The unthinkable

With the Ukraine war going badly for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, unthinkable nuclearized war is now chillingly thinkable.

Far removed as we are from the war, we nonetheless have to admit we can’t be indifferent to the instantaneous catastrophe of a nuclear holocaust.

Sure, in this our little anthill of this world, we can imagine everything won’t collapse all at once even if Mr. Putin makes good his threats to use battlefield nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

We can deceive ourselves our anthill will remain almost peaceful, exuding confidence our universe will go on as usual even as other anthills in the world collapse.

Still, with a Ukrainian counter-offensive in the eastern Kharkiv region this month sending exhausted Russian troops scampering back to their border, Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling gives us the chills.

If for some time we paid no mind to Mr. Putin’s nuclear threats, the past few weeks somehow feel different.

“Whoever tries to impede us, let alone create threats for our country and its people, must know that the Russian response will be immediate and lead to the consequences you have never seen in history,” Putin declared in February, the first of many threats of a nuclear strike.

But what happens if Putin does go nuclear once he sees the war is turning decisively in Ukraine’s favor?

It’s a perilous moment.

“The danger would be greatest if the war were to turn decisively in Ukraine’s favor. That is the only situation in which the Russians’ incentive to take that awesome risk would be plausible, in an attempt to prevent defeat by shocking Ukraine and its NATO supporters into standing down,” warns war scholar Richard K. Betts in a Foreign Affairs magazine article.

To prevent defeat, the Russians “might do this by setting off one or a few tactical nuclear weapons against Ukrainian forces or by triggering a symbolic explosion over an empty area.”

Low-risk though how that scenario might look, if that ever happens Western observers see three scenarios by which the United States can respond after a Russian nuke attack.

One, the US could opt to rhetorically decry a nuclear detonation but do nothing militarily.

Two, it could unleash nuclear weapons of its own.

Three, it could refrain from a nuclear counterattack but enter the war directly with large-scale conventional airstrikes and the mobilization of ground forces.

Unforeseen dangers bedevil each option.

Suffice it to say all three alternatives are “bad because no low-risk options exist for coping with the end of the nuclear taboo.”

Which now brings us to the remaining question: Is Mr. Putin mad enough — or at least plays to the hilt his carefully cultivated madman image — to apply nuclear shock as an acceptable risk for ending the war on Russian political terms?

In this case, his political intents are to persuade American allies to push for a ceasefire and allow negotiations, which inevitably means Ukraine giving up large portions of its territory. An impossible deal.
Still, does Mr. Putin have what it takes to risk nuclear escalation?

“He is not one to walk away from a fight or back down while losing — escalation is his game, and by now he is very, very practiced at it,” observes Russia hand and reporter Susan B. Glasser. “Putin always chooses escalation.”

Mr. Putin’s strategic deliberate escalation, however, is in tune with the current Russian war doctrine of “escalate to deescalate.”

Historically, the Russian doctrine is a throwback to the West’s Cold War “flexible response” concept which relied, in principle, on the option of deliberate escalation — beginning with the limited use of tactical nuclear weapons — as a way to halt any Soviet-led invasion.

At that time, the strategy was adopted since the West thought its conventional forces were inferior to Russian-led forces. Today, the balance of forces is reversed.

Nevertheless, even with the limited use of tactical nuclear weapons, it is still one unthinkable gamble. An apocalyptic nuclear war has no winner.



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