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Sunday, September 25, 2022

In Ukraine-Russia war, Putin nuclear threat can’t rattle Biden

Events unfolding in the Russia-Ukraine war this week represent the most dramatic escalation since the initial invasion in February. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the mobilization of up to 300,000 reservists to active duty, confirmed that four “elections” will be held to annex occupied Ukraine territory and implied that nuclear weapons are on the table — warning, “this is not a bluff.” 

President Joe Biden, in a speech to the United Nations Wednesday, shot back that the West would continue to “stand in solidarity against Russia’s aggression,” which he slammed as having “shamelessly violated” the U.N.’s principles. Biden did not reveal what actions, if any, the U.S. might take, but the stakes for America couldn’t be higher: If the U.S. gets too aggressive in its support for Kyiv, we risk expanding the war in ways that could draw us in — and in a worst-case scenario, trigger a nuclear escalation.

If the U.S. gets too aggressive in its support for Kyiv, we risk expanding the war in ways that could draw us in — and in a worst-case scenario, trigger a nuclear escalation.

There is plenty of justification for condemning Russia’s war against Ukraine as inexcusable and violating the U.N.’s provisions, and it’s understandable that the White House and American public are sympathetic to Ukraine. But however much we may not like the war, at this point it represents no threat to American national security. As Russia’s shocking inability to defeat even the far weaker foe on its border demonstrates, Putin’s conventional forces can’t seriously challenge any other NATO country, much less the United States.

Instead, the real risk Biden has to carefully manage right now is the degree to which the United States continues its military support to Ukraine, as too much help could lead Putin to conclude his country may face an existential threat. 

If Putin feels too threatened, he could genuinely consider resorting to tactical nuclear weapons. Part of Putin’s justification of this war last February was that he feared NATO. He would, therefore, likely only use them if he felt Russia was in danger from NATO itself. Such fears could lead him to use nuclear weapons, most likely a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon limited to Ukrainian territory — with the explicit warning that if NATO came further, he might escalate to strategic nuclear missiles which could reach U.S. territory.

It could be telling that Biden ended his speech by declaring a “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” In a March 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs, Biden wrote that he believed “the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring — and, if necessary, retaliation against — a nuclear attack.” Thus, if Biden’s 2020 statement remains true — and it should — there is no cause to even consider the U.S. using nuclear weapons.

Indeed, it should be the primary concern of the president, regardless of who holds the office, to keep the needs of the United States first and foremost in view when deciding on actions. Up to this point, Biden has mostly threaded that needle and kept U.S. support to Ukraine limited. This Russian escalation, however, will undoubtedly put pressure on him to do more.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy cannot allow part of his territory to be expressly annexed by a neighboring power via sham elections and will need to escalate his own actions in response. These are certain to include new pleas to the West for longer-range rockets, fighter jets and top-of-the-line tanks, personnel carriers and self-propelled artillery systems. 

Zelenskyy has long lobbied for more and heavier weapons from the West, but until now his pleas haven’t produced the outcome he desires. When looking at the sum total of all the heavy weapons provided to Ukraine by the West to date, there are remarkably few of the types that Kyiv would most need to drive Russian troops out of Ukrainian territory and win its war. In fact, the last two tranches of war supplies provided by the U.S. included large amounts of ammunition and supporting equipment, but just four 105mm howitzers, the smallest artillery pieces in the U.S. inventory.

Missing from this cumulative Western total were any modern weapons of the type that would be necessary to launch a truly large-scale offensive. To date, I have seen no evidence that a Western nation has even offered, much less provided, weapons such as the U.S. M1A2 tank, M2A3 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, M109 Paladin self-propelled howitzers or modern fighter planes and air defense systems such as the Patriot Missile Defense systems. The reason: The costs are enormous and surrendering sufficient quantities of each would weaken the defensive capacity of any Western nation that provided them.

Even the United States is not immune from this dynamic. The Pentagon admitted the U.S. had given so many 155mm artillery shells to Ukraine — almost 1 million — that U.S stocks were “uncomfortably low,” putting at risk our ability to defend our own country if we had to fight an unexpected conflict. 

It’s logical that the U.S. has been reluctant to do more, and Putin’s new moves shouldn’t change that. This is especially true given Russia’s call-up won’t be able to produce new combat formations for some four to six months at the absolute minimum. 

It will take many weeks for Russia to identify the 300,000 reservists and then transport them to training facilities (which themselves have to be prepared with equipment, clothing, food and instructors to handle such major numbers). The troops must then be given refresher training, formed into new units and equipped with sufficient combat gear before being ready for deployment.

Though Zelenskyy will no doubt try to use his advantage in the meantime, the expected fall rains should keep his window small. And once Putin has these new troops, he will be in a much better position to overwhelm Ukrainian positions, augmenting his already large advantage in firepower with mass. That makes it all the more important for Biden to stay resolved to keep the U.S. footprint in the war small.

Biden’s speech before the U.N. on Wednesday reflected our country’s revulsion at the war raging in Ukraine but was careful to avoid getting us more deeply involved in ways that could eventually get American troops involved in the war. American national security is not presently at risk from the war between Kyiv and Moscow, and Biden must keep it that way.

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