Vladimir Putin and the Nuclear Option
Author: Greg Valliere
July 11, 2023
RUSSIA HAS MORE TROOPS, but many are poorly trained. Ukrainian troops still have a huge advantage in morale, and they have Western tanks and other arms. And Moscow seems in disarray, with the threat of an uprising from the Wagner Group’s Yevgeniy Prigozhin a constant threat.
THUS THE PROSPECT OF A UKRAINIAN VICTORY — not just a land grab in the east and south — is still an electrifying scenario. We understand that Crimea is still a huge obstacle to a truce; a partition, like East/West Germany is an option if both sides are exhausted later this year.
BUT THERE’S ONE ENORMOUS WILD CARD that worries officials in Washington, including President Biden. If Putin sees his forces retreating and his power fading, there’s always the nuclear option — the use of relatively small tactical weapons that could take out several city blocks.
THIS OPTION IS THE MAJOR REASON why Biden is reluctant to bring Ukraine into NATO now, because that would obligate the alliance to defend its new member — and any direct conflict between the U.S. and Russia could lead to World War III, as Biden frequently warns, mostly in private.
OUR FAVORITE COLUMNIST, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, writes about a private briefing with Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, who assessed whether the U.S. and its NATO partners could help Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion without triggering a direct NATO-Russia conflict that might lead to use of nuclear weapons.
IGNATIUS WRITES THAT most Washington hawks think a nuclear threat is far-fetched, but Sullivan said in the briefing that “the threat is real. It’s one we need to take seriously. And it’s one that does evolve with changing conditions on the ground.” He’s referring to a disorderly Russian retreat.
IF A NUCLEAR THREAT LOOMS AS RUSSIANS RETREAT, there would be strong opposition to the nuclear option from China and India. Sullivan said both countries are “trying to indicate to Russia that it would be a terrible move for Russia . . . to actually deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine.”
“BEIJING HAS BEEN REPEATEDLY SURPRISED BY EVENTS,” Sullivan said. “They misjudged the scope of Russia’s initial invasion, they didn’t expect the relatively poor quality and capacity of the Russian forces” and then “they were surprised by the events relative to Prigozhin.” Beijing keeps encountering unexpected events on the “downside.”
OUR BOTTOM LINE HASN’T CHANGED: Russia cannot win this war; Moscow is losing hundreds of troops every week and while they have slowed Kyiv’s advance, the Ukrainians continue to move forward.
WHILE THE FOCUS has been on Putin and Prigozhin, we suspect Volodmyr Zelinsky eventually will become the key player — he will have to consider a deal. Zelinsky may have to accept something less than 100% of his battered country in a settlement with Putin or his successor. Nevertheless, a humiliating defeat looms for Putin — which could make him even more irrational.
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