Russian President Vladimir Putinn and his minions have explicitly resorted...

Russian President Vladimir Putinn and his minions have explicitly resorted to nuclear threats in response to Western military assistance to Ukraine. Credit: AP/Gavriil Grigorov

From the first days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the specter of nuclear war has loomed over discussions of the war’s outcomes and of Western policy. More than once, Vladimir Putin and his minions have explicitly resorted to nuclear threats in response to Western military assistance to Ukraine. These threats have escalated with Russia’s outrageously illegal annexation of four regions of Ukraine, with suggestions that the Kremlin now regards these lands as part of Russia and will defend them by all available means.

Are leaders in the United States and Europe dangerously cavalier about the threat of nuclear warfare which could lead to the destruction of civilization as we know it? Or is yielding to Putin’s nuclear blackmail a far more dangerous course than standing up to it?

The fear of nuclear escalation has always affected the Western response to Russian aggression. If the Kremlin did not have its nuclear arsenal, there is little doubt the invading force would have been quickly blown to smithereens by NATO air power (which is why there would have been no invasion in the first place).

Without direct involvement, NATO countries — above all, the U. S. — have supplied Ukraine with weapons and other aid, allowing Ukrainian forces to resist the Russian onslaught far more effectively than anyone (including Putin) expected. The current Ukrainian counteroffensive has been especially successful in recapturing lost territory — most recently with the liberation of Lyman, a city in eastern Ukraine that played a key role in Russian operations, and with new Ukrainian advances near Kherson in the south.

We may be looking at a total collapse of the Russian war effort — and the mobilization Putin announced earlier this month may do little to change its course.

But what if Putin decides to use a tactical nuclear weapon against Ukraine to regain the advantage, as hawkish domestic allies have urged?

The potential for escalation is obvious. If Russia nukes a Ukrainian division — and reduces miles of Ukrainian territory to a radioactive wasteland — NATO will have to retaliate. The nightmare scenario is that it all ends in mutual annihilation. Another possibility is that a doomed and cornered Putin will decide to unleash Armageddon on his way out (as Hitler probably would have done in 1945 if he could have).

Some commentators, mostly those critical of Western support for Ukraine, say willingness in Western policy circles to treat nuclear confrontation with Russia as a possibility is alarming and irresponsible. Obviously, averting even a small risk of global thermonuclear war should be a top priority. There's a good case for not giving Ukraine long-range missiles that can strike Russian cities. There's also a case, down the line, for offering Putin immunity from war crimes prosecution if he steps down.

But letting a strongman armed with nuclear missiles dictate his will to his neighbors and to the world is an extremely dangerous precedent. It will not only empower nuclear-armed imperialists but give an incentive to their potential victims to acquire nukes. Nonproliferation will be a lost cause, and conflicts that trigger the use of nuclear weapons will be more likely than ever.

It is very likely for many reasons — from probable resistance to a nuclear launch order within the Russian military’s chain of command to uncertainty that Russian nukes actually work — that Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling is empty bluster. Of course, those threats should be taken seriously and met with maximum deterrence, but they should not be allowed to paralyze us. Nuclear war is unacceptable, but nuclear tyranny should be, too.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a cultural studies fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.