Serious Nuclear Threats in Ukraine
The potential that Vladimir Putin could use nuclear weapons in Ukraine must be taken extremely seriously.
If things go wrong, we will look back upon this period as a parallel to early July 1914.
At that time, European civilization seemed safe, prosperous, and on a path of improvement.
A few short weeks later, the convulsion of World War I began. In its aftermath, European civilization was shattered, and the Russian, Austria-Hungarian, German, and Ottoman Empires were gone. The loss of life in World War I was so great that British and French societies never recovered their elan and confidence. The devastation was so great in Russia that the stage was set for the Bolshevik Revolution and the 74–year dictatorship of communism. It echoes to this day in Putin’s Russia.
It is sometimes hard, almost impossible, in a peaceful, prosperous environment to imagine the savagery and pain of a catastrophic war. Every American who is in doubt about how serious the potential of nuclear war is should read “Tomorrow!” by Philip Wylie. First published in 1954, it is the story of the human cost of a nuclear weapon going off in a midwestern American city. It is vivid and horrifying.
I first read Wylie’s extraordinary novel when my dad was stationed at Fort Riley. It was easy to imagine that Wylie was describing the death of Kansas City, 132 miles to our east. After all Wylie describes two fictional midwestern cities next to each other and the combination of Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri would have fit the bill.
The impact of nuclear annihilation and the agony of the survivors (something captured in John Hersey’s, 1946 book “Hiroshima,” a nonfiction accounting of six survivors of the American bombing of that city) has never left me. It was a significant factor in my decision in August 1958 to spend my life trying to ensure American safety and freedom.
We are in graver danger today of enduring a nuclear war than at any time in my lifetime. The unpredictable nature of Putin’s personality – and the degree to which he may believe he must win or be overthrown – create massive volatility. The extraordinary ineffectiveness of the Russian military against courageous Ukrainians and the willingness of America and our European allies to support Ukraine add pressure. Finally, the clear superiority of our weapons over the Russians’ sets the stage for an incredibly difficult choice for the Russian dictator.
And, given the terrible sacrifices the Ukrainians have suffered and the viciousness of the Russian attacks, there may be no emotional possibility for a negotiated truce that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy can accept. So long as the West continues to provide arms, ammunition, and financial aid, the Ukrainians may insist on winning back the whole of their country.
Yet, if the war continues to grind on, the Russian people will become increasingly dissatisfied. The number of Russians fleeing the country is a grim indicator of how many do not support Putin’s war. The current mobilization of 300,000 or more civilians is likely to further increase dissatisfaction. It’s also not likely to have Putin’s desired effect on the battlefield. The new draftees will have inadequate training, equipment – and conviction. They are likely to do even worse than the soldiers who have already failed. Russian casualties will increase, and Russian defeats may also increase.
At that point (it may be a matter of weeks or months – not years) Putin may decide that using tactical nuclear weapons while threatening to hit Europe and America with strategic nuclear weapons is a better gamble than continuing to lose. He may also conclude that the United States and NATO will not respond to limited nuclear weapons.
Certainly, the Biden administration has failed to set the stage for nuclear deterrence — having already failed catastrophically in Afghanistan and completely misread the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Remember: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley said publicly that the Russians would be in Kiev in three days. As proof of how wrong American intelligence was, the United States offered to fly President Zelenskyy to safety if he agreed the fight was hopeless. History was changed by his courage in an almost Churchillian manner.
There is no clear Biden Doctrine for how we would respond to the Russian use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. That ambiguity (or confusion whichever it is) increases the likelihood that Putin will think it is a reasonable gamble to destroy the Ukrainian forces with a handful of tactical nuclear weapons while threatening to hit western cities if NATO reacts.
We may be faced with the choice of accepting a terrifying precedent: That nuclear armed powers can use nuclear weapons on their neighbors so long as they threaten to escalate the conflict and endanger European and American cities.
In a world in which China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Israel, Great Britain, and France already have nuclear weapons – and both Iran and Japan could acquire them quickly – we risk seeing Wylie’s nightmare turned loose on humankind.
This is a good time for prayer and serious, sober thinking to find a path of deterrence which works on Putin – and all nuclear powers.
Failure to do so may have horrifying consequences.