The Guardian view on Putin’s nuclear threats: Russia is losing in Ukraine

As the war in Ukraine and its consequences weaken Russia’s conventional military, Vladimir Putin’s government has resorted to nuclear threats designed to project strength. Mr Putin wants to intimidate his opponents. But his strategy is failing. Instead of Ukraine’s allies backing down, they are stepping up their support. The US Congress this week approved $11bn of arms to Ukraine, three times the total military aid Washington has so far given.

The US president, Joe Biden, was right to call out Mr Putin for making “idle comments” about nuclear weapons. It is unthinkable that blunders and miscalculations would take the world to the edge of the nuclear abyss. Yet that is where the world is heading. Whereas the Cuban missile crisis lasted 13 days, Russia’s war is already into its third month. With no clear end in sight, more deadly battles look inevitable – increasing the chances of mistakes.

Mr Putin could be using nuclear rhetoric to give the appearance of being unstable. His war is illegal and immoral. His justification for starting the invasion was macabre and ludicrous. However, this may be an act. Russia’s president could be trying to back coercive diplomacy with the “madman theory” of threatening excessive force, which includes the spectre of nuclear weapons. However disagreeable this might seem, a rational Mr Putin, with 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads, is preferable to an irrational one.

The concentration of such power in one man’s hands ought to make the world sit up. Russia has few mechanisms to prevent Mr Putin resorting to nuclear weapons if he decided he had nothing to lose. In the Guardian last month, Christopher S Chivvis at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote that in war game scenarios he had taken part in, which considered what would happen if Russia hit Ukraine with nuclear weapons, the only way of de-escalation was when “clear political off-ramps and lines of communication between Moscow and Washington have remained open. In all the other games, the world is basically destroyed.”

That is why the US president has been careful not to provide Russia with a reason to go nuclear. Mr Biden made it clear that the US would not place boots on the ground, establish a no-fly zone or conduct intercontinental ballistic missile tests. What Mr Biden has shown is that conventional anti-tank and anti-aircraft technologies have reached a new level of capability, one which has rendered conventional invading ground forces – unless overwhelmingly massed – almost obsolete. Mr Biden has been shrewder than more gung-ho Democrats or their ideological soulmates found in Boris Johnson’s government.

Faced with costly military setbacks, Mr Putin has refocused Russia on tightening its hold in Ukraine’s east and south. The fighting might get worse before it gets better. Pursuing Kyiv’s objectives through relatively limited means has worked, though Russia has been able to target civilians indiscriminately. Ukrainians have every right to define their war aims. So do their Nato allies. One of their goals is not to increase the chances that the war becomes a potentially nuclear conflict. Western leaders should therefore reject provocative and escalatory requests out of hand. Nothing else could be more dangerous.

Comments are closed.