped bombs on Japan in the belief that it was the surest way to end World War II quickly. It did, but with the loss of around 200,000 lives, mostly civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Around the world, even today, many consider this a crime against humanity and wonder if it was worth it.
For a short time after the war, the United States had a nuclear monopoly. But a few years later, the Soviet Union announced its own nuclear bomb, and the two Cold War sides engaged in an arms race to build and develop increasingly powerful weapons over the next few decades.
With the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 and its transformation into a hoped-for democracy under Boris Yeltsin, the United States and Russia agreed to limit their armaments. Other post-Soviet countries like Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus voluntarily abandoned nuclear weapons on their territory after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
In recent years, if we talked about nuclear weapons, it was usually in the context of stopping their proliferation to countries like North Korea and Iran. (Iran denies wanting to possess them, and North Korea is steadily but slowly building its nuclear weapons and delivery systems.) President Joe Biden has been aware of the danger of nuclear war between Russia and NATO since the emergence of crisis. with Ukraine. Early on, he said NATO would not send troops to Ukraine because it could trigger direct fighting between the United States and Russia, leading to a nuclear escalation and possibly World War III.
It was a tacit admission that the United States would not go after the Russians militarily over Ukraine and would instead rely on extraordinary sanctions to gradually strangle the Russian economy.
But the admission also included another truth. When it came to fighting off a Russian invasion, Ukraine stood alone because it is not a member of a treaty and is not eligible for protection under NATO’s nuclear umbrella.
If Putin tried to attack one of America’s NATO partners, the situation would be different because the pact is fully committed to mutual defense, Biden said.
Knowing that Biden had already taken a military response off the table, why did Putin even bother to raise it in his speech?
In part, he may have wanted to keep the West off balance, to prevent it from taking aggressive steps to defend Ukraine against Putin’s blitzkrieg to take over the country.
But the deeper context seemed to be his great desire to show the world that Russia is a powerful nation, not to be ignored. Putin repeatedly speaks of the humiliation of Russia after the Soviet collapse. By waving his nuclear sword, he echoed the bluster with which the Soviet Union had stared down the United States and won, in its mind, respect.
After Putin’s speech, Pentagon officials offered only a mute response to his implied threat to use nuclear weapons against any country that tried to intervene in Ukraine.
A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said Thursday that US officials “do not see an increased threat in this regard,” but he would say no more.
Putin’s language strikes a chord at the Pentagon as it highlights a long-standing concern that he might be willing to preemptively use nuclear weapons in Europe in the event of a crisis.
It’s one of the reasons Washington has tried for years, unsuccessfully, to persuade Moscow to negotiate limits on so-called tactical nuclear weapons – those with shorter ranges that could be used in regional warfare. Russia has a large numerical advantage in this weaponry, and some officials say the gap is widening.
Coincidentally, the Biden administration was completing a Nuclear Posture Review – a study of possible changes to US nuclear forces and the policies that govern their use – when the Russian troop buildup near Ukraine reached a crisis stage this this month. It is unclear whether the results of this study will be reworked in light of the Russian invasion.
EDITOR’S NOTE – John Daniszewski, AP vice president and former Eastern Europe correspondent, has been writing on European affairs since the 1980s.
PA national defense writer Robert Burns contributed to this story from Washington.