Western officials who salivate over the prospect of inflicting a decisive, humiliating defeat on Russia in its war with Ukraine remain oblivious to the dangers entailed in that scenario. As I pointed out early in the conflict, Russian leaders consider Ukraine to be the most vital of vital national security interests and they are likely to adopt whatever measures are necessary to prevent such a defeat. Not even the option of using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine is off the table.
So far, the danger of such a potentially catastrophic escalation has remained modest. Deficiencies in Moscow’s lumbering military, combined with recklessly expansive NATO military assistance to Kyiv, have caused the Kremlin’s war effort to be much slower and more costly in blood and treasure than Vladimir Putin and his colleagues anticipated. Nevertheless, Russian forces have seized and retained significant chunks of Ukraine’s territory and inflicted massive casualties on Ukrainian forces. As long as that situation continues, the danger of Moscow resorting to the use of tactical nuclear weapons is not great.
Recent developments, though, indicate that the risk is growing. In an important May 17, 2023, article in Russia Matters, retired Brigadier Gen. Kevin Ryan, a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, lists a number of troubling signs. Among them were Putin’s announcement in late March that he would station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus – closer to the territory of several NATO members. Ryan notes that "Putin has also made clear to the Russian people that Moscow’s red lines for the use of nuclear weapons, spelled out in its official documents, have all been crossed in the conflict in Ukraine. These include "aggression with conventional weapons against the Russian Federation, when the very existence of the state is threatened."
Recent changes in Russia’s military command are another alarming sign. Ryan emphasizes that "under Russian doctrine, the chief of the general staff and the heads of the ground and aerospace forces are the three officers who control all tactical nuclear weapons use in ground operations. Putin has now placed in direct control of the [Ukraine] war the three senior-most officers who have the authority to employ tactical nuclear weapons when he gives the order."
NATO’s strategy has been to use Ukraine as a military proxy against Russia while refraining from directly involving Alliance forces in the fighting. Unfortunately, the quantity and potency of the weapons systems being transferred to Kyiv have reached the point of posing a major threat not only to Russian forces in occupied Ukraine, but to the Russian homeland itself. There are now reports that the Biden administration has approved the transfer of F-16 fighters from U.S. allies to Ukraine. If true, such a step would signify yet another dramatic escalation of support. That move comes on the heels of the shipment of heavy battle tanks from the United States and other NATO members and the deployment of Patriot missile batteries around Kyiv. In addition to sending such weapons, NATO (especially British and US) intelligence agencies continue to provide Kyiv with vital intelligence data to make Ukrainian forces far more effective than they would be otherwise.
Such actions make a mockery of the official "nonbelligerent" status of the NATO powers. Russian leaders increasingly contend that their country is at war not only – or even primarily – with Ukraine. Instead, Putin and his associates contend that NATO itself is waging war against Russia – and doing so with the goal of eliminating Russia as a relevant power in the international system. Putin has warned repeatedly that the very survival of Russia is now at stake in the Ukraine conflict. At this most recent Victory Day parade marking the end of World War II in Europe, he claimed that the West’s goal is to achieve nothing less than "the collapse and destruction of our country."
Russian leaders are not wrong. In late April 2022, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin admitted that the Alliance’s goal was not merely to help Ukraine blunt and reverse Russia’s aggression, but to weaken Russia to the point that it could no longer pose a threat to any neighboring state. The West’s goals, both explicit and implicit, have escalated steadily. One objective now includes putting Putin on trial at The Hague for war crimes – a development that could take place only after full-fledged regime change in Moscow. The usual flock of neocon hawks continues to push the goal of inflicting a massive defeat on Russia. Such a maximalist stance gives Putin and other Russian leaders little incentive to avoid using tactical nuclear weapons, if the alternative is Russia’s total defeat and their own fall from power – with prison cells awaiting them.
The surprisingly limited success of Russia’s winter military offensive in Ukraine has intensified the danger. The conquest of the city of Bakhmut, which most Western military experts thought would take only days, is just now concluding after more than two months. Ukraine appears on the brink of launching a counteroffensive that NATO is heavily supporting. An advance that dislodges Russian forces from major portions of southern Ukraine could bring the problems with Russia’s conventional military strategy to a culmination.
An important principle of foreign policy 101 is to leave an adversary a dignified exit from a faltering or failed venture. US and NATO leaders are violating that fundamental requirement. Seeking to inflict an existential defeat on Russia is not only a myopic strategy, it is reckless. Cornered bears are very dangerous, yet Western officials are forcing Russian leaders to choose between utter humiliation for their nation and themselves or using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine despite the obvious, horrific risks. The West’s egregious mismanagement of relations with Russia threatens to culminate in nuclear catastrophe.
Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute. He also served in various policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute. Dr. Carpenter is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).