By: Robert C. O’Brien – wsj.com – April 19, 2022
The idea that in 2022, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council would use nuclear weapons to conquer a neighboring country is unthinkable. Yet here we are. For months, Russian officials and commentators have been rattling their nuclear saber and touting Moscow’s doctrine of “escalating to de-escalate”—in other words, if Russia is losing a war, even one it started, it reserves the right to use a nuclear attack to end it.
Today, after nearly two months of heavy combat in Ukraine, Russia appears to be losing. The dramatic sinking of the Moskva, flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet, is only the latest setback to befall Vladimir Putin’s forces. With dark irony, a commentator on Russian state-controlled media denounced the sinking as an act of war and urged Moscow to “bomb Kyiv” in response.
If Ukrainian forces push Russia out of the Donbas and even Crimea, there would be no way for Mr. Putin to hide Russia’s humiliating loss from its people. If such an outcome became likely, would he use one of his thousands of “tactical” or “battlefield” nuclear devices to take out Kharkiv, Odessa or even Kyiv in an attempt to save face and end the war on terms he dictates? This possibility is surely on the minds of President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and his staff.
The time is now to deter Russia from “escalating to de-escalate.” The U.S. must unambiguously communicate to Moscow what lies ahead if it goes down this terrible path. Mr. Putin and his supporters need to understand that if he detonates a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, the U.S. response will be swift and significant—far exceeding the limited export sanctions under consideration around the world in response to Russian atrocities in Bucha.
America and its allies shouldn’t retaliate in kind, with nuclear weapons. The U.S. should, however, be prepared to take other serious actions quickly. Among the options:
• Clear the Russian navy’s two remaining Slava-class cruisers, their escort ships and submarines from the Mediterranean. This could be accomplished by a diplomatic démarche followed by more-forceful action if necessary to enforce compliance.
• Eliminate Russian air and military assets in Syria and Libya on the same basis. The U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have the ability to do so fully within hours if Russia refuses to withdraw its forces to its homeland.
• Entirely dismantle all pipelines used to transport Russian oil and gas to the West, quashing even the hope of future sales to Europe. Military assets could assist civilian engineering companies to accomplish this task with dispatch.
• Advise all non-Western nations, including China, that purchasing Russian oil would result in massive punitive tariffs by the U.S., Japan and the European Union that would effectively decouple their economies from the industrial world.
• End Russian dreams of earning hard currency by servicing Iran’s nuclear industry. The idea that the West would stand by while Iran develops its own tactical nuclear capacity should be dismissed. The U.S., Israel and their Arab allies would be positioned to give the ayatollahs a short window to completely dismantle Iran’s nuclear program under an intrusive inspection regime. If the ayatollahs decline, as they likely would, the key elements of Iran’s nuclear program could be dismantled by the full air power of the regional alliance arrayed against them.
These are only some of the steps that could be taken if Mr. Putin employs nuclear weapons in Ukraine. The urgent priority is to communicate them to the Kremlin now. The same strong and well-messaged deterrence that kept the free world safe from nuclear attack during the long years of the Cold War must be restored to avert a nuclear tragedy in Ukraine. If it isn’t, the risk of Russian miscalculation will rise—as will the even greater risk of nuclear escalation beyond Ukraine.
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