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Let's talk nuclear war
Vladimir Putin is doing his best to convince the West that unless Ukraine concedes, the nukes will come-a-flyin'. He's bluffing. Here's why.
Now that Elon Musk is tripling down on his non-expert-opinion that we are all surely headed towards nuclear war with Russia if we don’t entirely sell Ukraine out, I think it would be helpful to once again discuss why I think Putin is the last person who wants to use a nuke in this conflict.
I don’t really want to give Musk much more oxygen, since he’s drunk the proverbial Novichok tea and now simply spouts pro-Russian propaganda. But in a nutshell, Musk thinks that Crimea is Russian, that Russians know in their heart that it’s Russian, and that Putin will drop a nuke if Ukraine succeeds in taking it back. (Russia stole Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.) Musk also seems to believe that the Donbas (two eastern regions in Ukraine) are also “Russian,” and he’s voiced concerns about Ukraine using US weapons to take back those regions as well.
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Here’s the thing. None of the “oh my God, we’re gonna get nuked” folks can explain WHY Putin would find it in his, and his country’s, interests to drop even a tactical (mini) nuke on Ukraine. How does it help advance any cause the Russians, or Putin, hold dear? It won’t get Crimea back. It also won’t really help the Russians military anywhere in Ukraine. Ukrainian troops, and their command centers, are spread out. A few Russian nukes won’t change the Ukrainian military’s ability to keep fighting, and take back their land.
Putin’s best bet is using the nukes to scare the Ukrainian public into submission, so that they immediately surrender, lest he nuke again. But does anyone really believe that Ukrainians would respond in this way? It’s more likely that they’ll be even more tickled off, and double down on their insistence to fight until the last Ukrainian.
Then there’s the US and NATO. If Putin drops a nuke we have no option but to respond, forcefully. We cannot afford a modern precedent that countries can nuke other countries with impunity. That’s not only a dangerous message to send China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea, but it also risks spurring even more nuclear proliferation, as non-nuclear states see that you CAN use nukes AND get away with it.
Now, that doesn’t mean dropping a nuke of our own. The Ukrainians likely wouldn’t be thrilled if we dropped a nuke on their own people, and we’re sure not going to nuke Russia. We would, however, respond militarily. Either by blowing up Russian troops in Ukraine — some have suggested taking out the Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, Ukraine. Or by, say, establishing a no fly zone over all of Ukraine, whereby any Russian plane that enters Ukrainian airspace gets shot down, and any radar or surface-to-air missiles that light up inside, or near, Ukraine get immediately destroyed. Putin really doesn’t want a no-fly-zone, as it means the Ukrainian Air Force could now fly with impunity, bombing Russian troops, machinery and military headquarters at will.
Putin could respond to all of this by upping the ante and attacking US forces directly. But why would he do that? He’d be risking further escalation that, at some point, could turn nuclear. Putin knows as well as we do that a nuclear war is unwinnable. While he won’t admit it publicly, Putin is just as concerned as we are about things going nuclear.
And finally, if things don’t go nuclear, a tit-for-tat risks a conventional war with Russia, which America and NATO would surely win. Russia can’t even beat Ukraine. How are they going to beat Poland, and the Baltic states, and Germany, and France, and the UK, and Canada and America? They can’t. And Putin knows it.
So I come back to my initial question: What advantage does Putin see himself gaining if he nukes Ukraine? I can’t see any. And I don’t think he does either. If I were Putin, I’d go all out in trying to convince Ukraine’s supporters in the West and at the UN that I’m just crazy enough to use nukes, unless they get Ukraine to concede. In the end, it’s all about the bluff.