Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent threats regarding the use of nuclear weapons and escalation of horrific attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine have many in the world worried that Putin’s talk might not just be talk. However, most experts seem to argue that the likelihood that Russia will use nuclear weapons is slim.
On the other side, some experts argue we are the closest to nuclear war that we’ve ever been in history. Our President has acknowledged that in recent comments to the media but then Biden has also said that he doubts his Russian counterpart will take this war to that level.
So who should we believe, and what should we think? First, let’s look at what the experts are saying and see if we can get some clarity.
Pavel Podvig, an expert on Russia’s nuclear doctrine at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, laid out what he believes is the real danger when dealing with Russia. Mr. Podvig lays out the possible risks of attempting to negotiate with Russia:
“The West supports Ukraine with weapons and financial and moral and political support. Giving that up and saying that, ‘Well, you know, we are too afraid of nuclear threats and so we just want to make a deal’ – that would certainly set a precedent that would not be very positive.”
His argument makes sense, especially if you’ve ever dealt with someone threatening something extreme and horrible in exchange for something they want. It’s hardly a tactic that is friendly to diplomacy or in-faith negotiations.
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Mr. Podvig goes on to illustrate what the danger would be if we were to negotiate at this moment:
“If you yield to this nuclear threat once, then what would prevent Russia in the future – or others – to do the same thing again?”
Any parent understands this concept. This is the same allegory from the famous children’s book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” by Laura Numeroff.
If you give a madman what he wants, he will want a glass of milk, so to speak. So what are the alternatives?
Mr. Podvig, while seemingly not overly concerned that Russia will utilize nuclear weapons at this time, does warn that he could under certain circumstances, which aligns with what Mr. Putin essentially warned. Specifically, Mr. Podvig does argue that if Russia feels Crimea is threatened, he would likely use nuclear weapons.
He also adds he would more than likely use a more significant nuclear weapon than a tactical nuclear weapon, essentially destroying a city in an attempt to dissuade any further engagement from the West. However, he says they would likely broadcast this intention before actually using the weapon.
But that brings up an interesting point, isn’t that precisely what Mr. Putin is doing? He’s broadcasting his intention to use nuclear weapons if the lands he believes are his are threatened, so shouldn’t we take that seriously?
The answer is yes, so what can we do? If you listen to Mr. Podvig and other experts that agree we should continue to support Ukraine as indirectly as possible and look for an ‘off ramp’ for Mr. Putin that allows him to retreat without it looking like a surrender.
Seems easy enough, right?
Two high-profile individuals have come out recently calling for negotiations with Mr. Putin in light of the threat of nuclear war.
Former President Donald Trump recently said at a rally:
“We must demand the immediate negotiation of a peaceful end to the war in Ukraine, or we will end up in World War III…”
Related: Trump: Biden’s ‘Armageddon’ Comment About Russia Is ‘Exactly The Wrong Thing’
Additionally, billionaire social media provocateur Elon Musk dipped his toe into the negotiation discussion laying out a possible albeit not probable path to peace in the region. His tweet opened the floodgates of ire from the Twittersphere to include a Ukrainian diplomat who promptly told him to “F*** off.”
Not one to shy away from confrontation, Mr. Musk said this past Friday that Starlink, which is his company that provides internet services to Ukraine, can’t “indefinitely” fund Ukraine’s use of the service. Last month Starlink sent a request to the Pentagon asking them to take over the service’s funding.
The next day he changed his tune, stating:
Even though Mr. Musk and the former President have faced criticism for their desire to negotiate a way to peace, their fears of nuclear war are not unique to themselves.
An Ipsos poll has found that 65% of Americans are concerned that the war in Ukraine may escalate if our government provides longer-range weapons, and 58% are afraid we are on a fast track to nuclear war. However, most Americans still support assisting the Ukrainians at a rate of 66%.
Interestingly, that support is down from 73% this past April. It’s no wonder people are getting nervous about the state of affairs in Eastern Europe.
History professor and Russia expert Cynthia Hooper from the College of the Holy Cross explains how this current nuclear threat is worse than those in the past:
“The current crisis is far worse than the Cuban Missile Crisis, in part because during the Cuban Missile Crisis, both Kennedy and Khrushchev were willing to discuss a way of walking back the confrontation. There is no such option on the table here.”
The President himself warned of our possible imminent doom and was supported by former assistant Secretary of Defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological programs Andy Weber who said:
“President Biden’s reported reference to ‘Armageddon’ is not an exaggeration.”
So with experts saying that nuclear war with Russia is a possibility, but not a probability, but take it seriously, but continue with what we have been doing the last eight months, you have to wonder…is there going to be an off-ramp, or is this our new global normal?
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