Both the Russian foreign minister and his ambassador to the United States have signaled that Russia’s debacle in Ukraine could lead to a nuclear strike. By claiming that Russia is preparing its weapons, warning of a “serious” risk of nuclear escalation and declaring “few rules remain”, they have deliberately shaken the ultimate saber. Vladimir Putin himself noted that he has weapons that his opponents do not have and that he “will use them, if necessary.” Even CIA Director William Burns has warned of the possibility that Mr Putin could use a tactical nuclear weapon, even though there is currently no “practical evidence” to suggest this is imminent. Nevertheless, we must be prepared; former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger argued that we should heed the threat.
We should imagine the unimaginable, especially how we would react militarily and economically to such a seismic shift in the global geopolitical terrain.
President Biden is right not to have raised our level of nuclear DEFCON. Nor did the administration’s rhetoric address the bait of Mr. Putin. Back in 2012, I noted that Russia was America’s biggest geopolitical adversary, and that clearly remains a source of great concern for Republicans and Democrats alike. Given the magnitude of the consequences of a nuclear strike, our potential options deserve consideration, both from our leaders and from American citizens.
By invading Ukraine, Mr. Putin has already proven that he is capable of illogical and self-destructive decisions. If he loses in Ukraine, not only will he have failed to fulfill his life’s ambition to reverse what he considers the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century – the collapse of the Union Soviet Union – but it will also have permanently diminished Russia as a great power and invigorated its adversaries. Mr. Putin may face significant internal leadership challenges. In such a circumstance, he may be able to convince himself that the United States and the West are the reason why he invaded Ukraine and that the propaganda he deployed to justify this immoral invasion was true since the start.
Some will conclude that to avoid provoking Russia – and thus avoid the prospect of a possible Russian nuclear strike – we should preemptively prevent Ukraine from routing the Russian military. We could limit the weapons we send, withhold intelligence and pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky to install himself. I do not agree; free nations must continue to support the courageous and necessary defense of Ukrainians for their country. To not continue to support Ukraine would be to pay the cannibal to eat us last. If Mr. Putin, or any other nuclear power, could invade and subjugate with impunity, then Ukraine would be just the first of those conquests. Inevitably, our friends and allies would be devoured by brazen and authoritarian nuclear powers, the implications of which would radically alter the world order.
The right answer is to continue to give Ukraine all the support it needs to defend itself and win. His military successes could force Mr. Putin to leave Ukraine or agree to a ceasefire acceptable to the Ukrainian people. Perhaps his control of the Russian media would allow him to turn a loss into a life-saving story at home. These are the results that it would be smart to take. But if a cornered, delusional Mr. Putin were to use a nuclear weapon instead – whether via a tactical strike or by weaponizing one of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants – we would have several options.
Some would argue for a nuclear response. But there is a wide range of options, and they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. For example, NATO could engage in Ukraine, potentially wiping out the struggling Russian military. Moreover, we could confront China and all other nations with a choice similar to the one George W. Bush gave the world after 9/11: either you are with us or you are with Russia – you cannot. be with both.
Russia’s use of a nuclear weapon would undoubtedly be a redefining and reorienting geopolitical event. Any nation that chooses to maintain ties with Russia after such a scandal would itself become a global pariah. Part or all of its economy would be separated from that of the United States and our allies. Today, the West accounts for more than half of the world’s GDP. Separating any nation from our combined economies could devastate it. The impact on Western economies could be significant, but the impact on the economies of Russia and its fellow travelers would be far worse. It could ultimately be an economic Armageddon, but it is far preferable to a nuclear Armageddon.
Together with our main NATO allies, we should develop and evaluate a wide range of options. I assume that the president and the administration are already engaged in such a process. Potential responses to such a heinous and geopolitically disorienting act as a nuclear strike must be optimally crafted and have the support of our NATO allies. Mr. Putin and his enablers should have no doubt that our response to such depravity would be devastating.
Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) is a senator from Utah and was the Republican presidential nominee in 2012.