March 25, 2024

Why the West Should Not Be Afraid of Russian Nuclear Threats

A Ukrainian serviceman, crew member of a German-made self-propelled anti-aircraft (SPAAG), better known as the Flakpanzer Gepard, waits for a combat duty in Kyiv region, on March 21, 2024.
A Ukrainian serviceman, crew member of a German-made self-propelled anti-aircraft (SPAAG), better known as the Flakpanzer Gepard, waits for a combat duty in Kyiv region, on March 21, 2024.

Again and again in the western information space, one comes across reasons such as the fear of escalation meant to justify either not delivering certain capabilities to Ukraine or even suspending aid altogether — as this would presumably end the war.

Excessive cowering in the face of Russian threats will only do us a disservice. First, the war will only come to an end when Moscow ends its occupation of Ukraine’s territories and brings its troops back to Russia. Any calls for peace and the end of the war are a Russian information operation, pure and simple, which are then picked up by useful idiots all over the world — because who could be against peace? Let’s not forget the fact that Ukraine is defending its people and its territory, while Russia is occupying Ukraine and killing Ukrainian people. If Moscow itself does not stop, it can be stopped only when the west gives maximum aid to Kyiv, so that it drives the Russian occupiers out of Ukraine.

Second, Russia has consistently demonstrated — in words and actions — that it stands against western values and principles. In the Russian media — which is not free but entirely controlled by the Kremlin — the west is threatened with the use of nuclear weapons on a daily basis. The TV hosts and pundits, who receive their talking points straight from the Kremlin, throw vulgar insults directly at the western leaders. Russia’s economy has been overtaken by the military industry, pushing aside the needs of its population. Likewise, Russian leaders have promised to significantly increase the military personnel in the near future. Now, after the rigged presidential election, a new wave of mobilisation in Russia is also likely. It is worth emphasising that Russia has repeatedly drafted men from the occupied territories of Ukraine — which constitutes a war crime.

The Horror Of Occupation

What kind of escalation do some western leaders still fear? The use of nuclear weapons is cited most often. This is another case of the Kremlin propaganda, a fear that Russia has been trying to instil in us. Were Russia to be cornered, the Kremlin warns, it would bite, as cornered animals do. We must remind ourselves that Russia is the largest country on this planet, so why would it ever feel cornered?

For Ukraine, this nuclear sabre-rattling has long been deemed to be irrelevant and generally understood to be an empty threat. Yet, what is far more serious is Russia’s will to subjugate the neighbouring people and make them ‘forget’ that they are Ukrainian. Millions of Ukrainians have been suffering from rape, executions, torture, and deportation. These are the atrocities that a recent UN report lists when describing what awaits a country under Russian occupation.

The validity of a nuclear threat is questionable for the European countries bordering Russia. Their choice is existential: to survive as a nation or to disappear into Russia. The latter could happen within one’s own national homeland, turned into another Russian oblast, or be brought about by mass deportations far into the depths of Russia and forced assimilation through the imposition of the Russian language, culture, and customs. In our region, Russia has a decades-long record of destroying nationhood. What we see in Ukraine today is all too familiar to the people of the Baltic states and Poland.

Western European countries should understand that this line of violence, which is currently drawn along the border of Russia and Ukraine, will move closer to them with each subsequent country that Russia attempts to subjugate. With each following formulation of the fear of escalation, we give away a piece of mental territory and eventually move closer to the loss of physical territory.

The Red Lines

Ever since Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine, the west has constantly drawn red lines for itself. Let’s recall that the deliveries of tanks and long-range missiles were delayed for the fear of the Kremlin’s reaction. The very same weapons were eventually sent to Ukraine, helping to destroy Russian units and protect Ukrainian lives. How did Russia respond? Putin issued a statement, saying that western arms deliveries to Ukraine would not change anything on the battlefield but only exacerbate the conflict. The foreign tanks would be a priority target for Russian forces, he added.

This only repeats the Kremlin’s narrative that Ukrainian self-defence — and not Russian aggression — is what has caused and exacerbated the conflict. It also bears the question of whether we should be afraid if Russia considers the destruction of foreign tanks a priority. Until now, Russia’s priority has been to conduct war crimes in Ukraine, not to destroy Ukrainian tanks.

As for the long-range missiles, Kyiv has repeatedly said that they will not be used against targets in Russia. There is no reason why Ukrainians would lie and thereby risk losing western support altogether. Or do some western politicians believe the occupied Crimea to be a part of Russia? Barely had we overcome the fear of sending F-16 attack aircraft when the US imposed restrictions on their use — even before the aircraft even arrived in Ukraine. To fully comprehend this issue, we must look at the daily reality in Ukraine: Russian armed forces strike Ukraine from the occupied territories and Russian territory alike. How else can Ukraine defend itself if not by destroying these legitimate targets?

By first imposing those limitations on ourselves and then openly proclaiming them, we make life easier for Russian planners and restrict the freedom of manoeuvre of the Ukrainian military. French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent speech is, therefore, to be welcomed as it adds uncertainty for the decision-makers in the Kremlin, who must now consider what kind of response their actions in Ukraine might bring. Even though the deployment of NATO troops to Ukraine is still highly unlikely, it is no longer ‘non-existent.’ Thus, Russia is forced to take it into account.

During a recent visit to Ukraine, ICDS representatives were told that Ukraine was ready for a long war with Russia. Routine nuclear threats are taken as part of the information space, and while planning their activities, Ukrainians do not honour those with much undue attention. Ukrainians are ready to fight for Europe and sacrifice their own lives. The only thing they ask from us is to stand behind them. For now, European countries can still help Ukraine not at the cost of our people’s lives. If we delay, however, this will be the price we will start paying.

Finally, to paraphrase English poet John Donne:

No Ukrainian is an island, entire of itself; every Ukrainian is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If the clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. Any Ukrainian death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for Europe.

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

Filed under: Commentary