Is Russia’s talk of using nuclear weapons just hot air, or are Moscow’s warnings serious? And what’s next? There are three scenarios to consider here. An analysis.
An analysis by Sergei Poletayev
Moscow has significantly stepped up the conflict over Ukraine: first the green light was given for referendums in areas formerly controlled by Kyiv and then a partial military mobilization was announced. The West was also once again reminded that these actions are backed by the most powerful weapons in human history. This was immediately condemned in the West as “nuclear blackmail”.
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Why do we keep hearing admonitions from Moscow about Russia’s nuclear arsenal? Is Russia really ready to use such brute force, or is it just a form of verbal deterrence?
First, since the end of the Cold War, there has been an imbalance between Moscow’s nuclear power, its economic capabilities, and its political weight in the world. Second, these weapons of mass destruction are perceived by our former adversaries as a relic of the past rather than as a relevant factor in today’s international relations.
Russia, on the other hand, sees its nuclear arsenal as the basis of its sovereignty and assumes that as long as it is still a nuclear superpower, it can also claim importance in foreign policy, even as an economic dwarf. It was the audacity of being a great power that guided Russia’s actions in Ukraine and throughout the post-Soviet space. This different perception is the fundamental reason for the Ukraine crisis and therefore Russia and the West cannot find common ground to at least try to initiate some kind of agreement.
Russia has no illusions that the West shares its views on Ukraine. If such illusions existed a decade or more ago, they are long gone. The Kremlin is now trying to push Washington and Brussels out of Ukraine, which it sees as part of its vital zone of interest. Should this fail, one hopes at least to reformat Ukraine as a state and remove its potential threat. With this project, Moscow doesn’t care what others think about it.
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But the West persists, and Moscow’s years of attempts to settle the matter without bloodshed have failed. In the meantime, the situation has only grown more volatile and we are now in the eighth month of a large-scale conflict in Ukraine, in which Kyiv has lost control of five regions since 2014. Two armies face off: one backed by the largest country in the world in terms of area, and one backed by the most powerful military bloc in human history, providing enormous support.
By stepping up its efforts and recalling its nuclear weapons, Moscow is telling the West:
The more you pester us and the more you draw us into this conventional conflict in Ukraine, the closer the nuclear scenario gets, both tactically – attacks on specific targets in the theater of operations – and strategically, that is, with ICBMs. The more you try to corner us, the fewer choices you will give us.
In a nuclear war there can be no winners. Your military victory in Ukraine is thus impossible. So you have two options: either continue to support Kyiv or withdraw direct support. Ukraine will lose this war one way or the other and you could lose with her or you will cut back – and you will survive as a result.
It could be argued that the Kremlin’s vague hints are not aimed at easing tensions, but rather increasing uncertainty and forcing opponents to think about exactly where the red lines should be drawn.
The West needs to take Russia seriously and make peace before it’s too late
First, the number one military goal for Russia is to defeat the Ukrainian army. The Kremlin seems confident that after its partial mobilization it can deal with the Ukrainian army and Ukraine’s western rear. However, it is not certain whether one can also cope with the deployed Western weapon systems.
Second, clear messages are likely to be conveyed through discreet diplomatic channels about what Moscow finds totally unacceptable. In any case, NATO has remained very cautious about expanding its arms sales and has categorically not allowed its arms to attack Russia’s heartland and Crimea while still not intervening with its air force and air defenses.
So what’s next? Well, there are three scenarios. Let’s break these down into appropriate moods.
Schwarz: In response to the latest Russian actions, NATO is once again stepping up its efforts and intensifying its commitment to defeating Russia on the battlefield. This is the road that leads to nuclear war, although there are still many bridges to be crossed.
Grey: Freeze of the conflict in its current state with continued non-recognition of Russia’s new borders. This will tear Ukraine apart and prepare for more fighting in the future, leaving Russia-West relations ruined for years to come.
Sunshine: For this to happen, Western leaders must become aware of the reality of the nuclear threat. Then – and only then – will they lose interest in Ukraine. With regard to Russia, on the other hand, it will make sense to restore relations, fully aware of which red lines must not be crossed in the future. Then – and only then – can we finally make progress.
This article was first published by profile.ru.
Translated from English.
Sergei Poletayev is co-founder and editor of the Vatfor Project.
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