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Wait! A Nuclear War with Russia?

Wait! A Nuclear War with Russia?

Friday, 14 October, 2022 - 11:30
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

President Biden shocked me when he said on October 6 that we are closest to a nuclear war since 1962 and the Cuba Missile Crisis. Biden pointed to President Putin and stated that it is hard to stop an escalation from using smaller, tactical nuclear weapons to total nuclear Armageddon. Excuse me, but this seems more urgent than OPEC reducing oil output by five percent or the private life of the Republican candidate for senate in the state of Georgia, topics that the American media has focused on for a week.

Americans like me remember drills in school where we dived under our classroom desks in case of nuclear attack. (We all would have been incinerated anyway.) We welcomed nuclear arms reductions agreements with the Soviet Union and then Russia. Even though Russia and China could hit us with nuclear weapons, until just the past months no one here worried much about a nuclear war. And then Biden made the possibility real again. My goodness!

Biden is known sometimes to exaggerate or use the wrong words, and the White House and the Pentagon hurried on October 7 to emphasize that there was no intelligence information that Russia was preparing to use nuclear weapons. Neither Russian nor American nuclear missile forces were on special alert, they reassured us. Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan, who is a very calm and careful thinker, said in late September that the Americans take Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons seriously and was sending clear warnings to Moscow in private channels. There is a reality, however, and Biden was speaking about it.

Vladimir Putin is by nature a secretive person. We do not completely understand his red lines. Sometimes in foreign policy there are bluffs mixed with threats. We do not know if Ukraine will recapture all the territories that Russia officially annexed on September 30, and we do not know if Putin would accept a humiliating defeat without using weapons of mass destruction. We do not know if Khrushchev would be removed or face death if Russia suffers a humiliating defeat and if he would use weapons of mass destruction to escape such a fate. We do know that Russia has implicitly defended Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and we also know that Putin doesn’t care about civilian casualties – ask any Syrian or Chechen. Biden distrusts Putin and that is why the American president is worried about the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons.

The Biden administration has not defined in public how it would respond to Putin using weapons of mass destruction. Jake Sullivan stated that Washington would act “decisively” and the results would be “catastrophic” for Russia. It is smart for Washington to be ambiguous in public and clearer in private; too much detail in public will make it more difficult for Russia to retreat from its threats to use “all available means” to protect Russian territory, including the four regions annexed on September 30. Former general and CIA director David Petraeus on October 2 predicted that in response to Russian fire-use of tactical nuclear weapons, the US would lead NATO in attacking and destroying Russian ground forces in Ukraine and the sinking of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea. That sounds to me like an American military plan for action, not yet a final decision that Biden has made in case Putin uses tactical nuclear weapons.

Biden and his White House team recognize the limits of American public interest in Ukraine. An opinion survey of 2,000 Americans in early September by the Eurasia Foundation showed that the top goal of Americans for the Ukraine war is to avoid a direct war with Russia. Defending democratic countries or weakening Russia were lower on Americans’ list of priorities in the opinion survey. Thus, to avoid direct war, the Biden administration could implement tougher sanctions against Russia’s economy and pursue diplomatic efforts to separate China and India further from Russia. It is also possible that the Biden administration might provide more advanced weapons to Ukraine that could even hit targets in Russia. In this case, it would be Ukrainians using the weapons, not Americans or other NATO countries.

Soviet Premier Khrushchev warned Washington in the Cuban Missile Crisis: “If you want us all to meet in Hell, it’s up to you.” Historians studying the crisis now know that each side had intelligence mistakes. For example, the Americans didn’t know about the Soviet tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba at the time. In addition, neither Washington nor Moscow controlled every small military step. The world was closer to nuclear catastrophe than it knew at the time. Now, sixty years later, will Putin do as Khrushchev and accept a humiliating defeat or will he escalate again and again?

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