Government Watch / National Security / Politics

Putin’s Nuclear Threats Betray Weakness, Not Strength

AMAC Exclusive – Daniel Berman

Nuclear

Talk of nuclear war has dominated discourse over the past few weeks. Vladimir Putin brought it up several times in his speech “annexing” four Ukrainian oblasts, declaring that the United States itself had set a precedent for the use of nuclear weapons against Japan, an example obediently tweeted out by the Russian embassy in London. Joe Biden then suggested at a fundraiser that the world was closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Is panic justified? In short, no.

The actors in this conflict are not irrational, and the mutually assured destruction of a nuclear war is by definition irrational. Nevertheless, there does exist some risk of irrational escalation toward nuclear conflict as so many different players, from Putin and Biden to advocates for and against aid to Ukraine, have their own rational reasons to create the impression that nuclear war is plausible if not imminent.

It is vital to keep in mind that the U.S. response to Russia’s invasion is not a game, but a high-risk conflict which was undertaken to defend American interests and must be ended in a way which secures them. Nuclear war is not one of those interests. That means engaging with the one man, who, pushed into a corner, must decide between escalating or ending it.

That man, Russian President Vladimir Putin, has not had a good two weeks. Coming as it did on the same day Ukrainian forces surrounded as many as 5,000 Russian soldiers in Lyman in northeastern Ukraine, Putin’s entire annexation speech, heavy on bombast, full of resentment, and containing defiance and threats, displayed a raw air of desperation. Putin’s spokesmen, along with Russian state TV, were unable even to answer basic questions about whether the annexation applied to only the areas Russia controls, or the actual administrative borders of the oblasts, including Ukrainian-controlled areas where no referendum took place. When a truck bomb hit the Kerch bridge connecting Crimea with the Russian mainland, Putin’s escalation in the form of sending hundreds of missiles against civilian targets in Ukraine looked equally haphazard.

For Putin, the goal of not losing the war and avoiding the resulting consequences at home has eclipsed all other objectives. All one had to do to recognize this was to listen to his speech and witness his subsequent behavior.

First and foremost, Putin’s “Special Military Operation,” launched in February, has failed. Forget any of the spin from some Western “pundits” about the drive on Kyiv being a “feint” or things going according to plan. None of the justifications provided by Putin upon launching the war in February are still present today. Gone is the charade of “de-Nazification.” Gone is any pretense that that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, and that the war is not between Russia and Ukraine but between Russia and an illegitimate, pro-Western, “Nazi” clique that rules Ukraine. Putin, in justifying his annexations, discussed the “longstanding oppression of Russians” by Ukraine – not Russian-speakers, not Ukrainians by the West, but Russians by Ukraine.

Despite analysts who claim that Vladimir Putin is a delusional madman entirely detached from the real world, this was in fact a significant concession to reality. It was one confirmed throughout the rest of his speech, and the actions which preceded it. Russia entered the war with justifications which, if laundered through respectable academic voices like Professor John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago, could be sold not just in the developing world, but to some in Europe and the United States. Some of Russia’s complaints about the approach of the Obama and Biden administrations even bordered on legitimate. While no evidence has ever been produced that George Bush Sr. or James Baker made promises to prevent any eastward expansion of NATO, and they clearly could not have bound any future administration or the American electorate even if they had wished to do so, Russia could feel that the voluntary relinquishment of empire had only brought hostile alliances closer without reducing that hostility.

By contrast, this speech did not seem designed to convince anyone of the ethics of Putin’s course. On the contrary, his examples seemed the product of emotion, designed to offend potential supporters. Condemning the U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki without context seemed certain to outrage Chinese nationalist opinion, while his discussion of British despoilation of India waded into domestic history wars between Hindu nationalists, Muslims, and secularists. When it came to the United States, Putin’s invocation of segregation and the mistreatment of Native Americans, while short of fully “woke,” was most likely to appeal to those who he identified as ideological enemies (with his attack on transgender ideology) and offend those most likely to call for a realist approach to Russia.

Instead, Putin’s argument for annexation was raw power. Russia, facing hostility from Ukraine and the West, had to act. As Russia could not negotiate, it was forced to seize these territories. Ukraine and the West must recognize them not on the grounds of justice or history, but under threat of nuclear war. When Putin chose to retaliate for the bombing of the Kerch bridge, he did not even attempt to hide the fact that he was targeting civilians.

Politically then, Putin has already lost. While he might have claimed to be fighting a war of decolonization against “colonialist” elites who rule the West, the message was the same to India and China as it was to Britain and America: Either let me win, or I will threaten to blow up the world. Even if the West is persuaded by this argument (and it is not an entirely unpersuasive one as some analysts have dared to note) they will have appeased Putin under extortion, and will remember afterward that he was the man who started a war, lost it, and then blackmailed everyone to save himself. Either way, Russia’s prestige is lost.

That is an important consideration when we consider how to respond to the risks of escalation. As desperate and immature as Putin’s threats are, they should nevertheless be taken seriously. Figures such as Fiona Hill, who suggested to the New Yorker that the U.S. and the West are already engaged in a Third World War against Russia and hence have no reason to hold back, have lost any sense of perspective, as have figures who assume that there is some level of conventional retaliation against Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons which would somehow deter further usage and yet avoid risks of escalation.

This does not mean that the risks of nuclear war are so great that Putin’s threats are reason enough to concede his demands. If the reaction of Putin’s move to declare Ukrainian oblasts part of Russia and subject to a nuclear umbrella is to immediately concede them, that is not an incentive for Putin to end the war. On the contrary, it is a message that if Putin were, for example, to declare Odessa or Kharkiv or any other territory he does not control to be under Russian control, the mere threat of nuclear weapons would lead the West into forcing Ukraine to concede them. Even if Putin regrets the war, and genuinely wishes he could end it, Russian popular opinion, seeing the success of such brinksmanship and humiliated after recent defeats, would press Putin into escalating his demands. For that reason, Putin’s nuclear blackmail cannot be seen to succeed publicly.

However, Fiona Hill and her colleagues are also wrong when they argue the stakes have never been higher. Rather than increasing the geopolitical stakes, Putin’s actions have lowered them for the United States. The stakes in Ukraine for the United States were far more symbolic than physical. The dangers of a Russian victory for the U.S. were not Russian territorial gains, but rather the global perception that Russia would have defeated an American trained military, crushing an American-aligned government while the United States stood by. Coming after Afghanistan, the message would have been clear that the United States was a paper tiger, that it would not stand with its allies. As a result, the U.S. would find it impossible to form coalitions in the Middle East against Iran or in Asia against China.

U.S. prestige is no longer at stake. Ukraine has defeated Russia on the battlefield. American weapons and support have proven superior not just to Russian resources, but to anything China has been able or willing to offer Putin. If Putin emerges with territory after threatening to resort to the use of nuclear weapons, it will be perceived as personal and state weakness, as one man having endangered the world and the interests of his own people, not to mention his allies, for self-preservation. China can hardly welcome a major incentive for Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam to develop nuclear weapons of their own, nor will Russia benefit if Poland and Kazakhstan rapidly follow.

The United States, then, has already won. As has Ukraine, which, rather than collapsing as a state in February, has not only held off the Russian Bear but gained the better of it on the battlefield. The goal now must be to end the war on terms which consolidate these successes, rather than risk them. Here, the threat of nuclear weapons can be used to end this conflict without their use, allowing Ukraine to justify going to a certain point and no further, and for Putin to claim he salvaged something from the jaws of defeat.

After all, it will be harder to fault Ukraine for bowing to the force of a weapon they do not possess, having won on the battlefield. Arguably, if the war were to end with some territorial adjustments, it is probably easier for Ukrainians to make them having won on the battlefield only to be faced with nuclear annihilation, than to compromise when they could have won conventionally.

This will require a nuanced approach. The United States and Kyiv cannot give in to the mere threat of the use of nuclear weapons, lest they encourage Putin to escalate his demands. Yet they should not plan for open-ended escalation either. A risky but pragmatic middle-ground approach is to proceed as if Putin is bluffing. If he is, then all is well. If not, and he makes limited use of a tactical weapon or two, retaliation should be met with an acknowledgement that Putin bears full responsibility for endangering the world, and he will have to live with the consequences, while accepting that the U.S. will limit further offensive operations in the interests of peace.

Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.


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John
3 months ago

Clearly too many people, including the author of the article, are relying on media sources that are far from the front lines or are relying primarily upon the Ukraine Defense Ministry’s propaganda. Ukraine has been the money laundering capitol of Europe for many years. The Biden’s apparently used it. Ukraine is a hotbed of Nazism. Ukraine’s ongoing failure to honor the Minsk Accords is not a good thing. NATO promises to Russia being broken. What truly is our national interest here? Two bad guys fighting each other. Why pick a side? This is not our fight.Quit listening to western media sources. All they know how to do is spew and spin propaganda.Put in did not target civilians and apparently has gone to great lengths to avoid targeting civilians. Try listening to media sources that aren’t sitting around in Kyiv waiting for the next propaganda release.Putin has already won. Ukraine has no remaining military to speak of. Countries with a combined population of over 4 billion people have refused to condemn Russia or Putin.

Gary
3 months ago

From whom does Putin get that authority to attack a non provacative country ? And from whom does Putin get the authority to attack civilian targets , including mommies , daddies, and babies ? And from whom does Putin get the authority to send Russia’s sons into a non-defensive war ? Does Putin OWN the Russian people .? Are the Russian people Putin’s PROPERTY to do with as he pleases ? Do the Russian people demand restoration of the Soviet Empire ?
These questions should be asked at the United Nations . And, the whole world should shun Russia until it gets out of Ukraine .

Pete from St Pete
3 months ago

All you have to do is say the word “nuclear” and the Jane Fondas of our country goes bonkers (see Tucker Carlson). Putin is a bully who has visions of reconstituting the former Soviet Union. However, he is not stupid. He knows as well as anyone that an all out nuclear war would lead to the total demise of Russia. Peace through mutual annihilation capabilities still works.

Casey C Matt
3 months ago

I hoped that the ignorance of warhawk nation builidng on the part of the US had died along with the terrible pilot and father, John McCain. I was wrong.
Apparently his acolytes write articles for AMAC. I guess the writer of this article never bothered to read the transcripts of any and all speeches Putin has made over the past 8 months. At NO time did the man threaten to use nukes except as a reponse to opponents using them first. This is hopefully a policy both “sides” believe in……..such policy has been in place since the late 1940s.
As for Russia going down to defeat. Please get your nose out of the corporate press. The “mighty Ukraine Army” myth has been ongoing for months as Ukrainian losses well exceed 100,000 dead. Normally you add 3 to 4 times that amount wounded so…….good on the strange definition of winning. Ukraine has also, so far, given roughly 23% of its land mass to Russia while winning but that percentage used to make up for roughly 87% of the GDP for Ukraine…….one of several reasons why American taxpayers are fully funding the payroll of both the cobbled together fighters but also the myriad government workers in Ukraine. The Ukraine economy has been decimated, in “winning” they have now lost a goodly portion of their electric grid.
There is a reason folks why Russian news sources have largely been banned from western consumption. Our war machine needs a dumbed down group of sheep to willingly provide ever increasing portions of their declining income to support what America considered at this point last year to be the worlds most corrupt country……Ukraine.
Making democracy safe for Ukrainians? Ukraine has banned opposition political parties, opposition newspapers, television shows, televised news…….anything that goes against the government propaganda is………dangerous as hell if one values life.
Ukraine and its NATO owner is now hiring members of ISIS to fight for “democracy”.
Please go outside the lamestream media……away from the corporate overlords that love war because it makes for huge profits and do some REAL research. First though ask yourself why news from Russia has been banned but in Russia one can buy the New York Times, the Washington Post and any other rabidly war supporting corporate propaganda rags……….and they can view CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, ABC……but think about it……..when have you last been able to view RT or TASS without having to ferret said content from sources like Rumble or Telegram?
We are being lied to again. And as for the “victorious Ukraine”………wait til mid November if you want to see Ukraine really “winning”.

Rosalee Cavanaugh
3 months ago
Reply to  Casey C Matt

Thank you I am not an English major nor a warrior but I have ears to hear nd eyes to see and you hit the situation on target. All these climate change fanatics support this war and if it is nuclear, so be it. Once again no sanity! Russia has been the big bad wolf for too many years while China has become the dragon.

Max
3 months ago

Don’t be fooled. The armed forces of Ukraine have taken heavy casualties during their current offensive as Russian forces withdrew orderly to better fortified lines. It should very interesting this winter when Russian forces are able again to take the offensive against a weaker Ukrainian army.

Dave
3 months ago

I believe this high-risk behavior is being undertaken to defend Biden family interests in Ukraine. Putin has threatened annexation of ethnically Russian areas of Ukraine for years. No one tried to reasonably negotiate with him. His claims were simply dismissed. And as far as his speech showing signs of “desperation”, I thought it was totally predictable, and maybe even reasonable, for a person in his situation. This is a screw up on the part of leftist world leaders. Risking war is totally unacceptable.

BAE
3 months ago

President Joe Biden America’s worst president; who knows what he’ll get the American people into, he is so incompetent. His administration is clueless and scary!

Dave
3 months ago
Reply to  BAE

Wrong-way Biden has an uncanny knack for making wrong decisions. I can’t think of a single decision he’s made that has been good for our country, or civilization in general.

Gary
3 months ago
Reply to  Dave

Bob Gates agrees with you . He said Biden has been wrong on every foreign policy matter for the past 40 years , a few years ago . And Obama told us to not underestimate Biden’s propensity to f**k things up . . If we had a truly constitutional media , they would be asking each of Biden’s Cabinet Members what they think about letting Biden continue to destroy the United States .

Goria
3 months ago

Biden is a puppet of the Communist Chinese who he has been giving away a plethora of American businesses and cyber secrets for over 40 years. Putin is not afraid of Biden. Biden is a wimp hiding behind CCP and laughing in our faces. However, Putin is smart enough not to want his country torn apart – he sees what is happeniing in the U.S. and he doesn’t want NATO in Russia, never has, yet U.S. via Lindsey Graham & MCCain in 2014 was over in Ukraine talking them into attacking Russia at that time and promising U.S. would have their backs when they did. This whole thing stinks to high heaven. It is coming down from Soros and Klaus Scwab. They want total world dominance and Putin is standing in their way, just like Donald Trump and the MAGA movement is doing. Standing in their way of total Globalist domination. Stop always trying to demonize everyone, and recognize who the real demons are – those who belong to satan = Soros, Klaus Schwab, Bill Gates and unfortunately, all tho whom they have paid off or threatened to destroy. I don’t want to share the article, or any article that is not speaking the obvious truth. Trump wanted U.S. removed from NATO. He could see the dangers and that NATO was no longer serving as a friend of freedom. I’m telling you – Gates, Scwab and Soros are the ones that you should be calling down with spiritual warfare. The murderers of the free world.

anna hubert
3 months ago
Reply to  Goria

Bulls eye Gloria

Sherry
3 months ago
Reply to  Goria

100% Gloria!!!!

Jeb
3 months ago

Several things could be said, I believe all apply: 1) he is desperate, 2) he needs to save face at all costs, 3) he is afraid, justifiable so, 4) he is a bully and this is typical bully behavior, 5) he is fighting internal issues, I don’t believe the Russian people are enjoying this debacle, 6) I’m guessing but he fears a military coup, 7) all those he believes are on his side, China, NK, Middle East countries, are not, would just like his land and resources, 8) this turned out to be a bigger mess than he anticipated. I’m sure there are more…

Barrett Smith
3 months ago
Reply to  Jeb

Desperate men do desperate things. That is what I am afraid of.

Jeb
3 months ago
Reply to  Barrett Smith

Yes they do, and they don’t care who or what they take along.

2004done
3 months ago
Reply to  Jeb

Jeb: Are you referring to Putin or Biden? It fits both, even including Russian people aren’t enjoying this debacle

Jeb
3 months ago
Reply to  2004done

Hadn’t thought about Biden, but a very interesting question…

Dave
3 months ago
Reply to  Jeb

Putin is none of the above. He has no reason to be desperate or to save face. He has successfully annexed the areas of Ukraine that he wanted. Other than retaliating for attacks against Russian troops and Russian infrastructure… he’s done.
He has no reason to be afraid. Despite what American propaganda would have you think, Putin remains popular with the majority of people in Russia. There will be no military coup in Russia. China, the middle Eastern countries, couldn’t care less what he does. I suggest you study the history of the conflict.

Gary
3 months ago
Reply to  Dave

Dave , Putin has made it possible for China to lust after Siberia . And they may be thinking about letting Putin think that they really want Taiwan as a way of tricking Putin . Putin has failed and has put Russia in great jeopardy . The Russian people should rise up and remove him immediately before it’s too late , if not already too late .

Philip Hammersley
3 months ago

If we had a STRONG president, Putin wouldn’t have invaded at all. Then Senile Joe wouldn’t allow the Poles to supply MiGs to the Ukrainians. The whole thing could be over now if the Ukrainians had air support.

Jeb
3 months ago

Let me start off by saying I really like DeSantis and he has tremendous potential. I ask only one question: does he have the experience to take on Putin, Xi and Iran on day #1 if he were elected? Please share that experience if you believe he does. This is the #1 reason I lean toward Trump, we know he can and will. I do believe there are others that can once they learn…leading to question #2: do we have time while they learn?

2004done
3 months ago
Reply to  Jeb

Jeb: Reagan, Bush1, Clinton, Bush2, Obama, Trump, had as much Presidential experience (as DeSantis now has) when they started; So Yes, he has the necessary experience on day #1. It’s a kind of an on-the-job-learning job that we vote to fill.

Stephen Russell
3 months ago

Worse than Oct 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis & missiles better now vs 1962 tech

Bill on the Hill
3 months ago

I find it strange that Ukraine has won on the battlefield in light of her giving up the Donesk region & giving Russia a secure path to the Crimea via a land route…
The act of using nuclear is the primary reasoning behind this writers opinions, I emphasize opinions… Lest we forget just how CORRUPTED Ukraine still is & has always been shouldn’t be casually ignored nor should we forget just why Russia did in fact invade Ukraine once the Biden regime was put in place here in the states…The Russia/Ukraine conflict will be settled between themselves, as it should be, no amount of US weapon systems nor Chinese Hasbro Toy weapons will change the coarse that Russia & Ukraine are following… It is the political will of each of these countries that will have any lasting effect of future relations between these two nations…Until Russia/Ukraine decide between themselves to come to the table & negotiate some terms that both nations are willing to live with, nothing will ever change in this part of the world… A world that the current administration has deep ties with going back to the Obama/Biden administration with respect to personal gain from ( 3 ) nations of importance, Ukraine, Russia & China…
It is very important to not forget the crimes committed by Joe Biden, his son Hunter & brother Jim Biden over the coarse of years where those ( 3 ) nations are concerned as there are other nations involved as well where money, politics & the Biden family is concerned, all at the American taxpayer’s expense…
Bill… :~)

Linda Baker
3 months ago

Excellent perspective, as always. Indeed, never forget the biden crime family syndicate’s abominations, nor obamination’s.

Hatfield-Patriot
3 months ago

Agree, this is on fake president Biden and his minions with his money laundrying through Ukraine.
Putin and Our President Trump work for the citizens.
Step back and watch the upcoming fireworks.

2004done
3 months ago

I am reminded of leftist treatment of President Trump by their similar bias against President Putin, but I guess they have fallen for their own fabricated ideas, dis-regarding cartography almost as much as common sense. Could Anti-Christianism be that strong, or is it just an overwhelming need to deflect attention from reality toward agenda (whether close to our election or not)?

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