As Russian President Vladimir Putin tries to salvage his failing invasion of Ukraine, there is a small but growing chance that he will use nuclear weapons. Historians will wonder how this war could have veered toward such insanity, but it’s now inescapably part of the landscape.
“In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country … we will certainly make use of all weapons systems available to us. This is not a bluff,” Putin said in a speech broadcast Wednesday morning. His nuclear umbrella appears to include Ukrainian territory that Russia has seized or plans to annex.
How should President Biden and other world leaders respond to this outrageous blackmail? The answer cannot be to capitulate. That would scar the global future as horribly as this war has already damaged Ukraine. As Biden said Wednesday: “Russia has shamelessly violated the core tenets of the United Nations Charter.”
Leaders must think now with the same combination of toughness and creativity that President John F. Kennedy showed during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Because that’s the only parallel within most of our lifetimes. That means drawing a firm line — Kennedy never wavered on his demand that Soviet missiles be removed from Cuba — but it also means looking for ways to de-escalate.
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Let’s start with the need for firmness from the West. The outcome in Ukraine will set the rules for the 21st century. If Putin’s extortion succeeds, China will surely see it as a precedent for Taiwan. If Chinese leaders see that the United States and its allies can be cowed by a nuclear threat, they will act with greater boldness. That’s the hidden danger of this “little” war in Ukraine: It could set the stage for a big war with China down the road.
The Pentagon has undoubtedly presented Biden with a menu of options for how to respond if Putin, say, uses a tactical nuclear weapon to block further Ukrainian advances toward Crimea and the Donbas region. Biden in an interview broadcast Sunday warned Putin against using nuclear weapons, saying: “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. It would change the face of war unlike anything since World War II.”
Biden’s comment was more plea than threat. And it was in line with his repeated signals that he wants to avoid any direct U.S.-Russian conflict. That’s admirable restraint, but it’s also part of why Putin keeps raising the ante. Now that Putin has directly threatened use of nuclear weapons, Biden must signal more clearly that the cost would be devastating for Russian forces occupying Ukraine and for Russia itself.
Let’s think now about how Biden can emulate JFK’s clarity and diplomatic finesse. A good start, always, is by understanding your adversary.
Putin is a bully, but what makes him truly dangerous is that he has woven a narrative of Russia’s victimization that causes him to view the Ukraine conflict almost as a holy war. He claimed Wednesday that the West’s goal in Ukraine “is to weaken, divide and ultimately destroy our country.” That might sound mad, but Putin clearly believes it. So, one message Biden needs to send, to Putin and the Russian people, is that the West doesn’t seek dominion. Sketching a path toward mutual postwar stability if Russia halts its aggression would be a start.
Kennedy’s genius in the Cuban missile crisis was to respond to a message from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev that offered a path to de-escalation, rather than to more belligerent messages.
Is there a similar off-ramp with Ukraine? I doubt it. But I was struck that Putin in his Wednesday speech repeated the same claim he made at a news conference last week in Uzbekistan — that Russia had been prepared for a “peaceful settlement” in the negotiations brokered by Turkey in Istanbul in late March, but that Ukraine and the West had balked. Okay, that’s the letter to answer.
Biden and Putin are a study in contrasts. One is an aging elected politician; the other is a famously vigorous, unelected dictator; one has near-consensus support at home for his Ukraine policy; the other is increasingly attacked in Moscow by right-wing hawks and left-wing doves; one has a unified presidential administration; the other faces growing Kremlin bickering and finger-pointing; one has solid allies across Europe; the other has increasingly wary support from China and India. Clearly, whatever the differences in age and aggressiveness, Biden’s is the stronger hand.
Ukraine, for now, shows no interest in the sort of diplomatic process that Biden has said is necessary to end the war. The Ukrainians want to press their advantage against the retreating Russians, regaining as much territory as possible before winter. There’s a kind of catch-22 at work here: When the Ukrainians were losing ground last summer, they didn’t want to negotiate from weakness. Now that they’re advancing, they see no reason to compromise from a position of strength. Kyiv needs a reality check about its longer-term battlefield prospects.
Kennedy succeeded in the Cuban missile crisis for two reasons. First, he showed that he was prepared to risk nuclear war to stop a reckless move by Moscow. Second, through a secret back channel, he found a face-saving way to avoid the ultimate catastrophe. Biden should study both lessons.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.
The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.