A Plea Not To Risk Nuclear War

As the West pours more advanced weapons into Ukraine that have the range to strike, not only inside Russian occupied territory in Ukraine, but inside the internationally recognized territory of Russia itself, the risk of nuclear war looms. Russia’s nuclear deterrence policy states that Russia “hypothetically” could allow the use of nuclear weapons only if there is “aggression using conventional weapons, when the very existence of the state is threatened." Recently, there has been a gathering flurry of articles arguing that the US should take that risk.

Russia’s launching of this horrible war in Ukraine was illegal and insane. The only thing that would be more horrible and more insane would be ending the conventional war with a nuclear war. The only sane answer to this war is to end it in a way that wont end everything else too: through a negotiated settlement.

Some articles, like the one by retired US General Kevin Ryan, argues that the US should accept the risk of nuclear war in Ukraine because it is inevitable; some, like the one by Simon Tisdall, argue that the US should accept the risk because it is unlikely to happen.

The problem with the first argument is that it is potentially suicidal. The problem with the second is that it is based on the belief in the illusory nature of Russia’s red lines. But you never know that a red line is a real red line until you have already crossed it. In the nuclear case, that is too late.

Tisdall argues that, while seemingly "sensible at first glance," Biden’s concern that giving "Zelensky all he needs to win" could be seen by Putin as "escalatory" and as crossing red lines is "way too cautious." Instead, he subscribes to the argument that Putin threatens red lines, "playing on western fears" but that he is really bluffing. But Putin has escalated the war in defense of his red lines. He has, thankfully, escalated with conventional steps, though, not nuclear ones. In response to Western and Ukrainian escalations, Putin adopted a strategy of striking electrical and transportation targets: a strategy he had avoided previously.

Tisdall’s observation and argument also ignores the advice of those who have most thoroughly studied Vladimir Putin. Philip Short, in his biography Putin, says that several lessons learned in childhood have been formative for Putin. One of them was, in a fight, never bluff. In the KGB, Putin was taught not to "reach for a weapon unless you are prepared to use it." Putin says that, as a child, he had learned that "It was the same on the street. [There] relations were clarified with fists. You didn’t get involved unless you were prepared to see it through.” Those who best know Putin know that he is not known to bluff. When the stakes are nuclear weapons, and not fists, that is a psychological profile that it would be wise not to simply cast aside.

Tisdall admires Zelensky’s triumphant lobbying for long range missiles and F-16 fighter-bombers and derides Biden’s "foot-dragging" and "chronic indecision." He celebrates Zelensky for "setting the pace on the ground" with the "incursions into southern Russia" he is undertaking "independently of [his] main backers." Tisdall complains that it is "Ukraine’s president, not America’s risk-averse commander-in-chief or the NATO alliance, is driving the west’s wartime agenda" and that Biden "frets about disaster and loss" while Zelensky "thinks only of winning."

But Zelensky should be leading the wartime agenda. It is Ukraine that is at war with Russia, not the US. Remember all of America’s promises that the decisions are Ukraine’s and "nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine."

But more importantly, the two leaders have different responsibilities and commitments. Zelensky’s is to the people of Ukraine and to the defense of their territory. Biden also has a responsibility to Ukraine. It was the US who told Zelensky in the early days of the war, when a peace seemed possible, not to negotiate a settlement with Russia but to go on fighting for "core principles" because the war "is in many ways bigger than Russia, it’s bigger than Ukraine." So, a key goal of the Biden administration is to stand by Ukraine for as long as it takes to defend their sovereignty and territorial integrity. That is Biden’s promise to Ukraine. But a second key goal is to avoid being drawn into a NATO war with Russia. That is Biden’s promise to Americans. And the avoidance of a nuclear war and a commitment to the US and its security, is the prime responsibility of the President of the United States. As Anatol Lieven, Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told me, for Biden to follow the priorities as suggested by Tisdall would put Americans "in moral danger for the sake of Ukraine" in a way that "would be a violation of his oath of office."

And though Zelensky may be driving the wartime agenda, some Ukrainian generals and US officials may not be quite so celebratory about that role. It was Zelensky who insisted, against their advice, on the fight for Bakhmut that left tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers dead, Ukrainian artillery cannibalized and Bakhmut in the hands of the Russians.

Tisdall argues that Ukraine should have been given everything they need to win, including F-16 fighter bombers, sooner. But though Russia may see the provision of F-16’s as "an unacceptable escalation" – hence, Biden’s long reluctance to provide them – military analyst Daniel Davis has argued that "there is no reason to expect a dramatic change in Kyiv’s fortunes in the war because of them."

Tisdall is also critical of the Biden administration’s rejection of the provision of no-fly zones. But creating and enforcing a no-fly zone necessitates the willingness for the US to shoot down Russian planes. It is an act of war that could draw the US and NATO into war – potentially nuclear war – with Russia. As then White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki explained in March 2022, "The no-fly zone requires implementation. It would require, essentially, the U.S. military shooting down Russian planes and causing a – prompting a potential direct war with Russia, something – the exact step that we want to avoid."

Tisdall supports his argument with the unfortunate example of Libya as a case of a no-fly zone that saved many lives. But, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, the bombing of Libya led to devastation far worse than anything the no-fly zone was meant to protect from. The no-fly zone was justified by the claim that Qaddafi would massacre the people of Benghazi. But careful research after the war conducted at Harvard and by a British inquiry concluded that Qaddafi did not perpetrate blood baths in any of the cities his forces recaptured and that "the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence." The NATO intervention in Libya left the country in pieces, bleeding weapons into radical arsenals across the region.

Libya is also an unfortunate choice because the US and NATO going beyond their UN mandate in bombing Libya was seen by Putin as an example of US disregard for international law that helped convince him that NATO was not a benign defensive alliance. That conclusion would become important once more as Russia watched NATO encroach upon Ukraine and Russia’s western border.

Tisdall closes his article with the argument that Zelensky should be given "all that he needs to win" because Biden is right that "the war is a seminal struggle between liberty and tyranny." Biden has framed the battle as a battle between democracy and autocracy. But outside of a small circle of subordinate friends, no one believes him. Africa has railed against the US for its hypocritical lectures on democracy. Latin America has rejected them. People have memories. Across Africa, Latin America and most of the world, people remember US colonialism and coups that took out democratically elected leaders in favor of installed US backed dictators.

It is also a little disingenuous to nominate Zelensky as the flag bearer of democracy. Even before the war, Kiev was chipping away at democracy and liberty. Richard Sakwa, professor of Russian and European politics at Kent, says "the central government in Kiev had long been passing laws prohibiting the use of the Russian language and even Russian culture from official usage, education and the mass media.” Nicolai Petro, professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island, says that "with Kiev’s rejection of the Minsk agreements, all ethnic Russian “television and media outlets were shut down by the Ukrainian government."

Since the war began, the erosion of liberty and democracy under Zelensky has continued. Ukrainian democracy has been threatened by Zelensky’s decision to ban eleven opposition parties, including the second biggest party in the Ukrainian parliament. Freedom of the press has also been undermined. At the end of 2022, Zelensky passed a law expanding his government’s "regulatory power over the news media," as The New York Times reported. The government can reportedly block internet resources and revoke licenses. It gives the government the power to ban or remove messages deemed undesirable. The Guardian calls Zelensky’s decree to unite all national TV channels into a single platform a further attempt to "assert his influence over the country’s media sphere."

Ukraine’s requests for long range weapons and F-16 fighter bombers and for the green light to attack Crimea and to strike within Russian territory are understandable. Their belief that the US should agree to them is understandable too, given the US role in putting Ukraine is this position by blocking negotiations and encouraging Ukraine to go on fighting the Russian military. But giving "Zelensky all he needs to win" risks war with Russia and risks nuclear war. The only thing more horrible and insane than this war would be ending it by ending it with nuclear weapons. The only sane answer to this insane war is a negotiated settlement that addresses the issues and ends the fighting.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.