McManus: Putin’s nuclear threat on Ukraine may not be bluff

After weeks of setbacks, Russia’s army is still losing ground on the battlefields of Ukraine.

Characteristically, President Vladimir Putin’s response has been to escalate on other fronts.

Putin expanded military service, announced the call-up of 300,000 reservists and prompted an exodus of Russian men to neighboring countries.

On Friday, he formally announced Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian provinces, making them – rhetorically at least – Russian territory that he can never negotiate away.

Most chillingly, Putin again threatened that he was ready to use nuclear weapons if Ukrainian troops attempted to retake those provinces.

“In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country … we will of course use all the weapons systems at our disposal,” he said. “It’s not a bluff.”

In this regard, Putin could be telling the truth.

“This is not a bluff,” Fiona Hill, who served on the National Security Council staff under President Trump, told me. “He’s losing on the battlefield, so he’s trying to intimidate Ukraine and the West into surrendering.”

“If Putin threatens to lose the war, he will likely use nuclear weapons before he is defeated,” warned Atlantic Council’s Matthew Kroenig, a former Pentagon strategist. “This is probably the closest we’ve come to nuclear usage since at least the 1980s.”

The weapons Putin wields are not the massive, long-range missiles aimed at the United States in the Cold War’s balance of terror. The destinations wouldn’t be New York or Washington; this type of strike would provoke an immediate US nuclear response.

Instead, he threatens to use some of the estimated 2,000 “tactical nuclear weapons” that Russia has stockpiled for use on the battlefield – smaller warheads but potentially devastating. Some of these “low-yield” nuclear weapons are as powerful as the bomb the United States dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945, killing at least 70,000 people. Some are bigger.

Strategists suspect Putin is considering several options: He could fire a “demonstration shot” over the Black Sea or a remote rural area to get the world’s attention.

More likely, he could target large concentrations of Ukrainian troops in hopes of shifting military dynamics on the ground.

Or he could attack Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, to behead the Ukrainian government – an act that could also kill tens of thousands of civilians.

In any case, his greater goal would probably be the same: to get Ukrainians, Europeans, and Americans to pull out of the war and accept his territorial demands.

The US response to this was direct: It won’t work.

“Any use of nuclear weapons will have disastrous consequences for Russia,” Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, said last week. “The United States will respond decisively… and we will continue to support Ukraine in its efforts to defend its country.”

Sullivan refused to publicly explain what these “catastrophic results” might be.

But other officials have long pointed out an important point: the US response to a Russian nuclear strike in Ukraine need not be nuclear in return.

Conventional attacks on Russian military targets using long-range missiles with precision-guided warheads could have the same military effect with fewer negative side effects.

US or Ukrainian forces could use US-supplied missiles to destroy the Russian bases that launched the nuclear attack, sink the Russian Black Sea Fleet, or both.

A non-nuclear reaction could have several advantages. It would avoid putting the United States and Russia on a Cold War-style ladder of nuclear escalation. It could prevent Putin from portraying his war in Ukraine as a fight against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And it could help the US and its allies rally global opposition to Russia, the only country to break the taboo against using nuclear weapons after World War II.

It could also help the Biden administration uphold two goals that have sometimes conflicted: providing Ukraine with enough weapons to defeat the Russian invasion while attempting to facilitate a direct fight between Russia and NATO avoid it – or at least limit it.

“We are doing everything we can to help Ukrainians defend themselves,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said last week. “We are also determined that this war will not escalate.”

Or, as Biden put it bluntly, “We’re trying to avoid World War III.”

A Russian nuclear strike on Ukraine would inevitably bring World War III a step closer. The challenge for Biden is to convince Putin that such an attack would be a losing deal — and, if deterrence fails, to prevent the ensuing conflict from spiraling out of control. McManus: Putin’s nuclear threat on Ukraine may not be bluff

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