Ukraine and the nuclear threat

October 10, 2022
Jan Czajkowski
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Recently, the threat of nuclear war has once again become central in international debate.

Russia is losing the war against Ukraine. The Ukrainian defenders are advancing into the regions in eastern Ukraine that have been under occupation by the Russian army since February, or under partial control by the Russian supported separatists since 2014. Even Crimea, which was in the same year proclaimed as a part of Russia, is now under attack from Ukrainian units.

Putin has under the whole war of aggression been rattling with the nuclear threat, and he claims now that the annexed provinces should be defended with all available means. Even if such implicit threats have been used before, there is reason to worry. If Russia would employ tactical nuclear weapons against targets in Ukraine, the humanitarian disaster would be without limits. And since it would inevitably lead to some sort of retaliation from the US and NATO, there is always a risk of an escalation that would be a threat to human survival. As if the overshadowing threat of the climate catastrophe would not be enough.

Nuclear blackmail has in fact never been a very efficient weapon. You might argue that it worked during the Cuban crisis 60 years ago, which ended in a compromise between the United States and the Soviet Union that preserved the terror balance. But apart from that, you can hardly find occasions where the nuclear threat has been spoken out loud. In 1968 General Westmoreland considered using nuclear weapons in Vietnam, but those plans were dismissed when they became known to the US government. In 2017, Donald Trump threatened to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea, but this was ignored by the Koreans. A closer and perhaps not really that intimidating example was when in 2015 the Russian ambassador to Denmark declared that Danish man-of-wars would be a conceivable target for Russian nuclear missiles.

Forces around the world, both on the left-wing and the right-wing, oppose arms deliveries to Ukraine, while in most cases giving lip service to being against the Russian invasion. Precisely these groupings have insisted that the nuclear threat makes a negotiated solution necessary. Since Russia is not interested in serious negotiations, but has explicitly articulated the goal of wiping out Ukraine as nation, and since the Ukraine government has stated that they will not negotiate until the Russian troops have left the country, the demand for negotiations in reality appear as a one-sided demand on Ukraine to give in, to accept the Russian annexations - in the name of world peace. It has also often been stressed that one may not provoke Russia by crossing any ”red lines”. It has been repeated that one needs to find a solution that allows Putin to avoid ”losing face”.

A current example that surely will be warmly embraced by many of these ”friends of peace” is an interview with the analyst Anatol Lieven in the US left publication Jacobin on October 3. According to Lieven, Ukraine has practically already won the war, but he claims that they must be prevented from taking back Crimea: ”On the US side, it would have to be that we will back Ukraine to recover the territory that it has lost since February, but we will not back Ukraine to total victory and Crimea, which would very likely trigger nuclear attack."

Actually, no one can tell in which situation Russia might employ nuclear weapons in the war. Everything amounts to vague assumptions. If the Ukrainian army or the NATO forces would attack Russian territory, the risk of a nuclear confrontation would indeed increase significantly, and as we have seen, NATO has been careful to underline that this will not happen. But the regions annexed by Russia are not Russian territory, whatever Putin claims.

So how can we prevent Russia from resorting to nuclear weapons? Is it by pressing Ukraine to give up its population by accepting that Russia should keep part of the annexed regions? And thereby making the millions in Eastern Ukraine that cannot imagine living under Russian oppression leave their homes?

Would this secure world peace? Putin has never declared himself to be willing to be satisfied with Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Rather, the long term goal is still to annex the whole of Ukraine, as being part ot a recreation of the old Russian empire. Other countries along the Russian borders stand in line to be devoured. What about the Baltic states? What about Finland, that for more than a hundred years was part of Czarist Russia?

And if nuclear blackmail is successful once, why not play that card again? If Putin says he needs Gotland and the Åland islands to guarantee safety around the Baltic sea, should we then appease him and reluctantly say ”you are welcome”?

If Russia, with the help of American and European right-wing nationalists, and part of the left, achieves a favorable compromise that can be interpreted as a concession to nuclear blackmail, then we can coldly count on other nuclear nations around the world being tempted to try to achieve the same feat. Not only the traditional Great Powers - USA, Great Britain, France and China - but also India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. And it does not stop here, because a number of other countries will likely see it as necessary to acquire nuclear weapons, just for the purpose of having some way of opposing future nuclear blackmail.

In that case, the world will soon find itself on an inclined plane where open and hidden threats would be part of everyday life. And of course the risk of nuclear weapons being actually used will increase, when more authoritarian and paranoid world leaders want to flex their muscles, and perhaps become an eternal part of the history books - if such books will even be available in the future.

So the struggle to prevent nuclear war is definitely not waged by forcing Ukraine to give in the Putin’s blackmail. On the contrary, Ukraine must show Putin and the rest of the world’s terror loving imperialists: we will not give in to your blackmail! You will lose, and your threats of total annihilation will not lead you to victory!

In fact, the victory of Ukraine is the best way in today’s world to show that the peoples of the world will not give in to nuclear threats from the Great Powers. This is one more reason why Ukraine must win.