Can We Deter Russia From Using Nukes?
The case for staying the course—and the case for doing more.
I woke up this morning in Zagreb to news that several Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv, were under attack. Russia had launched a set of cruise missiles and drones, many targeted at civilians on their morning commutes, and at children heading to school. Russian media seemed to be indicating that this was intended as a response to an unattributed attack over the weekend that damaged the new bridge over the Kerch strait, linking occupied Crimea to the Russian mainland. The bridge represents a vital supply link for Russia’s faltering war machine, with the attack possibly threatening all the territory it has occupied since 2014.
Ukraine was officially silent about the Kerch incident, though there was much jubilation on social media by its well-coordinated army of internet activists. The attack came days after the New York Times reported a leak from US intelligence suggesting a Moscow car bombing in August that killed the daughter of a leading Russian nationalist ideologue was the work of Ukrainian spies.
This is all unfolding as the war in Ukraine has ratcheted up tensions between nuclear armed powers to levels arguably unimaginable even at the height of the Cold War. Ukraine’s ground forces have seen spectacular gains on the ground against overstretched and under-equipped Russian forces strung out across the frontlines. This, in turn, has forced Russian President Vladimir Putin to both start a partial mobilization across Russia and to unambiguously threaten the use of nuclear weapons should Ukraine not sue for peace.
The attacks on Kyiv this morning were clearly in response to the Kerch operation, Johns Hopkins University’s Dr. Sergey Radchenko argued on Twitter—an attempt by Putin to solidify his position at home, and show those in his administration baying for blood that he is as ruthless as they are. But the attacks were more than just that. He went on:
Finally, and this is probably the key motivation, this strike aims to demonstrate capability, if not the intent, to obliterate Kyiv because of course there’s an implied nuclear threat behind each conventional strike into the heart of the Ukrainian capital. Putin is basically saying here that he cannot be outplayed in the game of oneupmanship simply because he suffers from no moral restraints. It’s a serious message and it’s not clear yet what our response to this will be.
Radchenko gets to the heart of the matter: What is to be done? Where do we go now? For guidance, I warmly recommend two articles by two of my former colleagues and friends, one laying out a more aggressive path forward for US policy, and one arguing for staying the course.
Walter Russell Mead’s column last Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal tightly lays out how the Biden Administration’s policies have gotten us to where we are. I have at times conceded that Biden played the run-up to the invasion well, eschewing escalatory rhetoric as Russian forces massed on the border. In doing so, it has seemed to me, Biden built up solidarity across Europe, and drew a line at NATO’s borders that has thus far firmly held. Had Biden pursued the policy I favored in January and February—of massing US troops on NATO’s borders, including potentially putting nuclear weapons in Romania, and threatening unspecified repercussions should Putin invade—it’s quite likely that the fickle Europeans would have split from us. Had Putin invaded anyway, many Europeans would have blamed the United States for triggering the war. Instead, we now have the West more or less standing firm, with Russia badly bloodied and increasingly isolated from even its erstwhile ally China and Ukraine pressing its advantage on the ground.
That’s precisely backwards, Walter argues. Biden has set Ukraine, and by extension the West, up for a loss. By drawing a thick line between NATO and Ukraine, Putin was implicitly told that he had ultimate escalatory dominance in the actual theater of war. At the limit, Russia has nukes, Ukraine does not, and we clearly signaled that we would not get directly involved in the war beyond arming and tactically supporting Ukrainian efforts on the ground. As we approach that limit, the logic is predictably playing out.
As Walter argued in an earlier column, anything short of Russia being seen to lose the current war, which would include some kind of armistice that solidifies Russia’s hold on territory beyond the 2014 lines, must be judged a win for armed territorial revisionism. This will prove “a massive blow to American credibility and power overseas.” Even a partial, Pyrrhic victory by Russia would set a precedent, emboldening the likes of China and Iran, and dispiriting allies like Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. Drawing too firm a line at NATO’s borders in the Ukraine war will have circumscribed American power more broadly.
Jason Willick, writing in the Washington Post, casts a different light on the current situation, and more clearly channels the Biden Administration’s case. This is exactly what victory looks like, Jason argues: Putin stands alone, his army is wrecked, his economy is battered, and no matter how the war ends, Russia will likely be a permanently diminished power in the world. The United States has deftly managed to lay low one of its rivals by creating an efficient meat grinder on its borders, at manageable financial cost to itself and with zero American lives lost.
Stay the course, Jason counsels. Keep arming the Ukrainians, but do no more. The Biden Administration’s policy has always been to let the Ukrainians win back as much territory as they can at the cost of only their own lives. This is what the oft-repeated mantra of “we will not dictate to Ukraine the terms of peace” means in practice. At the limit, it suggests that it’s up to the Ukrainians to modulate the risks of triggering nuclear reprisals from Russia. Muddying the waters now, by trying to deter nuclear aggression by explicitly threatening direct involvement, would only embolden Ukraine to gamble more boldly, making a civilization-ending conflict all the more likely. Holding the current policy line forces the Ukrainians to more clearly face the choices before them. And indeed, a nuclear attack on Ukraine may not be enough to halt its resistance. If Kyiv decides to push through after nukes are deployed against its forces or its cities, we must continue supporting them, all the while maintaining the ultimate red line at NATO’s borders.
In this perspective, the endgame is clear, no matter where the final lines are drawn: NATO is united as never before, Ukraine becomes a permanent garrison/buffer zone in Europe, and Russia remains a failure and a nuclear pariah. Normalization with Russia under Putin (or any leader ideologically similar to him) is already out of the question. Nuclear first use will only further marginalize pro-Russian voices in Europe, and perhaps more broadly in the world. Welcome to the 21st century.
Regular readers will know that I am quite sympathetic to Jason’s framing. But I don’t want to somehow suggest that Walter’s points are easy to dismiss. Quite to the contrary, I can’t get them out of my head.
The detonation of a nuclear weapon in anger would almost certainly scramble the world order, no matter what the final territorial outcome on the other side of it. Trying to avert such an event should preoccupy us at this moment. And Walter’s proposal is a serious one: Biden must undo the mistakes that led us to the current situation. He must abandon his approach of shepherding the West to consensus and instead start to lead more forthrightly.
First, Biden must decide for himself that an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Russia is firmly in our interest. Any internal wavering will undermine next steps. Having done so, he must start building an actual war coalition, with all that implies. “Rather than playing down the danger, he needs to dramatize it,” Walter writes. The theatrics—emergency NATO summits, addresses to Congress, prime time speeches to the American people—need to convince Moscow that any nuclear attack on Ukraine will bring devastating consequences for Russia.
The nuclear saber should perhaps remain sheathed, but only ambiguously so. Ambiguity ramps up uncertainty. Ukraine wielding Western weapons has already shown Russians just how badly outmatched they are against NATO tech. And Kyiv has achieved everything it has with no meaningful air or naval support. It could only get worse for Russian troops if the West were to really lean in. Loud threats should, of course, be accompanied by quiet diplomacy, Walter avers, with off ramps for Russia at the ready. But the final outcome must be unambiguous: Russia will have to visibly stand down.
But how credible would these threats be? The American president has an enormous bully pulpit, and his word has to be taken seriously around the globe, by dint of America’s overwhelming might alone. Every pronouncement of even an erratic leader like President Donald Trump, who had uncertain control over his own administration, kept foreign capitals rapt. Joe Biden is an old Cold Warrior, and he certainly should know how to play the deterrence game if he decides to do so. His words carry profound weight.
And Russia, already badly bruised, would have to do some hard calculations of its own. What percentages does it assign to Biden being able to follow through? What percentage is it comfortable with? What does its future look like if its entire army is obliterated in Ukraine? The disastrous 1990s, as civil wars raged in far-flung provinces while Moscow helplessly watched from the center, is a formative memory of Putin’s generation of strongmen. This time would almost certainly be worse.
The weakest point in this more aggressive approach, however, is found in the title of Walter’s own column (perhaps not written by him): “The Question on Putin’s Mind: Would We Risk New York to Keep Odessa Free?” This is what leaves me hesitant above all else. Building a real war coalition will be extraordinarily difficult, abroad even more so than at home. One might be able to fudge the existential question in Washington with stern speeches, but I seriously doubt that Europeans would easily fall into line, putting their own capitals at risk for Ukraine.
Viktor Orban’s Hungary has for months argued that Ukraine’s war is not our own, complaining that Europeans are paying the price for inscrutable Slav blood-letting. A certain soft Russophilia remains a potent political force in Bulgaria, and a recent poll found that a majority of Slovaks were rooting for Russia to win. But none of those countries really swing the balance in any meaningful way. Germany, however, is a country of a different caliber. Its heretofore hesitant, halting approach to supporting Ukraine is a symptom of deeper forces at play. Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock understand the stakes, but are also keenly aware of just what their country will bear. An even bigger, European-wide tell was how quickly and curtly Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky’s plea for Ukraine to be fast-tracked into NATO was rejected last week. The hesitancy extends well beyond Berlin.
If Putin is not a half-wit, he knows all this. Europeans might well empathize with Ukraine’s plight, and might even be willing to suffer some hardships in the coming winters as a result of too tightly coupling their economies to the Russian energy dynamo. But risk Berlin, or Paris, or Amsterdam, for Kyiv? I doubt it. The right approach for Russia, therefore, would be for Putin to continue threatening nuclear Armageddon while waiting for the European coalition to fragment as Biden barks.
So much of this feels like the Cold War, including the part where the Soviet Union tries to crack the Western alliance along its German fault line with nukes. And the broader stakes that Walter lays out are similarly—depressingly—familiar. My dilemma is that I worry the old Cold War playbook might not work this time, given the nature of the weak-kneed coalition that the United States finds itself leading. This may feel like the Cold War, but I don’t sense that this is a Cold War Europe. At the end of the day, this war is economically damaging and morally offensive to most Europeans, but it is definitely not existential like the Cold War was. It can only become so if the United States pulls Europe in to directly participating in the fight. They will resist mightily, and publicly.
That said, how much does that matter? Perhaps the Europeans could be brought on-side with stirring rhetoric, or at least put into an uncomfortable corner. After all, their options are limited. What could they do in protest? Western unity matters, but it is not an end unto itself, as many in the Biden White House seem to believe. Indeed, Washington could credibly stare down Moscow’s nuclear threat without Europe firmly by its side. In doing so, it will have to contend with bickering allies, and an empowered peace lobby across the continent demanding Ukraine make unreasonable concessions. It will have to invest more and more of its scarce resources in managing bruised egos.
On second thought, maybe it is just like Cold War Europe after all…