After Putin made direct or veiled references on several occasions to the use of nuclear weapons to defend Russia’s security without being taken too seriously, some European observers began to consider that more attention should be given to this possibility. But this thinking comes mainly from Europe, not the United States, where President Biden keeps repeating that the threat is just a Putin bluff, not to be given too much credence.
There is a consensus that the probabilities of the use of nuclear weapons are inversely proportional to the probability of leading to mutually assured destruction. Something that would happen if Russia launched an intercontinental nuclear attack. This scenario is therefore unlikely. The risk increases if, as happened in the 1980s of the last century, a limited nuclear war (with Europe at that time) is fomented, but it seems unlikely that a nuclear exchange over any European country will not end up quickly sliding into a global conflict. However, this situation changes radically if the conflict scenario is reduced to the Ukraine war.
There are two reasons that could favor Russia’s use of nuclear weapons in this war. Firstly, because it is not clear that the tactical use of the nuclear weapon on Ukrainian soil will also have a nuclear response on the part of the West. If Russia were to decide to destroy a small Ukrainian town with a limited nuclear strike, it is not evident that the West would respond in kind, starting an escalation that could lead to mutual global destruction. The problem is that Putin knows this too.
Second, it seems that the Kremlin would be willing to tactically use the nuclear weapon if it became very evident that Russia could lose the war in Ukraine. Russia’s defeat is unacceptable to Putin because it would mean his political death. Therefore, he is very likely to opt for the use of nuclear weapons limited to Ukraine. As the journalist of the newspaper El País, Enric González, says, “it is too dangerous to corner an atomic power and leave it with no other option than the red button”.
Alluding to the possibility that Western military support for the Ukrainian army is so high as to mean a Russian defeat in the current battle in Donbass, Putin mentioned that Russia would respond “bluntly and immediately”. And there is a consensus that he was alluding in a veiled way to the tactical use of the atomic weapon.
Thus, the only real alternative to the use of nuclear weapons is for Russia to obtain a victory in Donbass, or at least an apparent victory, even if in reality it means a stalemate in the war. Unfortunately, such a partial victory will mean a division of Ukrainian territory, with the east of the country in the hands of pro-Russian states and the west under the influence of Western powers.
In this perspective, Washington’s speech that the Russian nuclear threat is a bluff is irresponsible and seems to boost the well-known American game Chicken, in which two cars face each other on the road at high speed to see who will move away first. Washington is powerfully increasing the pressure with massive arms shipments to Ukraine to see if it can defeat Russia, convinced that it will not dare to use tactical nuclear weapons and Moscow threatens to use them if the arms shipments lead to its defeat in Donbass. . Who will get out of the line of fire first?
In any case, the rest of the world cannot stand by and watch the end result of this insane race. Among other reasons, because this would mean the devaluation of the effort made so far by the regions that declared themselves free of nuclear weapons, as is the case of Latin America through the Treaty of Tlatelolco. Efforts must be stepped up to reach a ceasefire as soon as possible. The United Nations’ efforts to achieve it must be strongly supported by countries that reject war.
It is difficult to understand that Washington did not accept Kiev’s request to neutralize Ukrainian airspace for fear of a direct conflagration, and is now willing to equip the Ukrainian army to the teeth to enable it to defeat Russia at the Battle of Donbas. For Moscow, it doesn’t matter whether it loses combat in the air or on the ground, it simply considers that option unacceptable. And as Putin knows that it is not clear that the West will respond to a tactical use of nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil, it seems that the conditions are in place for this to happen.
Of course, the use of atomic weapons would not be without its drawbacks for the Kremlin. First, the tactical use of “small nuclear weapons” would have no less effect than the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, something that would not precisely cover Moscow in glory. And, in this regard, because it would mean recognizing that it has had to resort to the use of nuclear weapons because its conventional military force is much less powerful than it assumed.
In view of this scenario, the only responsible strategy in the West is the so-called dual carriageway. On the one hand, supporting Kiev to prevent the end of the war from leading to the crushing of Ukraine, but at the same time striving to achieve a ceasefire as quickly as possible. In fact, this was the EU’s option during the first month of the conflict, before embracing the prospect of a possible Russian military defeat. However, given that such a scenario is unacceptable to Moscow, the probabilities have begun to grow that the unthinkable could happen in Ukraine’s war scenario.
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