Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, now in its seventh month, enters the world at the moment of its greatest danger – and at the same time its greatest opportunity.
It is the moment of greatest danger because Putin fails so dramatically in pursuing his delusional obsession – which led him to launch a major invasion of Ukraine on February 24 – that he has created a modern notion of Russian empire with Kyiv as the could rebuild at its heart and as its legacy.
As Ukrainian courage and resilience turn his hubris into humiliation, there is a growing danger that he could turn to weapons of mass destruction, including using tactical nuclear weapons to coerce Ukraine and confuse its allies at a time when Putin’s influence is eroding and he is leaving the options.
This is a moment of greatest opportunity for world leaders at this week’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) gathering, the first since Putin started his war. It’s a chance for US President Joe Biden, along with his European and Asian allies, to openly discuss the dangers Putin’s war poses to any country that cares about national sovereignty, to condemn Putin’s undeniable war atrocities and those that remain Onlookers influencing world who neither condemned Putin nor supported sanctions against him.
It is disheartening that instead of focusing on how best to stop Russia’s despots now and before winter wages, the UN has wrestled with the formality of whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will be allowed to address this most important gathering of world leaders via video link . The good news is that members of the UN General Assembly voted 101 to 7 with 19 abstentions to give Ukrainians their stage.
Russia, a member of the UN Security Council, had done everything in its power to block the speech. No wonder, when Zelenskyi addressed the Security Council virtually in April, he told the group to act immediately for peace or “disband”.
“We are dealing with a state that is converting the right of veto in the UN Security Council into a right to kill,” he warned. Zelenskyy could not have been more prophetic when he said that if the UN could not stop Putin, then for countries going forward, it would not be international law that would determine the future, but the law of the jungle.
It has been speculated that the likelihood that Putin will use tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine – or order some other escalating action involving chemical or biological warfare agents – has grown roughly in proportion to the Russian despot’s mounting military backlash on the ground.
Scenes from Ukraine this week of Russian soldiers – laying down their rifles, fleeing the battlefield on bicycles and stripping off their uniforms to masquerade as locals – were all part of a mosaic of failure
The spectacular implosion of Putin’s military in southern and eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces have retaken at least 2,320 square miles of territory, has breathed new life into the speech that Putin could have no way out of a losing war except by self-destructing Hail Mary: nuclear weapons.
For a leader whose claim to leadership has always centered on his personal masculinity and political sanctity, this growing perception of his military’s incompetence and his own weakness threatens his continued rule.
That, in turn, appears to be prompting a rethink from both the handful of his allies and a larger group of countries – including India at the forefront – Putin learned at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand this week. Modi expressed his concern about the war by publicly telling Putin that “today’s era is not an era of war, and I spoke to you about it on the phone.”
Putin’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Samarkand this week also brought no relief to Putin. Indeed, in a statement just before the Beijing Olympics and before Putin started his war, Putin perhaps began to see the limits of what the two men had called their “boundless” relationship. “We understand your questions and concerns” about the war, Putin told Xi this week.
Personal survival remains the top priority for autocrats. For Putin, that must be the top priority now. What is less clear is what this would ensure. One possibility is the use of weapons of mass destruction and, in particular, tactical nuclear weapons.
While the risk for Putin would be enormous, the world must be prepared for this eventuality. The best way to do that would be to forestall him, deter him and be proactive rather than reactive because the world knows his plot.
“I’m afraid [Putin’s Russia] will now strike back in truly unpredictable ways, and in ways that may even involve weapons of mass destruction,” Rose Gottemoeller, a former NATO Deputy Secretary General, told the BBC this week.
What worries them is something that’s gaining traction in Kremlin strategy: tactical nuclear weapons that weigh a few kilotons or less — some with just one-fiftieth the yield of the Hiroshima bomb. Such weapons are not intended to reach Washington or Berlin, but to force them or, as Gottemoeller puts it, “to make the Ukrainians capitulate in their terror.”
In a “Memo to the President” of the Atlantic Council this week, Matthew Kroenig attempts to answer the question “how to deter Russian nuclear use in Ukraine — and how to respond when deterrence fails.”
“Such a nuclear use,” writes Kroenig, “could advance the Kremlin’s military objectives, undermine US interests worldwide and unleash a humanitarian catastrophe not seen since 1945. Serious consequences for any Russian use of nuclear weapons and be prepared to counter conventional military strikes.” Russian forces carry out if deterrence fails.
It is also important that the United States convey this message privately at a high level and accompany it with the deployment of relevant conventional forces to the area in a manner that underscores US seriousness.
When world leaders gather at the UNGA, it is hoped that they will seize the opportunity to listen fully to Zelenskyy.
Ukraine’s ability to survive as an independent, sovereign and democratic state has far-reaching implications for the international community represented by the United Nations.
Terrible dangers loom in the coming weeks. However, Putin’s failure on the battlefield and the increasing erosion of his international standing present an opportunity to do what is right: to accelerate and intensify all efforts to ensure Putin’s defeat and the defense of Ukraine.
If not now when?
— Friedrich Kempe is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Atlantic Council.