It wasn’t long ago that the White House was reluctant to provide Ukraine with any weapons amid implicit fears of unnecessarily provoking Russia into a military or even – perish the thought – a nuclear response. But as the war marks the start of its second year on Friday, America’s self-imposed limitations have eroded almost as steadily as Russia’s conventional military prospects.
Prior to President Joe Biden, the Obama administration – even after Russia’s 2014 invasion and illegal annexation of swaths of Ukraine – limited aid to so-called “non-lethal” assistance, which amounted to military and medical supplies but not weapons. The Trump administration green-lighted arms shipments, only to later suggest it could withdraw that support if Ukraine’s president declined to cooperate in a political scheme hatched by the former president to sully his Democratic rival, Joe Biden.
Even in his first public remarks after Russia launched its all-out invasion a year ago, Biden – as president – hinted at the closed-door concerns among administration and congressional officials that support from the U.S. could inadvertently force it to wander into becoming a legal co-combatant in the war. He cautiously turned the conversation to the effectiveness of heavy economic and diplomatic sanctions on Putin and his inner circle.
“You’re confident that these devastating sanctions are going to be as devastating as Russian missiles and bullets and tanks?” a reporter asked the president.
“Yes. Russian bullets, missiles and tanks in Ukraine,” Biden replied. “Yes, I am.”
Since then, after reports of targeting civilians, mass executions and accusations of crimes against humanity, the U.S. has escalated its assistance to a once-unthinkable degree – granting requests for missiles, anti-aircraft weapons and even sophisticated tanks. Biden just last weekend personally visited war-threatened Kyiv and pledged a half-billion dollars in new American aid. And now the White House is debating whether to supply F-16s and other fighter planes – among the most potent instruments of war it could reasonably transfer.
The result so far is that U.S. and Western officials even after regular risk assessments of Russian reaction have recognized the value of, perhaps the irreplaceable need for, increasingly deadly and effective weapons in the hands of Ukrainians to repel the Russian war machine – in defiance of a steady stream of threats from Moscow, up to and including nuclear war.
“The administration, of which I was a part until recently, has been a little slow, has been cautious,” John Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Russia at the time Putin invaded, said Sunday on CBS News, where he is now a contributor. “President Biden, the marching orders we got at the start of this conflict was, he wanted to do everything we could to support Ukraine, but he didn’t want a war with Russia.
“That’s the careful balancing act that we’ve – the administration – has been going through,” Sullivan said.
Each of the steps has raised concerns about an escalation into a wider conflict – evidence of the deterring power of the potential first use of nuclear weapons on a battlefield in more than 75 years. And at each step, that concern has been set aside.
For those who follow Russian military doctrine, the result has been unsurprising.
“The likelihood of Russia choosing – or Putin choosing – to use nuclear weapons directly against the West is astronomically low. It should not even be seriously considered at this stage,” says Katherine Lawlor, senior intelligence analyst at the independent Institute for the Study of War, which has fastidiously tracked Russia’s military movements since it first invaded Ukraine.
“Putin would love it if Western leaders believed that he might. He is many things, but he is not suicidal,” Lawlor says. She adds that Putin ultimately does not want war with NATO – particularly given the current state of the Russian army. “He couldn’t even win a conventional war in Ukraine.”
Putin’s references to potential nuclear war serve as an extension of capitalizing on Russia’s limited economic and military resources to bend others’ will. It’s a tactic the Russian leader has accelerated since first invading Ukraine in 2014, shortly before Obama dismissed the former core of the Soviet Union as nothing more than a “regional power.”
The method has worked to some degree, most visibly by isolating Germany from its traditional ironclad allies in the West due to Berlin’s protracted reluctance to send new forms of military aid to Ukraine’s military.
And it has effectively raised concern among experts who specialize in the potential for nuclear war.
“It would be dangerous to assume that Putin would never use nuclear weapons,” says Jon Wolfsthal, a senior adviser to nuclear disarmament advocacy group Global Zero and a member of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which annually publishes its “Doomsday Clock” marking the potential threat of nuclear war. He notes that approach “has not been adopted by the United States Government, by NATO nor by the Bulletin.”
“Blind faith in deterrence does not guarantee stability, nor does it take heed of the lessons of history – recent and more distant – that deterrence is fragile and can fail,” he says. “As financial and military pressures on Putin grow, the concern is that he will not think clearly or may put more emphasis on survival and the destruction of Ukraine than he does on alliances or friends.”
The Bulletin advanced the Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds to midnight in late January – closer to “midnight,” or theoretical annihilation, than ever before – citing not only the threat of nuclear war from Russia with regard to Ukraine but also the spread of disease and climate volatility that its invasion has exacerbated.
Wolfsthal adds that the primary tools Western leaders have used to deter Russia – chiefly economic isolation – have not yet materialized to a level Putin takes seriously.
“He has invaded a sovereign country, committed war crimes and is engaged in random bombing of civilians, and yet trade with a number of countries in Europe and elsewhere has increased,” he says. “If there is a major effort to use economic threats to deter Putin’s possible use of nuclear weapons, we have not seen it, and it has not been visibly communicated to Russia as far as our research indicates.”
Others believe that Putin’s most ferocious nuclear rhetoric mostly exposes the extent to which the embattled Russian leader feels desperate for new sources of leverage. They suggest that leverage is what he was seeking this week with a sudden announcement that he would suspend Russia’s involvement in the New START treaty, the last nuclear arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia.
“What this is, is a message,” says John Erath, a former top National Security Council official for European affairs, now senior policy director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “For the last six months and more, Russia’s strategy has been to seek leverage on the West to end its support to Ukraine and suspend the hostilities on terms favorable to Russia.”
“This is another ingredient in that stew,” he adds. “And like much Russian food, it is lacking in nutritional value.”
Erath suggests that Putin thinks he can trade on the promise of resuming Russia’s obligations to the treaty to convince the U.S. to cease its support for Ukraine’s goals in the war and to acknowledge the Russian army’s gains.
“In that sense, the announcement is a big deal symbolically,” Erath says, adding that Secretary of State Antony Blinken was right to call the statement “unfortunate and irresponsible.”
Since Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, Russia’s other sources of influence are rapidly dwindling or, more surprisingly, are now exposed as ineffectual.
European countries that previously relied heavily on flows of Russian energy – particularly natural gas – have defied expectations and survived winter so far without supplies from Moscow. The endemic rot of corruption within its Ministry of Defense has become widely exposed. Its conventional military has suffered a string of embarrassing defeats on the battlefield, including during the beginning of an ongoing offensive that Russia believed would shift momentum in its favor.
The Institute for the Study of War, like several other private intelligence firms, believes Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling serves more as an information operation designed to prevent the U.S. and Ukraine’s partners in Europe from providing additional military aid that could be considered escalatory, such as long-range rockets or sophisticated tanks.
He has had some success, chiefly in Germany’s initial hesitancy to provide Leopard tanks.
A year into the war, some things appear to remain off the table: The U.S. is firmly and vocally opposed to a no-fly zone, which Ukraine has sought since Day One of the invasion to limit Russia’s ability to attack its defenses and its civilian centers from the skies. And while American officials publicly say the course of the war is up to the Ukrainians, they have reportedly bristled at the suggestion that Kyiv would seek to reclaim the Crimean Peninsula, seized by Russia in 2014. Similarly, the U.S. has balked at the possibility of providing weapons that could carry the war into Russia itself.
What Putin also has in his favor is a dramatic reversal in the outlook of some key figures in the Republican Party, who have inexplicably changed their perspective on Russia under the leadership of Trump in recent years. With Moscow once the center of Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” and more recently viewed as an autocratic state seeking to reestablish an empire by force at the cost of newly democratic nations, the party of Trump finds itself with an estimated 97% percent of the Russian army engaged in a ground war and being routed by a foreign army without the loss of a single American life – yet questioning the financial cost of the commitment. What that means in the course of a presidential campaign that prominently features Trump and a host of similar-minded Republicans competing for the base he secured remains to be seen. The 70-year-old Putin, in office since 1999 and frequently referred to as “president for life,” may conclude he has only to wait out Biden’s promises of steadfast support for Ukraine.
But for Putin to follow through on launching a nuclear attack, he would have to believe that doing so would achieve a military objective that outweighs the surefire response of a conventional military response from NATO, as well as the ensured international isolation from what few partners Russia has left – chiefly in China and India, where leaders have warned Putin against nuclear weapons use.
Within Russia, the war is not popular, though polling suggests Putin has not yet lost the faith of the majority of ordinary Russians. Still, reports emerge regularly about the lack of confidence Russian troops have in their leaders up the chain of command – leading some analysts to even speculate whether generals charged with executing nuclear launch orders would comply with their directives.
Using nuclear weapons also wouldn’t achieve Putin’s battlefield aims. Russian military doctrine calls for the use of low-yield nuclear warheads as a last-ditch tactic to punch a hole in enemy lines that mechanized infantry could then exploit.
“The problem is Russian forces are utterly degraded, absolutely shattered,” Lawlor says. She notes the same is true of the Ukrainian military but adds that Russia does not currently have a single deployable division of troops that could carry out that level of operations.
“Then factor in NATO retaliation for violating the nuclear taboo, likely to include conventional missile strikes on Russian headquarters, ammunition depots and storage facilities within Ukraine,” she says. “You’ve just lost the operational advantage you might have gained by using low-yield nuclear weapons – even if you use 10 or 15.”
This scenario, however, exists within Russian offensive operations. Lawlor adds these circumstances could change if Russia feels it is squarely in a defensive position and needs to prevent “all-out disaster.”
“You have to think about the human response to nuclear use,” she says, describing the effect on a Ukrainian soldier who witnesses a rising mushroom cloud several miles away toward the front lines.
“The symbolism is really important in that the Russians may assume it would have a devastating effect on the morale of the surviving Ukrainian forces,” Lawlor says. “At this stage in the war, though, it’s not even under consideration because the Russians are still conducting offensive operations.”
At least some of those who have engaged with Putin directly agree.
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed earlier this month that he had received direct warnings from Putin of nuclear war.
“He threatened me at one point, and he said, ‘Boris, I don’t want to hurt you, but with a missile, it would only take a minute,’ or something like that. Jolly,” the conservative politician told the BBC.
Johnson later explained to Fox News that he believed that what Putin was “trying to do was creep me out … trying to reduce it to a story about a nuclear standoff between Russia and NATO.”
He argued that Putin understands the devastating effect on Russia if it were to launch nuclear weapons.
“You know what? He probably doesn’t even stop the Ukrainians if he did that,” he concluded. “And we would put his economy into such a cryogenic paralysis that Russia wouldn’t come out of it for decades.”
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