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Sergei Sazonov: The West should ignore Putin’s nuclear blackmail and put an end to the war in Ukraine

March 14, 2022 11:41 pmby Sergei Sazonov
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A man puts duct tape on the windows of his balcony on February 24, 2022. Across the road, a few hours after debris of a Russian rocket shot down by the air defense system of Ukraine fell onto the ground. (Volodymyr Petrov)

A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Ukraine on a scale Europe has not seen since World War II. Thousands are dead, millions are displaced, entire cities are being leveled to the ground by airstrikes and artillery fire. And the worse is yet to come. Unable to defeat the Ukrainian army, the Russians have resorted to terror tactics by trying to break civilian morale and bully the Ukrainian leadership into capitulating. We can already see how they target residential areas and civilian infrastructure in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, and other cities and how they display a suspiciously high interest in capturing nuclear plants. It is horrifying to even think about what their next steps will be.

Amid all of this, NATO, which is ten times more powerful than Russia, stands aside, just like Britain and France did when Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia. The West offers little more than moral support and token supplies of obsolete weaponry. This passivity is rationalized by the desire to avoid nuclear war. There are three reasons why this is wrong.

First, Putin is either a rational actor or not. If he is a rational actor, he will not use nukes even if faced with the prospect of military defeat in Ukraine. Such a defeat will be just a failed foreign conquest – very similar to the one the Soviets suffered in Poland in 1920. In contrast to nuclear war, it will not threaten the existence of Russia and, arguably, will not even threaten his regime: as the case of Iraq after the 1990-1991 Gulf War demonstrates, it is possible for a dictator to remain in power after military humiliation. It can even be argued that a Western military intervention will be beneficial for Putin as it will allow him to extricate himself from the Ukrainian war without losing face domestically. It is one thing to be defeated by the Ukrainians and another thing to be beaten by the United States.

But if Putin is not a rational actor, there can be no telling what will provoke him and what will not. It could be the case that a Western military intervention will make it more likely that Putin uses nuclear weapons. But it is just as likely that the lack of a firm Western response will embolden Putin to use nukes against Ukraine when it becomes clear he cannot win by conventional means. Or he can strike at the West directly with nuclear weapons in retaliation for the economic sanctions imposed on him. After all, these sanctions have already caused way more damage to Russia than a local shooting war in Ukrainian territory would. According to the Russian military doctrine, nuclear weapons are to be used when the very existence of the state is under threat and the economic blockade imposed by the West definitely qualifies. It is irrational to cavalierly break the entire Russian economy with measures that are equivalent to a large-scale strategic bombing campaign but tremble in fear at the prospect of a brief battle between American and Russian fighter jets. If Putin is irrational, the West has already given him more than enough of a pretext to start a nuclear war and it is too late to worry about it.

Second, once you give in to blackmail, it will be inevitably followed by further extortions with stakes rising at every step. Today Putin threatens a nuclear strike to deter NATO from helping Ukraine, tomorrow he will demand that the Baltic States be expelled from NATO, and the day after tomorrow he will demand that Poland become a part of Russia. This is the way Hitler behaved and Putin so far follows his playbook very closely. Either there will be a point where the West stands its ground, or Putin will conquer the whole of Europe without NATO ever fighting him.

Third, one needs to think not only about Putin specifically but about the kind of signal NATO gives to those who wish to follow in his footsteps. In this sense, the lack of military response to Putin’s nuclear threat is exactly what makes nuclear war inevitable in the future. The West has just shown that nuclear threats can be used not as a defensive weapon but as an offensive one; not as a tool of containment that deters great powers from starting wars but as a tool of conquest that deters great powers from interfering in wars. Sure, such behavior will lead to economic isolation, but this is not a sufficiently strong deterrent. If the deal is that, as long as you are a nuclear power, you can attack anyone with impunity at the cost of foregoing foreign trade, a lot of actors all around the world will take this deal without a second thought. By its inaction, the West has greatly increased the value of having nukes and we can now expect nuclear powers to pop up in the most surprising places.

Observe that nuclear wannabes do not even need to develop nukes themselves. Russia has way more warheads than necessary for effective containment. It has gone completely rogue, and after all the sanctions that were imposed on it, the West is running out of tools to put further pressure. So, what exactly is stopping Putin from opening a nuclear shop and gifting a hundred ICBMs to Iran and another hundred to North Korea?

This is the future we are facing: every ambitious dictator gets himself a nuke and then it will be only the question of time before these nukes start flying.

There is, therefore, no rational excuse for the lack of military action on behalf of NATO. Just like the Russian army is bombing Ukrainian civilians in Kharkiv because it cannot take on the Ukrainian military straight on, the West is destroying the Russian civilian economy with a ruthless economic blockade because it is too scared to destroy the Russian military. 

But this strategy does next to nothing to protect Ukraine. Putin has clearly demonstrated he does not care at all about what happens to his subjects and, by the moment the sanctions start to affect his military capacity, there might be no Ukraine left. Instead of helping Ukraine, the blockade breaks the livelihoods of the Russians who right now protest against Putin’s war every day on the streets of Russian cities despite the risk of incarceration and torture, potentially adding yet another humanitarian catastrophe to the one already underway.

Talking to Putin is hopeless but Western leaders can still be amenable to reason. I call on them to put a stop to this madness. Fight military force with military force. There is no need for a half-measure - such as a no-fly zone or a brutal economic blockade the only effect of which so far was to bring destruction to two nations instead of one. Attack the Russian army in Ukraine with the full might of your air force. Establish air superiority, take out Russian command structure, destroy Russian supply lines that are already fragile. Do this, and Putin’s horde will have no choice but to surrender. You can end Ukraine’s nightmare in a matter of days with minimal casualties for NATO, Ukraine and Russia. It will cost you only a fraction of what you will pay for an economic war against Russia and rebuilding Ukraine after a prolonged war. It will also greatly strengthen global security as you will give a clear signal that nuclear threats cannot be used as a tool of conquest. The whole world, including Ukraine and even Russia, will benefit from that.

The West’s failure to defend Ukraine is the bankruptcy of both morality and rationality. It was mad for Putin to invade but it is almost as mad for the West not to fight back the invasion. Joe Biden, Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron, please save the Ukrainian people. You have all the means to do that. If you do not, their blood (and the blood of many others who will die in the wars to come) will be on your hands almost as much as on Putin’s.

Sergei Sazonov
Author:  Sergei Sazonov

Sergei Sazonov is a Russian-born political philosopher at Estonia Tartu University.

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