IMMEDIATE RELEASE 22 Sep 2022
Today’s Events in Historical Perspective
America’s Longest-Running Column Founded 1932
The counter threat
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
WASHINGTON — The world is at a crisis point. Russian President Putin has threatened the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. The war is going badly for Russia, and Putin is upping the ante, calling up nearly 300,000 reservists and telling his countrymen and women that the West is challenging the very existence of Mother Russia.
But neither the reservists nor the troops in the field have been issued hazmat suits, raising questions about how serious Putin is about going nuclear because radioactive fallout would poison his troops along with the Ukrainians.
Even with that caveat, this is the most significant nuclear threat America and its allies have faced, worse than the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 because it is an overt threat. In 1962, Soviet leader Krushchev never said he would use nuclear weapons. He saw them as a deterrent, a weapon too lethal to be used, restrained by MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction.
President Kennedy deftly navigated the Cuban Missile Crisis with a secret deal to remove U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for Krushchev openly pulling his nuclear weapons from Cuba.
Aside from some brinkmanship between India and Pakistan following their 1998 nuclear tests, the world has never seen the flaunting of nuclear prowess on the scale of Putin’s threat.
President Biden’s response in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly was to call Putin “reckless” and “irresponsible.”
“A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” Biden said. Should Putin choose to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Biden has said the U.S. response would be “consequential,” and would rival in scale and scope what Russia does.
Biden has not offered any more detail, which must leave Putin guessing, although it is unlikely Biden would respond in kind with a nuclear weapon deployed against Russia, widening a conflict between Russia and Ukraine into World War III. Neither is it likely Biden would get the go-ahead from NATO for a unified nuclear response.
What, then, is a viable response when the only deterrent against nuclear weapons is nuclear weapons? This is pure speculation, but if Biden wants to get Putin’s attention, more sanctions will not do it. Biden must respond in kind, and the only way to do that without further widening the war is to threaten to supply Ukraine with tactical nuclear weapons. It is a counter threat, if made, it is undoubtedly being made in private.
It is the best of worst options. We can hope Putin does not take us to that, but if he does, Ukraine will know what to do. It has a robust civil nuclear program, and in the process of breaking away from Russia, Ukraine gave up Russian nuclear weapons stored on its soil that made it the third largest nuclear power after the United States and Russia. So, Ukraine still has people knowledgeable in the field of nuclear weaponry.
Putin says he is not bluffing when he ups the ante in the invasion of Ukraine, an invasion he launched thinking it would be an easy three days to conquer the country, and that a divided and demoralized NATO in the aftermath of the Trump administration’s pullback from NATO would fail to meet the challenge.
He miscalculated on every front. The Ukrainians have proven themselves able and well-led fighters with a strong belief in their cause of sovereignty, whereas the Russians have turned out to be ill equipped, poorly led and unwilling to fight for an ill-defined “military operation” they do not understand.
A democracy cannot sustain a war without public support. But the dissension we are seeing in Russia today over Putin’s mobilization and misguided war policies suggests the same may be true in a dictatorship. Thousands have taken to the streets in Moscow with hundreds being arrested. There are traffic jams with people – read reservists being called up – trying to flee the country. And all the exit flights are full.
Putin’s bluster about nuclear weapons may be just that, the bluster before the calm in a war he is losing not only to Ukrainian fighters and Western weapons, but also quite possibly to a nuclear counter threat.
See Eleanor Clift’s latest book Selecting a President, and Douglas Cohn’s latest books The President’s First Year: The Only School for Presidents Is the Presidency and World War 4: Nine Scenarios (endorsed by seven flag officers).
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END WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND
IMMEDIATE RELEASE 22 Sep 2022