Western analysts who have studied the mind of Vladimir Putin for 20 years know what the Russian president is capable of doing and believe that although his “nuclear alert” this past weekend was mostly for show, Putin wouldn’t hesitate to use his nukes if he felt his personal position was threatened.
That’s the conclusion reached by Harry J. Kazianis, the senior director at the Center for the National Interest. Kazianis has worked at the Heritage Foundation and was on the 2016 foreign policy advisory team for Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) presidential campaign.
Back in 2012, I pressed my Russian colleague, asking in what other situations Russia would use nuclear weapons, if any. He explained that “if anything threatens our ability to exist as a nation and prosper, it is my view that we would use nuclear weapons.”
I didn’t believe him then, but I do now.
A list of sanctions imposed by the West comes close to the line. Kicking Russia out of the SWIFT network will result in a 5% drop in Russia’s GDP, according to some analysts. That, along with sanctions on the Central Bank and large individual Russian companies, spells real trouble for the Russian economy.
But is it enough for Putin to contemplate blowing up the world?
With Russian President Vladimir Putin now putting his nation’s nuclear forces on alert status, Moscow is signaling to us that recent arms shipments, sanctions, lashings in the media, and pressure placed on the Putin government are rattling nerves.
Putin is trying to tell us in no uncertain terms that we are coming close to his geopolitical redlines and, like a caged animal, he will strike back if we apply too much pressure. That could even mean using nuclear weapons.
Putin isn’t there yet. But the longer the war in Ukraine goes on, the chances grow that Putin will feel that in order to stay in power, he will need to use nuclear weapons to fend off NATO.
But here is where things could go from bad to worse. If both sides can’t come to a deal, Putin may decide to truly go all in against Kyiv, determining that a scorched earth policy and winning at any cost is better than taking weeks or months to take the country in full. The level of carnage we would see would be something akin to images from World War II: bombed-out cities, bodies on the streets, and total carnage everywhere.
The world would be horrified — and would demand action against Russia. What would the West do? It’s likely that more weapons would flow into Ukraine on a grand scale, putting more pressure on Putin to respond. More sanctions would then follow, including disconnecting all of Russia’s banks and financial institutions from SWIFT, including entities tied to Russian energy, the lifeblood of Moscow’s economy.
At that point, Russia’s way of life, its ability to exist, would be threatened. The Putin regime would be threatened. What, oh, what would Moscow do then? Think “escalate to deescalate” — and that could mean something horrible for all of us.
Is this a likely scenario? Not as long as Russia can achieve a quick victory. But if Ukraine decides to fight rather than lose its national identity, the war is likely to continue indefinitely and with it, the risk of the unthinkable becomes thinkable.