US President Joe Biden’s historic mission is now clear: to shepherd the world through the most alarming nuclear threat since the darkest days of the Cold War.
All of Biden’s other challenges – hyperinflation, Covid-19, climate change, and the building battles with China – face the threat posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s renewed escalation of the war in Ukraine.
Putin’s implied threat that he might use nuclear weapons in his speech on Wednesday and his warning that he was not bluffing, Biden’s speech to the UN General Assembly seemed even more serious.
“This war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state and Ukrainians’ right to exist as a people,” Biden said, calling the invasion a direct attack on the rules-based order outlined by the UN.
“That should chill your blood,” he added.
Putin’s announcement of a partial national mobilization is being seen outside Russia as an admission of the failure of the operation so far in Ukraine and of rising domestic political pressure. But the upcoming referendums in the territory of Ukraine, captured by Russia’s reunification, which the West describes as a fraud, are leading the war to a new phase.
If these areas join Russia, attacks against Ukrainians using Western weapons can, in theory, be interpreted as an attack on the Russian homeland.
This may increase Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory.
The Russian leader clearly wants to scare Western audiences and make them rethink the support given to Ukraine by Washington and allied capitals, which helped make its invasion such a disaster.
Putin may be bluffing about the potential use of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. But then again, maybe not.
John Miller, CNN’s chief law enforcement and intelligence analyst, said the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency have spent years studying Putin’s psychology, including his obsessions with masculinity and tough appearances and how those concerns might affect him if he begins to look weak.
“The use of nuclear weapons is the most serious strategic decision a world leader can make, but with a leader as invested in his image as Putin, there may be an emotional factor in that decision,” Miller said.
“So right now, nobody in the U.S. Intelligence Community estimates the probability of using a tactical nuclear weapon at zero,” Miller said.
Putin certainly has a history of following through on many threats. And Ukrainian generals and foreign military experts have raised fears that, if cornered, Russia’s leadership could deploy a limited tactical nuclear weapon as a show of force or to withdraw several military assets or units.
Miller said the most pressing question for the West now – and one that leaders at the UN General Assembly should discuss – is what to do about Russia’s potential use of a tactical nuclear weapon.
“If such a weapon were to be deployed in a limited way against the Ukrainians, what would be the response from NATO, the United States and the world? There are still countries sitting on the fence to condemn Russia’s actions and agree to sanctions. Would deploying a tactical nuclear weapon galvanize the world against Putin? If so, has he figured that out, and does he care?’ Miller said.
While tactical nuclear weapons produce a smaller blast radius and more limited fallout than strategic warheads, launching even the most limited type of weapon would be a “tremendous game changer,” Miller added.
“The key question right now is: have NATO and the US agreed what they would do in that scenario and have they sent that through back channels to Russia. We’re in a game of chicken,” he said.
Any use of a tactical nuclear weapon would pass a threshold in the history of warfare and leave the West with a debate over how to respond without triggering a full nuclear exchange.
And even if the nuclear poker stops now, Putin has already set a sinister new precedent by citing Russia’s nuclear arsenal as leverage in a limited conflict. Other tyrannical regimes and aspiring nuclear states are receiving advice.
At a time when the idea of nuclear non-proliferation is under great tension, Biden had this warning: “A nuclear war cannot be won, and it should never be fought.”
Other presidents have said something similar. But he is the first US commander-in-chief in 40 years to face a full-scale nuclear showdown not as a theoretical possibility but as a real, hopefully still remote, risk.