Putin wouldn’t use nuclear weapons in Ukraine if he had conventional strategic nuclear thinking. What if he’s following a different paradigm?
Let’s first find the most important spot on Earth. Place your finger on the world map and move south. There. What if you ended up in Ukraine? Why not? The world appears ready to strike nuclear war for the first time in almost eighteen decades. This is Ukraine.
There are obvious signs that there is an escalation. One of Putin’s closest advisors was murdered by someone to send a message. Another person decided to destroy the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which could supply a frigid winter’s amount of energy to Europe. This was a major war crime against NATO member Germany, who will be obliged to remain within the U.S.-imposed boycott boundaries. Any country bringing energy around these borders will have to pay respect to Poland for its use of the pipeline. Another attack on a critical bridge in Crimea. It’s easy to determine who is responsible for each activity. Ask cui bono who benefits. In both cases, the most likely answer is “em>cui/em> or “em>bono/em>.”
A nuclear detonation would be the main event in Act III if it were Shakespeare. As the world was told by Russia that a Ukrainian nuclear power plant might become critical and allow it to irradiate large swathes of central Europe, including NATO-aligned Poland, we’ve already seen the setup twice. We are told that this act would be similar to a bomb but could allow Putin to avoid the consequences of violating the nuclear weapons ban. What if that happened? What’s next?
Partly, we have trouble seeing the future because we use the wrong paradigm. This is the Cold War nuclear vision, which has kept a fragile peace for more than 40 years. The Cold War paradigm was built on the mutually assured destruction (MAD) doctrine. This meant that if one side releases a nuclear weapon, the other will match it. After that, an escalation would be necessary until both Moscow and New York glow in the dark. This tit-for-tat was the basis for many dramatic scenarios such as the one in the movie Failedsafe and, without doubt, the real-world SIOP Defcon 1.
Both sides believed that they would not be able to stop a conventional spat from turning nuclear. This was what calmed the Cuban Missile Crisis. America’s other too-close-for-comfort nuclear-considered scenarios saw something similar. General MacArthur was unable to use nukes against the Chinese in Korea because he had to look down on the Soviet strategic missile forces. Similar to the Vietnam War, any idea of using nuclear weapons to end it was rejected. Israel uses a form of MAD to make it clear that, if Tel Aviv or Jerusalem are destroyed, then the nation’s nuclear arsenal can be unleashed against those responsible and possibly everyone else in the area. Everyone dies. Everyone loses big.
The MAD paradigm allows the U.S., to escalate the Ukrainian conflict by providing more advanced weapons and intelligence, as well logistical support. Although the U.S. acknowledges that CIA elements are present in Ukraine, the U.S. does not know the exact number of special forces that pretend to be volunteers.
Each step up in the weaponry ladder (such as supplying main battle tanks first-line via the Poles) increases the risk of a Ukrainian offensive crossing a Russian red line, either as a declared or real border. Russia will likely dismiss the loss of its greater invading force as a cost of doing business. However, Russia is less likely to return areas in the Donbas or other regions that were taken long ago by Moscow and considered its own annexed territory.
The Bay of Pigs is the 1961 incursion by American-trained mercenaries into Cuba, which was no doubt known to the president of Ukraine Zelensky. The Pentagon’s scheme was to send in mercenaries, have them killed on the beach, and then use that excuse to get President Kennedy to give significant U.S. airpower. After that point, the U.S. had to send more support and double down until a real invasion took place.
Zelensky should know that crossing into Russian territory or “Russian” territory is a good way to bring in overt combat support from America. He wants to win the war by reclaiming the land he lost. In this way of thinking, what follows? U.S. airpower can turn the tide. Putin is afraid to escalate to nuclear weapons as promised him for fear of MAD. This is the Cold War-style way of thinking.
But MAD isn’t Putin’s Paradigm. Putin and his advisers speak loosely about nukes, suggesting they are playing a different game to the one played during the Cold War. Putin uses the threat of nukes to not only back the U.S. but also to keep the U.S. from increasing conventionally. The tit-for-tat in this case is not ICBMs targeting Moscow but U.S. close air support, scared back within NATO lines by a tactical nuke detonation just outside Mariupol. Putin believes he is safe from nuclear retaliation since he is betting on Joe Biden following Cold War rules (don’t use nukes Ukraine for fear of total nuke war a few downstream), while Putin uses nukes to keep America at bay.
Sign up today
Receive weekly emails in your inbox
A new way of looking at nuclear weapons is needed when an enemy threatens to use a nuclear attack to deter conventional attacks. Imagine the following scenario: In 2006, as the U.S. began to lose in Iraq, the Russians started openly supporting Al Qaeda on the ground and threatened to provide air support for Al Qaeda forces. A nuclear American threat could have been enough for the Russians to be scared away. This idea was not unknown in the Cold War and was known as the stability-instability paradox. Because of the horrors of nuclear war, it was less likely that one superpower would interfere with the small-scale wars of another. This is why President Barack Obama didn’t do anything when the Russians invaded Crimea.
Ukraine was the exception to this rule. Biden used another Cold War paradigm, The Domino Theory, to address Ukraine. Biden can increase the chances of nuclear exchange by responding to Putin’s Paradigm using more conventional forces. Putin has abandoned MAD and the peace that it maintained during the Cold War. We now have what one pundit refers to as the first predatory nuke weapon state shaking its nuclear stick in an attempt to scare away a more conventional response.
The use of small nukes and nuclear threats allows for larger-scale conventional wars. What will Biden do in the final hour of darkness? Is he able to grasp the concept? His actions will determine the future of central Europe, which is non-nuclear.