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NATO and Nuclear Weapons: What Ukraine Needs to Ensure Russia Never Invades Again

M1 Abrams

A M1 Abrams from 5th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, fires a round during a Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise (CALFEX) at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, Mar 26, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Hubert D. Delany III / 22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

Ensuring “Never Again” for Ukraine: President Volodymyr Zelensky has done more to defend the liberal order and defeat fascism than any leader since British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in World War II. Ukrainian men, women, and children paid a high price. Unlike so many in the West who are relatively distant from conflict and existential threat, they understand the cost of freedom. While the Biden administration has rallied to support the Ukrainians in their hours of need, they did so only belatedly, giving substance to Churchill’s quip that the Americans always do the right thing but only after trying everything else first.

Ukrainians will triumph, even if Russian President Vladimir Putin, in desperation, lashes out with tactical nuclear weapons. In order to short-circuit this possibility, many Western diplomats may urge compromise: Let Russia keep the Crimea or portions of the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics carved out of Ukrainian territory during Russia’s prior aggression. This would be a mistake. It would send the message that aggression has little cost and would encourage future aggressors to engage in the same sort of salami-slicing tactics that China uses in the South China Sea, Azerbaijan now employs in the Caucasus, and Turkey embraces along its borders and in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Seas.

The threat of nuclear weapons use is real. Putin is a product of the Soviet Union. It is important to understand his influences: After he took the helm of Poland’s defense ministry, intellectual and scholar Radek Sikorski declassified Soviet scenarios involving nuclear weapons use in a land war in Europe. They showed, much to Moscow’s embarrassment, that Soviet leaders were willing to sacrifice Poles to win and occupy poisoned territory. Putin likely sees Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Donetsk and Luhansk as fodder to march into radioactive territory should he first use small-yield nuclear weapons.

The correct Western response to such a scenario is not to surrender to fear; it is to deter, both now and in the future. The fact that the Soviet Union and its successor Russia have repeatedly victimized Ukrainians only adds to the obligation. Soviet leaders purposely starved four million Ukrainians in the Holodomor, a genocide that predated the Holocaust.  That George H.W. Bush subsequently sought to condemn Ukrainians to a marriage with their tormenters remain a black mark on the late president’s legacy.

Nor can the West ignore the fact that, prior to the current war, Russia seized large chunks of Ukrainian territory. That Putin did so despite earlier agreements gives reason for any future Kyiv government to fear the word of not only Moscow but Washington as well.

Post-war Ukraine will require new architecture so that Kyiv need never put its security in the good faith of neighbors and partners whose word is fleeting.

Whereas Ukraine was not a serious candidate before for NATO membership, the accusations of American isolationists and Russian apologists notwithstanding, it should become one now and in an expedited fashion. Ukraine already would bring more to the table than many other NATO members do and, indeed, NATO could use some of the esprit de corps that Ukrainians have demonstrated. In drills and staff colleges, NATO forces could certainly use the instruction of battle-seasoned Ukrainian officers. Staff rides through Ukrainian battles should also become requisite to the instruction of future NATO officers from Calgary to Kharkiv and from Oslo to Odessa. The Pentagon should relocate Brigade Combat Teams not only to Poland and Romania, but to Ukraine as well.

NATO membership, however, will not be enough to deter future Russian attacks. After all, Putin or his successors may seek to paralyze the security alliance from within by leveraging its ties (and perhaps via outright bribery) to states like Turkey, Montenegro, and Croatia.

Rather, it is also time to allow Ukrainians empower themselves rather than be supplicants to Western goodwill. This will mean a reconsideration of Ukraine’s own nuclear posture. At the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States encouraged Ukraine, alongside Belarus and Kazakhstan, to give up its legacy nuclear weapons. As Russia oppositionist and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov noted, this empowered Russia relative to other former Soviet states and shows the emptiness of Kremlin grievances that the West humiliated Russia upon the Soviet collapse.

Putin himself shredded the post-Cold War understanding that Russia would stand alone atop the many former Soviet States but not threaten them. He violated Russia’s commitments to Ukraine’s sovereignty in the Budapest Memorandum. The West should not allow Moscow to play it for fools again. The goal of the West should be to restore Ukraine’s nuclear deterrence and place it under Ukrainian control. This would not recklessly risk nuclear war; rather the absence of such deterrence on Ukraine’s part is the reason why the threat of Russian nuclear weapons use has become such a great concern.

StarStreak Ukraine

StarStreak MANPAD headed to Ukraine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

It is time to gear strategy to the world in which we live rather than whose parameters are shaped by wishful-thinking or fear. After a Soviet-led genocide and two Russian wars of aggression in Ukraine, it is time to give meaning to the phrase “never again,” even if that comes at the expense of decades of non-proliferation practice.

Expert Biography: Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. cobo

    September 14, 2022 at 1:40 pm

    I agree with much of your article Dr. Rubin. However, I disagree with your conclusion. “Never again” should no longer be left to, “deterrence.” Deterrence only benefits the defense industries. It does not deter war.

    With the forward deployed military outposts of Kaliningrad, Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, etc., Russia will regroup, learn lessons and seek to dominate its neighbors again, using the same excuses again for liberating its people.

    The Poles are building their arsenals and entering deals where they will rebuild their own defense industries. There is talk of the Eastern Europeans forming their own alliance to complement NATO. Those are good ideas, but it seems clear that what is required is: “a collapse of the Russian Federation and its replacement by a multiplicity of non-Russian states.”

    That means that the war does not end in Ukraine. Despite the constant Russian threats to use nuclear weapons. In today’s world, The US and its allies need to fight in nuclear environments and the leadership needs to keep a steely eye on nuclear rivals. Leaving the choice to our enemies to lose the war or lose their entire civilization.

  2. 403Forbidden

    September 14, 2022 at 3:07 pm

    West puts up totally false narrative Russia ‘invaded’ Ukraine on a lark. Goebbellian story, goebbellian narrative.

    Russia at end 2021 demanded Kyiv & NATO NOT to cross red line but this was met with sneers and jeers. Stoltenberg said Russia HAS NO RIGHT to decide who could join his fascist alliance.

    US and western agents were helping neo-nazi battalions to attack ethnic Russians in Donbass via ‘trench warfare’ and providing intelligence much like their similar DIRTY work in Syria.

    But west described it as harmless.Russia wasn’t provoked.

    Biden branded Putin as killer despite Biden himself voting for war on Iraq in oct 2002 when Iraqi people had no quarrel with US. More than a million Iraqis died in invasion not counting bombings by al-qaeda who entered Iraq post-US invasion. Who’s the real killer.

    US wants a full court press against its rivals, in particular Russia, and this is Numero uno reason why Ukraine proxy war has come about.

    The US is drunk with heady dreams of utter world domination and complete mastery of humankind and must be stopped.

    The only way to stop US (+ minions) is to arm the other camp to the teeth with nukes, ESPECIALLY FOBS nukes and also ultra long-range rockets like SS-30. HELL SHOULD AWAIT the modern Genghis.

  3. pagar

    September 14, 2022 at 4:14 pm

    Russia did exactly right thing in taking on the fascist forces in ukraine.

    Russia simply cannot afford to wait until washington plants its hypersonic arsenal at ukro-russo border, cuz by then it would be game over for the russians.

    US has fallen behind in the hyper race but is rapidly making up lost ground, no doubt aided by CIA highly successful top level deep espionage at russia’s hyper proving base at plesetsk. And also defection of a PRC hyper pioneer expert to UK engineered by both CIA & MI5.

    Recall 1962 cuban crisis for which west wholly blamed soviet union. It came about due to DoD secretly erecting nuke missiles in turkey in 1961 with the new pgm-19 jupiter missiles. Moscow retaliated by sending r-12 dvina missiles to havana.

    US media crowed that soviets blinked in face of US threat but hid the fact that US had agreed to pull out its missiles in turkey in return for moscow removing missiles from cuba.

    Today, US has every indication of repeating 1961 shenanigan by deploying hyperdonic missiles to ukraine. Thus moscow had no choice but to hit the fascists noe, in 2022, before they get their grubby hands on dirty evil american hypersonic rockets.

    Russia made the right call and now to finish the job, explode tac nukes over kyiv and lviv !!! !!! HIT THE FASCISTS RIGHT IN THE JAW. HIT THEM HARD. SEND THEM TO HELL.

  4. abraham lincoln

    September 14, 2022 at 5:36 pm

    Well, Mr. Rubin, let’s not go nuts now.

  5. Tomb

    September 14, 2022 at 6:52 pm

    Mr Rubin, are you arguing that Ukraine be given nuclear weapons ?
    From whom, the usa ?
    Then Japan and Australia get them to confront china ?
    On and on….
    Do not agree.

  6. Gary Jacobs

    September 14, 2022 at 7:39 pm

    Pagar + 404 forbidden.

    You trolls are still spewing the same Putin talking points. There was no threat from NATO. Ukraine was refused Western weapons repeatedly until after Russia invaded in 2022. And even then, only once the extent of Russian atrocities became clear, and their intent to wipe out Ukrainian identity and state all together did the West start providing HIMARS among others. And even then US has so far not given longer range ATACMS, and refused permission to use US weapons to target Russian territory.

    I find it ironic that now there is finally people on Russian TV willing to call out the madness that is this invasion and the absurdity of trying to wipe out Ukraine:

    “Are We The Baddies?” moment on Russian TV: one pundit—responding to his genocidal colleagues, who assert that Ukrainian nationality and language do not exist—suddenly realizes he is in the company of actual [Russian] Nazis and says, “This is clear cut nationalism.”
    https://twitter.com/i/status/1569870269191229440

    You claiming ‘Russian’ red lines blah blah… and ignoring centuries of Russian imperialism invading and oppression every country around Russia is absurd. The audience gullible enough to believe that BS is shrinking by the day, and even faster with the exposure of every Russian torture chamber in Ukraine.

    All your supposedly mighty army has left is to lash at like spoiled children not getting your way and to destroy civilian power plants and dams. Because if you Russians cant have Ukraine, then no one should.

    You should grow out of that bully BS and rejoin the rest of the world so we can build a better 21st century. Right now you are are simply holding back the rest of humanity. It’s almost sad really. Almost.

  7. Yrral

    September 14, 2022 at 7:50 pm

    Is NATO gonna welcome a Nazi,into their organization,that what will happen,if Sweden present government join NATO,UN today told Putin ,he could still kill and maim Ukrainian,if he put his Ammonia on the market to stop hunger, everybody but Ukrainain know the world do not care about their suffering,as long as their is ruble,to be made Google Sweden Election Google UN Ammonia

  8. pagar

    September 14, 2022 at 9:44 pm

    Russia must now fully prepare for NUCLEAR CONFRONTATION with the devilishly evil neo-nazi forces and their backers.

    First thing to do is get all diplomats from fascist nations home and close all their diplomatic missions.

    Second, get the heck out of the ISS. This station will soon burn up anyway, why allow it to continue operations.

    Third, share all vital nuclear weaponry with friendly nations like Iran and north Korea. Make an offer to new Delhi that it cannot refuse – have access to hypersonic technology in exchange for political backing.

    However, it’s strange that Moscow currently adopts a lackadaisical attitude toward the continued existence of neo-fascism in Ukraine. WHAT’S UP !!! !!! ? Still very early days ?

  9. Jacksonian Libertarian

    September 14, 2022 at 11:23 pm

    Well said, and on point.

    Europe has been a “bottle filled with scorpions” forever, and the Ukrainians have suffered enough at the hands of the Russians. Self-defense should be the right of any Sovereign nation, and enforcing this right with Treasure rather than blood, is a Cheap price for the 1st World to pay.

    The message it sends to the ambitions of other authoritarian states is priceless. The Russians were supposed to be tough, but the 800lb gorilla was revealed as just a monkey. The same thing will happen if the CCP monkeys attack Taiwan. Only unlike poorest in Europe Ukraine, affluent high tech Taiwan’s smart weapons will rule the China seas, and make 1st World help superfluous.

    After 6 months in Ukraine, the Russian armed forces will take a generation to recover. Watching the Chinese get put down the same way would be Glorious. Chinese Navies have a tradition of sinking in a storm.

  10. MortenHJ

    September 15, 2022 at 3:28 am

    Ukraine should be offered NATO membership as soon as this war is over.

    It is the only way to avoid later ivasions from Russia.

    Ukraine’s army is already “NATOified”.

    Including Ukraine in NATO wil be a small cost to the west compared to new endless wars with Russia.

  11. MrSatyre

    September 15, 2022 at 7:31 am

    @cobo “…Russia will regroup, learn lessons…”

    I wonder. Russia has had decades to learn how to fight modern wars through their own experiences in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Georgia, to say nothing of observation of Western alliances in Afghanistan and Iraq. There has been no evidence so far in Ukraine that they have learned anything. Or, if they have learned anything, their entire military structure is not conducive to implementing changes.

  12. Gary Jacobs

    September 15, 2022 at 9:58 am

    Urral + Paga – Hahaha,

    I see you have doubled and tripled down on your silly failed talking points. Claiming Ukraine is run by NAzis, when in fact the country is led by a Jew who had family die in the Holocaust, and %70 of Ukrainians voted for him. He now has %90 support.

    Meanwhile, Russia has actual Nazis fighting on its side in Ukraine:

    “Along with members of the Russian Imperial Movement, a white supremacist group that was designated a “global terrorist” organization by the United States two years ago, Rusich is one of several right-wing groups that are actively fighting in Ukraine, in conjunction with Russia’s regular armed forces or allied separatist units.

    According to a confidential report by Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, which was obtained by Der Spiegel and excerpted on May 22, numerous Russian right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis are fighting in Ukraine.”
    https://www.rferl.org/a/russian-neo-nazis-fighting-ukraine/31871760.html

    You two really should stop projecting your own problems onto others and get your house in order. Back off the nuclear bluster BS, accept that Ukraine wants to be its own country, and you should join the rest of humanity in the 21st century instead of living in a delusional version of your imperial past.

  13. Alex was killed in an airstrike

    September 15, 2022 at 10:31 am

    I agree 100%. Two things:

    The idiot pootin trolls calling a Jewish leader a nazi still are hilarious. You sound more stupid by the day. Gonna be troll hunting season soon. Be ready.

    Second, we don’t need to put US tactical weapons in Ukraine. We can, and should however, welcome them into the alliance, and remind the next leader after pootin is gone that article 5 applies: if they so much as sneezes sideways, there’s going to be a large fire in Moscow.

    That is the one and only way you deal with a russian. Force and threat of destruction.

  14. Yrral

    September 15, 2022 at 10:55 am

    Ukraine is being systematic been dismembered by Russia,40 percent unemployment,30percent inflation,4billion dollar a month budget shortfall and they still winning Google Ukrinform

  15. Jim

    September 15, 2022 at 11:17 am

    Gary, you have repeatedly bristled at the descriptive characterization, “neocon.”

    I have read your comments… and responded to some of them.

    Gary wrote, “There was no threat from NATO.”

    Gee, constantly expanding NATO up to the border with Russia over the course of thirty odd years (after giving verbal assurances that we would not do so).

    Gary Jacobs, given the constant tone of your comments, you are a Neoconservative.

    Flat out warmonger, you and your ilk need to be stopped before you idiots blow up the world in multiple mushroom clouds because of some neocon scheme for world domination.

    (Although, I got a hand it to cobo, he is the poster child for Neoconservatism.)

    Your views are not just misguided, they are dangerous.

    You just want to make a buck off European suffering… disgusting.

    Go to the beach & relax… Americans don’t need to listen to such twaddle.

    And, please, don’t whine & cry when somebody calls you out for being the neocon you are.

    Nothing worse than a whiny neocon…

  16. cobo

    September 15, 2022 at 12:18 pm

    MrSatyre:
    “Or, if they have learned anything, their entire military structure is not conducive to implementing changes.”

    This discussion is underway on several blogs. The way I think about it is that the Soviet military and intelligence bureaucracies are still in place, so the old thinking still rules the actions of their institutions and dominates the mindset of the country. More than getting Putin out of office, this entire political/military structure has to be defeated and destroyed. There is nothing wrong with the Russian people, but their authoritarian overlords are NATOs enemies.

  17. cobo

    September 15, 2022 at 12:31 pm

    Jim:
    “(Although, I got a hand it to cobo, he is the poster child for Neoconservatism.)”

    Thank you for that. That gives me cred across party lines.

  18. Roger Bacon

    September 15, 2022 at 1:22 pm

    No nukes, no NATO membership. Ukraine doesn’t need anything to deter future Russian aggression. They’ve shown quite clearly how expensive they can make any Russian intervention into their country.

  19. Yrral

    September 15, 2022 at 2:43 pm

    Gary,if were literate, Sweden elected a government sympathetic

  20. Jon

    September 15, 2022 at 2:53 pm

    This is insane.

  21. Gary Jacobs

    September 15, 2022 at 9:04 pm

    Jim,

    LoL, you are still pretending to know what you are talking about… and you still dont. A short list, by no means exhaustive, of why there was no threat from NATO to Russia:

    -The US pulled the last of it’s tanks out of Europe in 2013.

    -And had agreed to several conditions for the Baltics and other Eastern EU countries joining NATO as limiting NATO presence there in order to not antagonize Russia.

    -Barack Obama changed Bush’s plan for missile defense to use much smaller SM3 instead of GBI in part to appease Russia because Russia thought they could supposedly be easily swapped out for offensive nukes.

    -In the 2012 POTUS debate, Romney said Russia was a threat, and Obama mocked him with ‘the 1980s called, and they want their foreign policy back’. Obama won that election, and was all in on a ‘reset with Russia’…as well as the ‘pivot to Asia’ to focus on China.

    About a year after the last US tanks were out of Europe, Putin invaded Crimea and the Donbas in 2014…and NATO basically did nothing. Later on, There was some training, and provision of small arms such as Javelin anti tank missiles to Ukraine. Even those were forced to be stored in Western Ukraine far from the front line.

    The reality is that when the US leaves a security void, tyrants like Putin and Russia step into fill it. It doesnt take a ‘warmonger’ to understand that.

    Bottom line: Jim, you using neocon as a pejorative and calling me a war monger when you dont really know much about the situation at all is rather silly. I am basically PhD level at this, and My family was forced from Lithuania and Russia in the early 20th century by the Russian Pogroms. I have intimate knowledge of Russia’s centuries long history of tyranny against all its neighbors. I dont pretend to be unbiased about it, but I do have a depth of knowledge that you will never come close to.

    I could go on for days like this, but for now I digress.

  22. Steven

    September 15, 2022 at 10:14 pm

    Hear, hear! Gary Jacobs!

  23. Jim

    September 16, 2022 at 11:09 am

    Gary, I apologize for suggesting you personally profited. I was wrong and I’m sorry.

    It’s the results of the Ukraine policy that is making Europe suffer energy shortages and inflation.

    It’s the policy I oppose, not individuals.

    We need vigorous, full discussion & debate as Americans for an informed democracy. In that spirit, I respect your comments, even if I disagree.

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