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The nuclear question

The nuclear question


If Vladimir Putin decides to use a battlefield nuclear weapon in Ukraine, how should the West respond?


It was, supposedly, Napoleon who said: “To understand the man, you have to know what was happening in the world when he was 20.” 

I was 20 in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, the internet began and capitalism proved the underwriter to the West’s victory in the Cold War. Over the past decade, though, the certainties of the 1990s – the confidence in liberal democracy, free markets and free people – have been undone. The financial crisis; the rise of the technocracy; Brexit, Trump and populism; the march of the strongmen to greater totalitarianism; a global pandemic. It’s been a decade of surprises. And the world has come to feel much more unpredictable.

And so, as a journalist, it’s felt something of a relief to answer questions about what’s happening and say, honestly: I don’t know. Not just, I don’t know the full facts. I don’t know what will happen next. I don’t even know what to think. 

But then, in the last few weeks, I have come to realise how being a child of 1989 has left me bewildered and unable to answer the questions we face now. 

In particular, one: if Vladimir Putin uses a so-called tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, what should the West do then? 

And the answer is, of course, is I don’t know. But I realise that “I don’t know”, is just not good enough. 

I’m James Harding, I’m the editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail I want to consider how the 1989 mindset leaves us unprepared for the questions we face now – and, specifically, that nuclear question. 

The instinct we all have is to look away from the possibility of Vladimir Putin authorising the use of an “in-theatre” nuclear warhead. Who wants to have a conversation that tempts that kind of fate? Even the possibility is frightening. But looking away from the question and accepting that we don’t know the answer is, I fear, a shortcut to inaction. The risk, surely, is that without an open discussion that sets clear red lines on what the West’s response will be, the world leaves the door open to Putin. A nuclear strike becomes more likely, if Moscow doesn’t know the price. And, equally, if the West doesn’t have an answer, it’s more likely to need one.

Earlier this week, we held a ThinkIn – one of the open editorial meetings at our newsroom in Tortoise – to try and answer this question. It was uncomfortable. Frankly there’s little information around on the options. And the ones that we discussed – imposing a full oil embargo in response, or making sanctions permanent, or engaging Xi Jinping on a global boycott of Russia, or expelling all Russian diplomats and the closure of their embassies worldwide – well, all of those responses felt, somehow, inadequate. Even the retaliation proposed in the Wall Street Journal this week by Robert O’Brien, President Trump’s former National Security Adviser, was, well let’s call it tempered: he suggested clearing the Russian navy from the Mediterranean, striking at Russia’s air force in Iraq and Syria and dismantling Russian oil and gas pipelines to the West. And the fact is we simply don’t know what the “Tiger team” – that group convened by Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser – has wargamed for this scenario.

But perhaps the reason the discussions have been uncomfortable is because they’re revealing. The West has so far not been willing to engage its military forces directly in defence of Ukraine. In the discussions I’ve had this week, both at our ThinkIn and privately, the reluctance to use military force against Russian forces either in Ukraine and certainly not in Russia is clear – it’s a reluctance that is understandable. And that’s before the event of the use of a nuclear weapon. (In fact, when I raised this with one person, they suggested even asking the question was crazy: i.e. who would think of retaliating against Russia, knowing it might trigger a nuclear response?)

But we need to face up to the real consequences of the West’s revealed limits on military action. A country, in this case Russia, that appears willing to use nuclear weapons can not just deter the use of the West’s nuclear arsenal but, what we’re witnessing is the defanging of the US, the UK and Europe from the use of its conventional forces. Putin’s calculation appears to be, rightly, that the West will blink. Or, put another way, we’re not as mad as he is. The implication of this is that for all the forceful speeches – as well as the supply of weapons and financial aid – from Western leaders, the revealed position of the US and Europe is that Ukraine is not of vital or strategic interest to the West. And what that surely suggests is that the extraordinary defiance and courage of the Ukrainians, backed by more military hardware from the West, may yet be enough to hold out against the remorseless Russian bombardment. But that has to be the less likely scenario. More plausibly, Russia’s military strength and political determination – emboldened by the evident limits of Western intervention – is an invitation to Putin to persevere and, some might say, to pursue the nuclear doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate” – i.e. to use a nuke to put an end to the war by frightening the Ukrainians into submission. One former US Administration official told me that the chances of this were probably now in the order of 20 per cent.

If you follow the logic of all this, then perhaps three things flow. One is that the world really is falling apart. Certainly the world order. Do we really expect the G20 to meet in Bali this year? Will Biden sit down with Putin? No. Would Xi Jinping then join the others in barring Putin from the meeting? Well, most likely not. And so another place for global leadership breaks up, and most likely splinters not just East vs West but more significantly North vs South, much like the UN vote on the Ukraine invasion in February. 

The second consequence is that the domestic politics of the Ukraine war for Boris Johnson and for Joe Biden, both with their personal approval ratings low, is more precarious than it looks now. So far, they have been seen to be strong allies to President Zelensky of Ukraine – well, rhetorically at least; Johnson’s visit to Kyiv was a powerful visible statement. But if the implication of the West’s reluctance to engage militarily is a slow and bloody Russian defeat of Ukraine, then the aura of the strong allies will quickly fade. Sympathy for Ukraine could splinter into anger and shame, between those, on the one hand, who will say that Ukraine was never the UK or the US’ business and we knew it, but we still paid the price in terms of the cost of living for everyday people and those, on the other, who will fume that the West has offered little more than warm words and defensive weapons, which have never been enough to hold off Russia and, in effect the West is responsible for leaving Ukraine in Putin’s murderous hands and, worse, allowing Ukrainians to die in vain and with the false hope that meaningful Western support was one day coming. 

And then there’s the third consequence: de-globalisation. Was the West’s corporate exodus from Russia following the invasion the precursor of a pullback from China? Ivo Daalder said to me the other day that he suspects business has yet to come to grips with what’s coming: we’ve moved, he said, from an age of “geoeconomics” to “geopolitics” – from globalisation to a new contest of powers. Ivo was the US ambassador to Nato and now chairs the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, so he’s plugged into Washington without being tied up in it. He argued in Foreign Affairs recently that the US is going to need to establish a new architecture of containment, much like George Kennan did more than half a century ago; and at the same time, capitalism has to prepare for a reset too, one that ties business more closely to democracy. This presents a generational fork in the road for the global economy, because, bluntly, it comes down to whether or not to do business with China.

For us 1989ers – i.e. people born in the late Sixties and early Seventies – all this represents an unravelling. A generation defined by a wonderful if unruly flourishing of freedoms, thanks to technology, capital and the unprecedented exchange of ideas, is now asking itself whether it enjoyed a holiday from history, whether we’re back to making hard, expensive and frightening choices about national security which we haven’t had to think about all our adult lives because the Cold War ended when we came of age. 

Personally, I find myself padding towards a view on what the West should do – and what it will say it will do – in the event that Putin uses a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. It’s this. Engage with China on a joint economic and diplomatic response. Impose a full boycott, including an oil embargo. But make clear that the West is willing to do more than that, to engage the full force of the US military and its allies in Ukraine to push back the Russian army if it uses a nuclear weapon, as this would be a clear act of genocide.

This is, of course, short of a nuclear retaliation, which would be inhumane and potentially cataclysmic; it’s short, too, of a threat to use conventional military forces against Russian military installations and assets in Russia. But some will still say it risks dragging us into the war in Ukraine, as, in Putin’s mind, it might legitimise a retaliatory strike against the West. But let’s not delude ourselves: not having an answer is a choice in itself, one with a price that may be paid in the lives of Ukrainians, the security of their neighbours and the end of the West. 

As I said, I don’t know what the answer is. I know that not having one is not good enough, that my post-Cold War world doesn’t provide a framework for thinking this through. When Joe Biden turned twenty, it was 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. When Vladimir Putin turned twenty, it was 1972, the year the last US troops were pulling out of Vietnam, and Nixon and Brezhnev stood together at the Moscow Summit, two men embodying a world defined by the contest of two superpowers.

The answers to the questions we face don’t lie in their past either. There is, I’d like to think, a new pattern of international relationships, national responsibilities and corporate behaviour that emerges from all of this. But hard as it is to admit, we’re going to need more than a reboot of the ideas that have made us.