As NATO meets in Brussels, the alliance remains paralyzed. The fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin would use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine continues to prevent the United States and NATO from acting on the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine. The Washington Examiner summarized the worry as “Allies see risk that Putin thinks he can win a nuclear war against NATO.” The article summarizes NATO’s concern with this quote,
“Nuclear war is impossible to be won. … This is the rule of warfare, that, actually, it’s the last resort,” a senior European official said. “But, unfortunately, Russians actually somehow behave too lightly about it. And that causes the biggest trouble for us.”
While Russia insists that it would only employ nuclear weapons in the event of an “existential threat”, the actions of Mr. Putin in Ukraine, and the setbacks he has suffered as the war has bogged down, could threaten to end his regime. The difficult question for NATO is: Does regime change constitute an “existential threat” to the Russian Federation?
Despite, Mr. Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling as he began what he thought would be an easy takeover of Ukraine, I would argue that his setbacks in this misadventure do not constitute an “existential threat” to his country.
I think it’s vital for the US and NATO to make the message very clear that the liberal democracies of the West do not wish the Russian Federation or the Russian culture to perish. It’s important to get the message to ordinary Russians that the West knows that even if Mr. Putin’s reign ends, Russia will go on.
We want Russia to get back on the path to flourishing as a member of the international community. We need to make it clear that the West does not believe in the isolated spheres of influence that Mr. Putin wants to carve the world into, not because we are the agents of an evil hegemony, but because we do not want Russia to become a hermit kingdom with its people returning to the levels of poverty that happened when the Soviet Union catastrophically collapsed.
I think it’s also important to get the message to Russians that, given the damage Mr. Putin has inflicted on his own nation militarily and economically, realistically, his country will only get back to where it should be if Mr. Putin passes the baton to someone new.
What Vladimir Putin has proven to the world is that he is an irresponsible caretaker of a nuclear arsenal.
He abused his possession of nuclear weapons threatening NATO and the United States, who are also nuclear powers, to bluff the West into meekly standing by while he invaded Ukraine. This is not the mark of a thoughtful leader.
The liberal democracies of the West heard his bluster loud and clear. The US and NATO have gone to great effort to not provoke Mr. Putin because his rhetoric was that of a mad man. But it did not deter the West from supporting Ukraine in resisting the Russian invasion. Instead, it galvanized resolve because guess what? The West doesn’t like to be bullied. Now there are debilitating sanctions that are isolating Russia from its most lucrative trading partners.
We should be making it clear that we want the sanctions to end and the world to mend this terrible rift. But we should also make it clear that the longer Mr. Putin continues his course of destruction, the more difficult it will be for the world to undo the adaptations it is now making to bypass his country.
Just under a month ago, the war in Ukraine could have been avoided by all sides calming down and agreeing to forego, or at least postpone, Ukraine’s consideration for entry into the NATO alliance. This could have waited a decade. A diplomatic compromise would have allowed the continuation of the global economy as the world was. Cooler heads did not prevail and now the world must deal with the fact that not even the offer to pull back from joining NATO by Ukraine is enough for Russia to enter into real negotiations to end the conflict.
While the Russian army may still grind the Ukrainians down ever so slowly, the cost to the Russian Federation militarily and economically makes little sense, at least in western terms. Mr. Putin’s media is selling his vision of a 21st-century version of another Great Patriotic War to his people. So far, it’s selling to the older generation. Younger Russians aren’t so sure. Middle-class Russians want to leave. Oligarchs want their assets back. A month in, indications are beginning to show that the strain within Russia is growing.
At the core of the war, Ukraine and Russia may yet come to terms to end the direct conflict between them. But Mr. Putin’s problems won’t end when he tells his troops to cease fire in Ukraine. He will then have to negotiate with what he calls the “Empire of Lies” to lift sanctions.
And I think the price the West should demand is that he needs to dismantle his tactical nuclear arsenal. The west should demand three things.
First, Russia must pledge to abandon the ridiculous doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate” that contemplates the first use of a tactical nuclear weapon as an instrument of terror. Yes, that is what the US did to Japan. That does not mean it’s ok for anyone to ever do it again. Just as Russia demands Ukraine not join NATO, the West should demand that Russia should forever reject first-use strategies such as “escalate to de-escalate.” We should demand that Russia explicitly join the US and NATO in signing on to a no-first-use policy.
Second, Russia should unilaterally adopt a parity of warheads policy for its tactical nuclear arsenal in order to get sanctions lifted. They should reduce the number of tactical nuclear weapons in the European theater to levels that are at parity with the tactical warheads the US and NATO have in the same region. I believe that, as part of dropping sanctions, the West should also demand that Russia limit the number of tactical nuclear weapons it keeps in the Eastern military district to numbers that are in parity with Chinese weapons. There’s no reason not to use sanctions leverage to comprehensively reduce global nuclear escalation risk everywhere.
Third, Russia should agree to let the West develop and deploy a shield system that can both intercept and attack ballistic, cruise, hypersonic missile threats as well as aircraft and artillery delivered tactical nuclear weapons.
The US and NATO should proceed to work on this system while economic sanctions are in place. Russia has already proven it abuses the nuclear card. As Mr. Putin put it, “That line has been crossed.”
As part of the West shield mission, we should announce that when deployed, we intend to consider the use of any nuclear weapon against any target to be a crime against humanity that needs to be protected against; and any such weapon, if fired, will be a legitimate target if it comes within range of this shield.
We should also announce that the US and NATO intend to share this defense shield technology with countries around the world. Our objective is to make it too risky for any aggressor to believe that their attack could succeed unchallenged.
One last note: The US has neglected its tactical nuclear arsenal for too long. To put it bluntly, the hole we created in our arsenal created a window of power projection vulnerability someone like Mr. Putin would be tempted to exploit. This investment mistake created a force structure imbalance severely favoring the Russian posture credibility for use as a tool of intimidation. It was a national interest error for the US to let this imbalance happen, and one of the reasons why fear of the Russian tactical nuclear weapons is such a problem for the NATO summit today.