Fear of nuclear exchange has long colored White House thinking on Ukraine.
As Russian troops invaded Ukraine sixteen months ago, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan offered to evacuate Volodymyr Zelensky. The Ukrainian president rebuffed the offer. “I need ammunition, not a ride,” he responded.
Even as Ukrainian forces defied the U.S. intelligence estimate, first blunting and then rolling back the Russian Army, fear of how Russian President Vladimir Putin might react led Washington to restrict assistance that could enable Ukraine to quicken its counterassault and save tens of thousands of lives.
The Biden administration doctored weaponry to prevent long-range use out of fear that Ukraine might strike sites of logistical or military importance in Russia.
The same logic governed the Biden administration’s initial rejection of Ukrainian requests for HIMARS, Abrams tanks and F-16s. Only political and diplomatic pressure convinced Biden to reverse course.
As Ukrainian forces pushed back Russia’s initial invasion and humiliated the Russian army in the skies and on the battlefield, Washington’s fears about how Russia might react grew. If Putin loses or is humiliated, the logic goes, he might lash out with tactical nuclear weapons.
Some, like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger urged compromise in response, even at the expense of allowing Putin to retain Crimea and other Ukrainian territory. The problem with such advice is both that it would reward aggression and, regardless, Putin rejected Ukraine’s very right to exist.
The war is now at the tipping point. First, there was Ukraine’s destruction of the causeway linking Russian-occupied Crimea to Russia proper. Intelligence leaks suggest Ukraine might have been behind the attack on the Nord Stream-2 pipeline. Anti-Putin Russian insurgents later raided the Russian city of Belgorod from Ukraine, and Ukrainian Special Forces were likely responsible for the brazen drone attack on the Kremlin.
Putin is desperate and erratic. The destruction of the Kakhovka dam is a warning that Putin abides by no redlines. With the Ukrainian counter-offensive underway, the threat that Russia might use tactical nuclear weapons is increasingly a likelihood. It would be unfair to blame Kyiv. There is no moral equivalence. Russia invaded Ukraine; not the other way around. So long as Ukraine was on the verge of victory, Putin would arrive at this point of nuclear retaliation. To self-deter and hand Russia a victory would be immoral and unwise. For Putin, an adversary’s fear is as addictive as cocaine. Should he sense White House fear might bring triumph, he would take another snort: his provocations would only increase, not only against Ukraine but also against Moldova and the Baltic States.
For Biden, the question is now two-fold: How to deter Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons and how to respond should he use them. The same strategy answers both.
If nuclear weapons use changes the war’s momentum, leads a fearful West to impose partition, or even hands Putin a complete victory, the long-term consequence for international security would be dire. To confirm any gain from using tactical nuclear weapons would irreparably shred the eight-decade stigma surrounding nuclear weapons use. Russia might be tempted to use such weapons again. So too would dozens of second tier powers that would seek to acquire tactical nuclear weapons to use against their rivals. International instability would increase to levels not seen since the run-up to World War II.
How Biden Can Stop Russia from Using Nukes in Ukraine
What Biden should instead do is tell Russia clearly that any use of nuclear weapons of any size against Ukraine will lead to U.S. provision of the same types of nuclear weapons to Ukraine without any controls on where and how Ukraine might use them. The non-proliferation mafia might howl with outrage, but the West must gear its nuclear policy toward reality, not wishful thinking or an empty façade of a treaty regimen by which revisionist states no longer abide.
Just as during the Cold War, the best way to deter nuclear weapons use is to demonstrate a willingness to use them.
In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the United States and other countries guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for its forfeit of nuclear weapons. Twenty years later when Russian forces marched into Crimea, President Obama showed U.S. commitments to be empty and our words to be without meaning.
It is time to reverse that damage. The simple fact is this: United States maintains nuclear weapons because they are an effective deterrent against other nuclear states. Ukraine should have the same right.
About the Author
Now a 19FortyFive 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).