Speaking to Congress on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky implored the United States to impose a no-fly zone while seeming to keep his expectations low: “Is this a lot to ask for, to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people? Is this too much to ask — humanitarian no-fly zone, something that Russia would not be able to terrorize our free cities?” Knowing the answer all too well, Zelensky continued, “If this is too much to ask, we offer an alternative” and moved on to request military equipment instead.
Over the past three weeks, the United States has offered almost unprecedented support to Ukraine in the form of economic warfare against Russia, more than $14 billion in humanitarian aid, and hundreds of millions more in military equipment. Still, there are obvious limits on what America is willing to do. President Biden explained that if the US got involved directly “That’s a world war — when Americans and Russians start shooting at one another.” Eliminating any ambiguity of what that might entail, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented that “World War III will be a devastating nuclear war.”
With those words from Lavrov, Biden is pushed even further into the corner that he had already placed himself in. If Biden doesn’t help Ukraine, Putin could completely destroy the country. If he does help Ukraine, Putin could destroy the world.
This nuclear threat from Russia isn’t a necessary result of them being a nuclear superpower. Instead, the Russian government and Putin have pursued a strategy of turning themselves into a perceived nuclear wildcard—willing to respond to threats with global destruction and little warning.
How does Putin threaten nuclear war?
Conventional thinking in America holds that if we resort to nuclear war with Russia, the ensuing destruction would be existential. It is based on the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) that maintains if either power declared war on the other, they could be met with potentially thousands of nuclear strikes decimating every population center, military base, and strategic location on the map.
In the 1960s when these policies were relatively young, Stanley Kubrick sought to make a movie about nuclear strategy during the Cold War. He got so hung up on the absurdity of MAD that he created the black comedy Dr. Strangelove instead. An unauthorized nuclear strike order from the US sets in motion the destruction of the world that the Soviets and Americans—working together—cannot stop. As Kubrick realized when making Dr. Strangelove, there’s no making sense of MAD—only a madman would actually order a strike.
Enter Vladimir Putin, a man who’s weathered more accusations of insanity than Britney Spears. The British tabloids are running stories suggesting he might have Parkinson’s, roid rage, or cancer. As Roseanne W. McManus noted in the Washington Post, just in the past month speculation has come from a diverse crowd including Jen Psaki, Marco Rubio, Boris Johnson, and Emmanuel Macron. Condoleezza Rice said that she “met with him many times, and this is a different Putin.” Former Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper said he “personally think[s] he’s unhinged.”
Deliberate or not, Putin has worked hard to build this persona and he doesn’t show any signs of stopping. As American officials declared the Russian invasion of Ukraine to be imminent, Putin ordered large-scale nuclear drills including targeted missile strikes. During the speech where he announced the invasion of Ukraine, Putin threatened that any country trying to intervene will face “consequences you have never seen in history.” A few days after the invasion, he ordered the Russian nuclear forces to high alert, citing aggressive comments from Western governments. Two days later, Putin ordered more nuclear drills involving his submarine fleet.
Years of Russian policy reflect a similar belligerence. Russia operates a doomsday device which, if activated, could automatically fire Russia’s nuclear arsenal at pre-programmed targets if it sensed a nuclear attack on Russian soil. In 2020, the Russian government clarified that they would use nuclear weapons in retaliation against a conventional attack on Russia. Last year they tested an experimental nuclear torpedo capable of traveling thousands of miles across the Atlantic to trigger a devastating radioactive tsunami on the American coastline. And all the while, it’s highly questionable if anyone in Russia actually has the authority to prevent Putin from ordering a strike—no matter how senseless—if he calls for it.
What does this mean for democracies?
The result of these policies is that Russia appears highly aggressive, unpredictable, and recklessly indifferent to whether or not the world is destroyed. Americans, fearing for their safety, take every opportunity to calm down Moscow. While Putin keeps ordering nuclear drills, President Biden canceled ours scheduled for early March out of fear they might provoke Putin further. Constantly trying to ease tensions might be a popular policy with an American public uninterested in their half of mutually assured destruction, but it is also a projection of profound weakness from the Oval Office.
With the invasion of Ukraine, Putin is calling our bluff on MAD. While the US suggests it is willing to respond to threats with nuclear force, Putin knows that Western democratic governments are extremely averse to doing so. That aversion means that dictators can violate borders and destroy democracies with confidence that the US and NATO will not put troops in any non-NATO country that the Russian military already has a presence in. The US’s position of “strategic ambiguity,” keeping our commitments vague to prevent provocation, is collapsing under the Russian strategy to “escalate to de-escalate.” By making threats of nuclear war, Russia is forcing the US to abandon ambiguity and reveal precisely what it is—and is not—willing to commit to Ukraine.
This reveal of American commitments could have global implications. Through constantly calling for peace in Ukraine, we may very well be encouraging war in Taiwan. Taiwan and China exist in a fragile status quo. Part of that established order is the strong suggestion that the US would heavily back Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. Biden has committed to defending Taiwan already, but if we are unwilling to challenge another nuclear power directly, it is difficult to see how that could be the case.
At the moment, unhinged authoritarian governments like Russia are able to bully democracies into non-intervention. But we must not let democracy be a weakness, just as we must not abandon democracies around the world to authoritarian takeover. If NATO is incapable in deterring aggression outside of NATO countries, it’s time for the United States and its allies to determine what effective deterrence could look like. If we don’t act, our “strategic ambiguity” will increasingly become an invitation for authoritarians to rewrite borders.