The world is entering the moment of greatest danger—and at the same time of greatest opportunity—of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, now in its seventh month.
It is the time of greatest danger because Putin is failing so dramatically in the pursuit of his delusional obsession—which prompted him to launch a major invasion of Ukraine on February 24—that he could rebuild a modern notion of Russian empire with Kyiv its centerpiece and as its legacy.
As Ukrainian courage and resistance transforms its arrogance into humiliation, the danger increases that it may resort to weapons of mass destruction, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, to coerce Ukraine and confuse its allies at a time when that Putin’s influence is eroding and he is running out of options.
This presents a moment of prime opportunity for world leaders at this week’s meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the first since Putin launched his war. It is an opportunity for US President Joe Biden, along with his European and Asian allies, to openly discuss the dangers posed by Putin’s war to any country that cares about national sovereignty, to condemn the indisputable atrocities Putin’s wars and involve those who are still left. world that have not condemned Putin or supported the sanctions against him.
It is disheartening that the UN, instead of focusing on how best to stop despot Russia now and before the winter wages, has been wrestling with the technicality of whether Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy should to be able to speak via video link to this most significant gathering of world leaders. . The good news is that members of the UN General Assembly voted 101 to 7, with 19 abstentions, to give the Ukrainians their stage.
Russia, a member of the UN Security Council, had done everything it could to block the speech. That’s no surprise, because when Zelensky spoke virtually to the Security Council in April, he told the group that it would have to act for peace immediately or “dissolve.”
“We are facing a state that turns the right of veto in the UN Security Council into a right to kill,” he warned. Zelenskyy could not have been more prophetic, saying that if the UN did not stop Putin, then for countries going forward it would not be international law that would define the future, but the law of the jungle.
Speculation that the possibility of Putin using tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine, or ordering some other escalating action with chemical or biological agents, has grown in roughly proportion to the Russian despot’s mounting military setbacks on the ground.
The scenes in Ukraine this week of Russian soldiers – putting down their rifles, fleeing the battlefield on bicycles and ditching their uniforms to disguise themselves as locals – were part of a patchwork of failure
The spectacular implosion of Putin’s army in southern and eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian troops have retaken at least 2,320 square miles of territory, has breathed new life into talk that Putin cannot get out of a lost war except through self-defeat. Hail Mary: Nuclear Weapons.
For a leader whose claim to leadership has all along centered on his personal masculinity and political invulnerability, this growing perception of his military’s ineptitude and his own weakness threatens his continued rule .
That, in turn, appears to be prompting a rethink by both his handful of allies and a larger group of countries, India chief among them, as Putin learned at the summit of the Cooperation Organization from Shanghai this week to Samarkand. Modi expressed his concern about war by telling Putin publicly that “today’s era is not an era of war, and I have spoken to you on the phone about that.”
Putin’s meeting this week in Samarkand with Chinese President Xi Jinping brought him no relief either. Indeed, Putin may have begun to see the limits of what the two men had called their “boundless” relationship in a statement just before the Beijing Olympics and before Putin launched his war. “We understand your questions and concerns” about the war, Putin told Xi this week.
Personal survival remains the highest priority for autocrats. For Putin, this must be the most important thing now. What is less clear is what would guarantee it. One possibility is to resort to weapons of mass destruction and, in particular, tactical nuclear weapons.
Although the risk to Putin would be enormous, the world must be prepared for this contingency. The best way to do this would be to anticipate it, deter it and be proactive rather than reactive because the world knows its plot.
“I fear [Putin’s Russia] will strike back now in truly unpredictable ways, and in ways that may even involve weapons of mass destruction,” Rose Gottemoeller, former NATO deputy secretary-general, told the BBC this week.
What worries her is something that has been growing in importance in the Kremlin’s strategy: tactical nuclear weapons weighing a few kilotons or less, some with only one-fiftieth the yield of the Hiroshima bomb. These weapons are not designed to reach Washington or Berlin but rather to coerce or, as Gottemoeller puts it, “to get the Ukrainians, in their terror, to capitulate.”
In a “Memo to the President” from the Atlantic Council this week, Matthew Kroenig attempts to answer the question of “how to deter Russian nuclear use in Ukraine, and respond if deterrence fails.”
“Such nuclear use,” Kroenig writes, “could advance the Kremlin’s military goals, undermine U.S. interests globally, and unleash a humanitarian catastrophe not seen since 1945. To deter potential disaster, the U.S. The United States should issue public and deliberately vague threats of serious consequences for any Russian use of nuclear weapons and be prepared to pursue conventional military strikes against Russian forces if deterrence fails.”
It is also essential that the United States convey this message privately at high levels and accompany it with the movement of relevant conventional forces in the area in a way that underscores US seriousness.
When world leaders meet at the UNGA, they are expected to take the opportunity to give Zelenskyy a full hearing.
Ukraine’s ability to survive as an independent, sovereign and democratic state has far-reaching implications for the international community represented by the UN.
There are dire dangers in the coming weeks. However, Putin’s battlefield failures and the growing erosion of his international standing offer an opportunity to do the right thing: accelerate and intensify all efforts to ensure Putin’s defeat and the defense of Ukraine.
If not now, when?
— Frederic Kempe is the president and CEO of the Atlantic Council.