Questions and Red Lines
What if Putin uses a tactical nuclear weapon to destroy part of Kyiv and force the Ukrainian government to surrender? Would this create a nuclear crisis that could escalate into a third world war?
The four week old war in Ukraine is reaching a critical turning point. Fierce Ukrainian resistance has stalled the Russian war machine’s advance thus ending any hope of a swift and easy victory. The Zelensky government remains in power and Ukraine remains a sovereign democracy.
The Ukrainian battlefield successes do not mean that Putin will seek a meaningful exit ramp and conduct serious negotiations to end the war. Instead, the increasingly angry and desperate Russian leader may view a settlement as a sign of weakness and a threat to his grip on power. The Russian propaganda machine is now dropping hints about launching a wave of cyber attacks, deploying chemical weapons, and even breaking the nuclear taboo by detonating a tactical nuclear weapon.
Each of these three types of escalation raises grave questions for President Biden and NATO leaders holding an emergency meeting in Brussels: How will NATO respond if Russian hackers disrupt Poland’s power grid? Would this prompt Poland to invoke NATO’s Article 5 that would require a unified NATO response? What if Putin uses a chemical attack to force the besieged city of Mariupol to surrender? Would this cross a red line that would galvanize global outrage that would force NATO into a military response? And finally, what if Putin uses a tactical nuclear weapon to destroy part of Kyiv and force the Ukrainian government to surrender? Would this create a nuclear crisis that could escalate into a third world war?
President Biden and the NATO leaders cannot ignore these questions. Tough rhetoric about a “severe price” will not deter Putin. So how should the West respond? First and foremost, the United States and its NATO allies should not be afraid. NATO’s formidable military forces are far more powerful than Putin’s weakened war machine. It is important to remember that Putin only respects power. NATO must draw firm red lines with consequences that include supplying Ukraine with warplanes and even establishing a no-fly zone.
The stakes in the Ukraine crisis are very high. The democratic nations are now engaged in a global struggle with Russia and other autocratic governments in China, North Korea, and Iran. A Ukrainian victory would represent an important victory for democracy, self-government, and the rule of law. A Ukrainian defeat would embolden autocrats throughout the world.
Author · Instructor