Russian dictator Vladimir Putin attacked civilian targets in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities with missiles on Monday. This was widely interpreted as his riposte for an explosion Saturday that badly damaged a bridge linking Crimea to Russia across the Kerch Strait — a Kremlin showcase that Putin personally opened in 2018. But, as was evident from Ukrainians singing the national anthem while sheltering in Kyiv’s subways from Russian missiles, the latest act of state terrorism is likely to only harden Ukrainian resolve. It will do nothing to reverse a battlefield situation that continues to trend in Ukraine’s favor.
As Putin’s comeuppance continues, fears are growing in the West that he might resort to nuclear weapons to salvage his failing military campaign. On Thursday, President Biden insisted that Putin wasn’t “joking when he talks about potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons” and warned that we are facing “the prospect of Armageddon” for the first time since the Cuban missile crisis.
Biden is right that the risks of nuclear use, while still low, are higher than they have been in decades — and that, if Putin were to use tactical nuclear weapons, the war might spiral out of control. This is a threat we need to take seriously. But we also need to be worried about the possibility that Putin’s threats could succeed in causing the West to back down.
Opinion writers on the war in Ukraine
If Putin were to achieve his geopolitical objectives with nuclear saber-rattling, it would shake the very foundations of the post-1945 world order. The last thing we want to do is to send a message that a state with nuclear weapons can invade its neighbors, commit war crimes, redraw international borders — and get away with it. That would embolden other nuclear-armed states to act recklessly and encourage states without nuclear weapons to acquire them.
Imagine the signal that would send to Beijing, which has been beefing up both its conventional and nuclear arsenals. It would suggest that China could attack Taiwan with impunity.
Imagine the signal it would send to North Korea, which has been testing missiles at a record-breaking pace this year and has recently passed a law asserting its right to launch a nuclear preemptive strike. It would suggest that the North can attack, or at least blackmail, South Korea and Japan with impunity.
Imagine the signal it would send to Iran, which could produce sufficient fissile material to build a bomb within weeks. It would suggest to Tehran that, if it proceeds with nuclear weapons production, it will be able to threaten the United States and its regional allies with impunity.
It is critically important, therefore, that Putin not succeed with his nuclear blackmail — and so far he hasn’t, despite half-baked suggestions from geniuses such as Donald Trump and Elon Musk that we should cut some kind of deal that would presumably recognize Russia’s illegal land grab.
Far from caving in, the Biden administration has announced more weapon deliveries — including of highly effective High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems — since Putin’s latest round of nuclear threats. But Russia’s threats are working to the extent that they discourage the administration from supplying Ukraine with longer-range rockets, tanks and fighter aircraft.
In seeking to deter Putin from using nuclear weapons, Biden might be unwittingly amplifying the Russian dictator’s threats with doomsday talk and speculation about what kind of “off-ramp” we can offer. On Friday, Biden mused aloud: “Where does he find a way out? Where does he find himself in a position that he does not only lose face but lose significant power within Russia?” That is a fine subject to discuss in a National Security Council meeting, but it is not something that Biden should be speculating about in public. Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin had the right answer when asked about Putin’s off-ramp: “The way out of the conflict is for Russia to leave Ukraine.”
The only way this evil invasion will end is when Putin, and those around him, realize that the war is unwinnable and that the costs of pulling back are less than the costs of staying put and risking the loss of more of Russia’s military.
There is evidence that reality is finally penetrating the Kremlin bubble. The Post reported on Friday, citing U.S. intelligence, that a member of Putin’s inner circle “has voiced disagreement directly to the Russian president in recent weeks over his handling of the war in Ukraine.” The Kremlin has been replacing Russian military commanders in Ukraine. Criticism of the “special military operation” has been increasingly heard on Russian social media and even television. Putin himself told a group of teachers last week, “We are working on the assumption that the situation in the new territories will stabilize,” which seems a tacit admission that the situation isn’t favorable right now.
As Russia continues to flounder, the West must not flinch. Be concerned, but don’t panic, in the face of Putin’s threats. We must worry not just about the catastrophic costs of Putin using nuclear weapons to avert defeat but also about the catastrophic costs of letting him use nuclear threats to prevail.