Putin’s Ukraine Adventure Unleashes Nuclear Genies

Putin's Ukraine Adventure Unleashes Nuclear Genies

As the war in Ukraine enters a dangerous new phase, the damage Russian leader

Vladimir Putin

is doing isn’t limited to violating a sovereign nation, reducing the city of Mariupol to rubble gold shelling civilian apartment complexes.

He also is unleashing some dangerous nuclear genies from the bottles in which they had been contained for the past three decades. Those genies include the risk of nuclear war itself, the return of nuclear blackmail as a tool of statecraft and the emergence of new incentives for other nations to acquire nuclear arms.

Regardless of when and how the conflict in Ukraine ends, the world will be living with these risks for years to come. If Mr. Putin fails in Ukraine the effects will be reduced, but even then they won’t be eliminated.

The gravest risk, of course, is that a russian military that is either failing or hopelessly bogged down in Ukraine would turn to a nuclear strike—perhaps with a small-scale tactical nuclear weapon—to reverse the tide. That risk appeared particularly stark when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned two weeks ago of “considerable” danger of nuclear conflict.

Russia’s top diplomat said the risk of a world war with nuclear weapons shouldn’t be underestimated, after the US offered more military support to Ukraine. (Originally published April 26) Photo: Felipe Dana/Associated Press

Still, US officials say they don’t see signs the Russians are considering or preparing for a turn to nuclear weaponsand Russian officials continue to repeat their traditional position that a nuclear war can’t be won and must not be fought, and would be considered only if the Russian state itself were under threat.

The more subtle risk is of nuclear blackmail, which was a periodic X factor in Cold War struggles between the US and the Soviet Union. Then as now, the idea was simple enough: Washington or Moscow hoped it could get the other side to back away in a geopolitical confrontation by merely implying that the disagreement could lead to a nuclear attack.

“Nuclear blackmail was always a pretty subtle and ambiguous thing,” says Richard Betts, a national-security professor at Columbia University whose book on the topic in the 1980s found such nuclear threats had been used in at least a dozen cases. “It was more the raising of the specter of the possibility than the clear threat. That’s what we have now with Putin.”

Today part of that specter is that the US will be so “traumatized by the risk of a nuclear exchange” that it backs away from stopping Mr. Putin’s designs on Ukraine, says Stephen Hadley, national security adviser for President George W. Bush and a veteran of nuclear policies.

So far, the blackmail doesn’t seem to be working. US officials note that they actually have stepped up aid to Ukraine since Russian officials began hinting more directly about the potential of nuclear-weapons use.

Still, there is a long way to go. Depending on how this conflict turns out, Mr. Putin could end up showing china how to use nuclear blackmail to get the world to back off if and when it chooses to move on Taiwan. Similarly, North Korean leader

Kim Jong Un

could use his burgeoning nuclear arsenal to do the same if he chooses to intimidate South Korea or Japan. India and Pakistan are watching as well.

Yet there is an even more subtle risk: the possibility that countries currently on the edge of nuclear-weapons capability, or considering going there, will conclude that the best way to avoid being the next Ukraine is to actually acquire nuclear weapons.

That would be a logical conclusion given Ukraine’s unique history. Ukraine once had nuclear weapons—a lot of them, in fact. When Ukraine achieved independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, it was home to some 1,900 Soviet nuclear warheads, the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world.

Ukraine won the cheers of the world by agreeing to give them up, in return for promises that the US and Russia would assure its security. Ukraine’s reward was to see Russia invade instead.

Other nations now may well ask: Would Russia have taken the risk if Ukraine had retained those nuclear weapons? That thought has to be on the minds of Iranian leaders as they contemplate signing a new international agreement limiting their nuclear program. But it isn’t just Iran. Similar thoughts may be occurring to Iran’s foes in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Thus, Vladimir Putin may well be ushering in a new period of nuclear proliferation.

That risk is reduced if he falls short in Ukraine. “If he fails, notwithstanding his nuclear threats, it shows that nuclear weapons and the threat of their use cannot save you from conventional defeat,” says Mr. Hadley.

But it’s tricky. How does the West calibrate the struggle so Mr. Putin is defeated, thereby showing that nuclear blackmail doesn’t work, yet do so without so humiliating him that he pulls the nuclear trigger? That’s why the period ahead is so dangerous.

Write to Gerald F. Seib at jerry.seib@wsj.com

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