The ongoing war in Ukraine recently escalated to new and more dangerous heights. Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden have both begun openly discussing the prospects of nuclear war, with Biden suggesting we were closer to nuclear war – and nuclear Armageddon – than at any point since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
To some degree, Putin’s recent nuclear threats have been sensationalized. Headlines like “Putin Raises Specter of Nuclear Weapons Following Battlefield Losses” make it sound like he’s a desperate madman preparing to nuke Kyiv. In reality, Putin reaffirmed his longstanding nuclear posture: that he is prepared to use nuclear weapons if Russian territory is threatened.
Still, this is an extremely dangerous, perhaps unprecedented, moment. U.S. intelligence places the likelihood of nuclear weapon use in Ukraine at around 25% – infinitely higher than any human being should tolerate.
Putin claims the Donbas, raising the possibility of war on Russian soil
Among many big stories coming out of the conflict in recent weeks, the most geopolitically significant concerns the Donbas. Made up of quasi-independent regions including Luhansk and Donetsk, the Donbas lies between Russia and Ukraine and has been a focal point of tensions between the two countries. The international community officially recognizes the Donbas as part of Ukraine.
Home to a large population of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people, the Donbas has been embroiled in a bloody war for years between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian military. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the situation in Donbas, citing civilian casualties, repression of civil liberties, torture, discrimination, and other human rights abuses perpetrated by both sides.
In September 2022, four Russian-occupied regions of the Donbas voted in a referendum to leave Ukraine and join Russia. Western leaders and media quickly labeled the referendums a “sham” and declared that Putin had “annexed” the Donbas. Putin declared the people of the Donbas to be Russian citizens “forever.”
Regardless of the validity of the referendums, Putin has made it clear that he considers the Donbas to be Russian territory. His claim, though contested, should give Western leaders pause. As the NATO-backed Ukrainian military reclaims territory toward and into the Donbas, they could violate Putin’s red line and trigger a nuclear response.
Tensions are escalating with no end in sight
None of the principal actors are doing anything to cool this highly combustible situation. Putin recently called up 300,000 reservists and launched more missiles at Kyiv, demonstrating no desire to pull back his troops or end his offensive. The United States and other NATO nations continue to pour billions of dollars in arms into Ukraine, effectively turning the conflict into a proxy war between NATO and Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky formally applied for full NATO membership, an application which, if granted, would draw every NATO member into direct military conflict with Russia, per NATO’s collective defense protocols.
It’s important to understand that, though Putin fired the first shot and has committed monstrous war crimes during this invasion, he has legitimate grievances with NATO. Foreign policy analysts have long known – and Putin has made explicitly clear – that Russia would not stand for Ukraine joining NATO. Ukraine joining NATO potentially means U.S. military installations, and possibly even nukes, right on the Russian border. Just as the U.S. wouldn’t tolerate Putin placing Russian weapons and soldiers in Mexico, Putin doesn’t want to see NATO forces in Ukraine. When a similar situation played out in reverse in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. nearly went to war.
Biden is seemingly uninterested in diplomatic solutions, making it clear that the U.S. is “not about to, nor is anyone else prepared to, negotiate with Russia about them staying in Ukraine, keeping any part of Ukraine.” He accused Putin of war crimes and said, “I don’t see any rationale to meet with him now.” State Department Spokesman Ned Price likewise dismissed proposed peace talks with Russia as not “constructive” or “legitimate.”
We must do whatever it takes to avoid nuclear war
This is not some childish conflict of good vs. evil where we demand that the heroes triumph no matter what the cost. It’s not possible for either side to win a war against the other without mountains of dead bodies. Putin is a powerful leader. Russia is huge, its resources are vast, it has thousands of nuclear weapons, and it is allied with China and India. It’s possible to hate what Putin has done while recognizing that his interests need to be respected.
Opponents of diplomacy have suggested Putin is using “nuclear blackmail” to get his way. They argue that if other nations see Putin scoring a win over NATO by threatening nuclear war, nuclear threats will become common in international affairs. But Putin has only affirmed his intention to use nukes to defend Russian territory, including the contested Donbas region. This kind of deterrence has long been understood as precisely the point of nukes, including by NATO itself.
Nuclear weapons could fall into the wrong hands and be used to make unreasonable claims and demands. That’s always been a risk. We unleashed this horror on the world and now we have to live with it. For now, we have to find ways to de-escalate with other nuclear powers while we work towards eliminating nukes from the face of the earth altogether.
Like it or not, the U.S., Ukraine, and NATO should negotiate with Putin. A potential deal could include ceding the Donbas, rejecting Ukraine’s bid to join NATO, and offering Putin an “off ramp” so he can withdraw gracefully. It may sound ugly, but the stakes are too high for any other course. People who want the U.S. and NATO to be the only ones getting their way in the world are barreling us toward a nuclear World War III.
If leaders can’t be counted on to take these responsible actions, their citizens must compel them to. This is already happening in some ways. Some 200,000 brave Russians recently expatriated to Kazakhstan to avoid being conscripted into Putin’s war. Americans should welcome with open arms any deserters from the Russian military and clog every major city with protests demanding that our country stop fueling the conflict by pouring arms into it and seek diplomatic resolutions.
Briefly, when COVID-19 first broke out into a global pandemic, there was a significant, coordinated response, because everyone felt the danger. The world learned that people and societies can, under the right pressures, work together. Unfortunately, even though nuclear war is infinitely more dangerous than coronavirus, the problem hasn’t received the same degree of urgency. Perhaps we’re too distracted, or too misinformed by war propaganda. Perhaps the problem feels too big, too depressing, or too outside our capacity to influence.
It’s tempting to simply close our eyes to nuclear threats, even to pray for ignorance, as many have – to wish that, if we’re to die in a nuclear war, we know nothing about it until the bombs have already incinerated us. Death is inevitable, after all, and it does no good to dwell on it.
Nuclear war, however, is not inevitable. Leaders around the world, from Putin to Biden, are making conscious decisions to increase the likelihood of it, playing a potentially apocalyptic game of chicken not just in Ukraine but in China as well. Every man, woman and child on earth should be passionately, actively involved in efforts to stop it by any means necessary. Territorial losses and geopolitical wounds are bitter, but they are not as grave as the infinite, potentially final cost of nuclear war.