As Russian forces continue to fail in their bid to bring Ukraine under Russian control, and Finland and Sweden have intensified talks over NATO membership, Vladimir Putin’s propensity to threaten nuclear escalation has increased proportionately. This threat appears to be Putin’s way of ensuring that the United States and NATO keep their distance while his army destroys an independent neighboring country. Although the threat is real, it may be starting to lose its intended effect.
Putin is not shy about getting his message across to his target audience. He was seen with the Russian version of the “nuclear soccerwhile attending the recent funeral of ultra-nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and he was quick to send Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, to to menace the use of nuclear weapons if Sweden and Finland follow through on their aspirations to join NATO.
Escalation nuclear conflict has become a familiar tune, but fortunately Putin has limited this escalation to verbal threats, strategic messages and airspace invasions. At the start of the invasion of Ukraine, he warned the West, “to anyone who would consider interfering from the outside – if you do, you will face greater consequences than you have faced in history.” On February 27, three days after the start of the invasion, Putin raised alert status for its nuclear forces to the “special combat duty regime”, and on March 2, two Russian SU-27 and two SU-24 combat aircraft violated Swedish airspace.
But unless another country invaded Russia, would Putin actually use nuclear weapons? Would he risk everything – the proverbial “fall on his sword” – on Ukraine? Since the 1980s, the United States and other nuclear powers have relied on the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, as French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian implied when he he said“I think Vladimir Putin must also understand that the Atlantic alliance is a nuclear alliance.”
of President Biden comment that “this man [Putin] cannot stay in power,” calling Putin a war criminal and describing his actions as genocide, may have abused Putin. Russia’s failure to capture kyiv and the sinking of its warship Moskva, flagship of its Black Sea Fleet, also increased the pressure on it. He understands the cost of failure.
Factor in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement in Kyiv that the UK would provide additional arms and funding, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who also visited Kyiv, offered Ukraine a fast-track European Union membershipand Sweden and Finland renewed interest to join NATO – and the pressure is mounting, indeed. Then Biden announced that the United States would send $800 million more in the security assistance of Ukraine, including artillery, coastal defense drones, anti-aircraft and anti-tank armored vehicles and Mi-17 helicopters.
The answer was predictable: Russia warned the United States and NATO that there could be “unforeseeable consequences” if they continued to send “sensitive” weapons to Ukraine, then launched a second offensive in eastern Ukraine. The “unforeseeable consequences” apparently translate into weapons of mass destruction. The hypocrisy of this statement, however, underlies Russia’s propaganda effort; just look at the total devastation that Russia inflicted on Ukraine and the war crimes that Putin’s army committed during this unprovoked invasion.
Director of the CIA Guillaume Burne and the Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres expressed concern about what might happen if Putin feels undermined and cornered. But short of allowing him to exercise his will over weaker nations, what are the options?
Yes, the nuclear threat is real, but so is the life of every Ukrainian who fights for the country’s independence and freedom. Putin’s aspirations are not contained within Ukraine’s borders, as he made clear in his July 2021 report manifest. The United States, NATO and the rest of the free world cannot let the threat of nuclear escalation tie their hands. We cannot be forced into a position where we trade sovereign countries for a negotiated peace with Russia or any other nuclear-weapon country.
Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His experience includes periods of service with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command’s Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012 to 2014, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and the Baltic.