After weeks of setbacks, the Russian army is still losing ground on the Ukrainian battlefields.
President Vladimir Putin’s response, characteristically, has been to step up on other fronts.
Putin expanded the military plan, announcing a call for 300,000 reservists and prompting an exodus of Russian men to neighboring countries.
On Friday, he formally announced Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian provinces, turning them – at least rhetorically – into Russian territory he can never negotiate.
More chillingly, Putin has renewed his threats that he is prepared to use nuclear weapons if Ukrainian troops attempt to retake these provinces.
“In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country … we will certainly use all weapon systems at our disposal,” he said. “It’s not a bluff.”
On this point, Putin may be telling the truth.
“It’s not a bluff,” Fiona Hill, who served on the staff of the National Security Council under President Donald Trump, told me. “He’s losing on the battlefield, so he’s trying to bully Ukraine and the West into giving up.”
“If Putin faces the imminent prospect of losing the war, he is likely to use nuclear weapons before he is defeated,” warned Matthew Kroenig of the Atlantic Council, a former Pentagon strategist. “It’s probably the closest to using nuclear since at least the 1980s.”
The weapons Putin wields are not the huge long-range missiles aimed at the United States in the Cold War balance of terror. The targets would not be New York or Washington; that kind of strike would provoke an immediate US nuclear response.
Instead, he threatens to use some of the roughly 2,000 “tactical nuclear weapons” that Russia has stockpiled for use on the battlefield – smaller, but potentially devastating warheads. Some of these “low-yield” nuclear weapons are as powerful as the bomb the United States dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945, killing at least 70,000 people. Some are bigger.
Strategists suggest that Putin could consider several options: He could detonate a “demonstration shot” over the Black Sea or a remote rural area to get the world’s attention.
More likely, he could target large concentrations of Ukrainian troops in hopes of changing the military momentum on the ground.
Or he could attack Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, with the aim of decapitating the Ukrainian government – an act that could also kill tens of thousands of civilians.
In each case, its larger objective would presumably be the same: to shock Ukrainians, Europeans and Americans into withdrawing from the war and accepting its territorial claims.
To which the response from the United States was straightforward: it won’t work.
“Any use of nuclear weapons will have catastrophic consequences for Russia,” Jake Sullivan, national security adviser to President Joe Biden, said last week. “The United States will respond decisively…and we will continue to support Ukraine in its efforts to defend its country.”
Sullivan declined to state publicly what those “catastrophic consequences” might be.
But other officials have long made an important point: the US response to a Russian nuclear strike in Ukraine need not be nuclear in return.
Conventional strikes against Russian military targets using long-range missiles with precision-guided warheads could have equal military impact with fewer negative side effects.
US or Ukrainian forces could use US-supplied missiles to destroy the Russian bases that launched the nuclear attack, sink the Russian Black Sea Fleet, or both.
A non-nuclear response could have several advantages. This would avoid putting the United States and Russia on a Cold War-style nuclear escalation ladder. This could prevent Putin from presenting his war in Ukraine as a fight against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And it could help the United States and its allies rally global opposition to Russia as the only country to break the post-World War II taboo against the use of nuclear weapons.
It could also help the Biden administration preserve two goals that have at times been in tension: supplying Ukraine with enough weapons to defeat the Russian invasion while seeking to avoid – or at least limit – a direct fight between Russia and NATO.
“We are doing everything we can to help Ukrainians defend themselves,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said last week. “We are also determined that this war will not spread.”
Or, as Biden put it more bluntly, “We’re trying to avoid World War III.”
A Russian nuclear strike on Ukraine would inevitably bring World War III closer. The challenge for Biden is to persuade Putin that such an attack would be a losing proposition — and, if deterrence fails, to keep the ensuing conflict from spiraling out of control.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers can email him at [email protected]