Ukrainian rescuers work at the site of a residential building destroyed by a Russian drone strike on October 17, 2022, which local authorities consider to be Iranian-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) Shahed-136, in central Kyiv. At least four people have been killed as a result of a drone attack on a residential building in Kyiv. (Photo: Oleksii Chumachenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Russo-Ukraine War: Between Victory and Destruction

Putin's threat to use nuclear weapons should not be construed as hollow

Few people (myself included) predicted the extraordinary events unfolding in the Russo-Ukraine conflict. The idea that that Ukraine could make the advances it has, and envision driving their enemy back to its borders, seemed inconceivable when Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine. Three mistaken assumptions were made by skeptical supporters of Ukraine such as myself.

  1. The first was that President Putin knew what he was doing; assuming that the invasion would take a week to complete, he overestimated his military, ignored the backward state of his weapons, and--quite obviously--delegated authority poorly with regard to his generals.
  2. The second was that the West would not sustain its obligations to Ukraine. Fearing Russian ambitions elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and loss of American standing in the region, Congress approved another $40 billion in Ukrainian military aid for advanced weaponry.
  3. The third mistaken assumption, however, involved an underestimation of Ukrainian resolve and the inspirational appeal of freedom. That was what gripped the hearts and minds of so many in the global community.

War fever is a dangerous illness, however; it often results in blindness. Authoritarian developments are taking place in Ukraine. With each victory by the military forces under his command, power is becoming ever more centralized in the hands of President Volodymyr Zelensky. Ukraine's security service or secret police (SBU) has more than 30,000 employees, corruption still pervades the system, censorship is becoming normalized, and dissidents are being muzzled. There is no comparison between Ukraine and Putin's blatantly fascist regime that is taking on ever more totalitarian overtones. A minority of the Western left, however, still imagines that he is somehow continuing a revolutionary tradition and that given the strength of its thoroughly Stalinist communist party, Russia somehow remains the socialist motherland. The irresponsibility of such a position in the face of countless mass atrocities is only exacerbated by Putin's threat to deploy tactical nuclear weapons--if faced with defeat.

Loss of political power in an egomaniacal dictator's mind is identical with the loss of national sovereignty.

The dialectical irony is stark: each victory, each step towards freedom, by Ukraine increases the probability of a "tactical" nuclear strike by Russia. It is hard to believe that Putin will suddenly exhibit a sense of humanity as one defeat follows another, the economic impact of sanctions grows, and the loss of power threatens. Russia's president has staked everything on this unnecessary enterprise inspired by the backward dream of again turning his country into a superpower through re-establishing the Soviet Union.

"Restoration" of the Soviet Union was an illusion from the beginning, but an illusion that the present conflict shows has had practical consequences Most authoritarian leaders identify their nation's fate with their own. The more threatened the leader feels the more convinced he is that any action he takes is legitimate. Loss of political power in an egomaniacal dictator's mind is identical with the loss of national sovereignty. As this kind of leader's grip on power grows more perilous, therefore, his policies tend to become more reckless. Thus, Putin's threat to use nuclear weapons should not be construed as hollow.

Such a strike is unlikely, however, before the early Spring. By then it will have become clear whether European resolve has eroded in the face of winter weather and skyrocketing gas prices. The November 2022 mid-term elections in the United States will also have taken place, and whether MAGA-Republicans took over the Congress and the Senate. Some of them are already grumbling about the cost of defending Ukraine and an electoral victory by Trump's forces might impact the conflict and its outcome.

President Biden's insistence that the United States would respond with a strike of its own was a predictable response. Putin surely knew it was coming, and it shouldn't have much impact on any future decision that he might make. Other factors are more important. A second front might open in Belarus and the likelihood of a Russian counter-offensive, foreshadowed by the deadly October 2022 bombings of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, should not be underestimated. Economic and military aid thus remains necessary not only to protect Ukraine's sovereignty, and help its citizens survive, but to deal with the potential resurgence of conflicts in and between the various states of Central Asia, once part of the Soviet Union, in response to the erosion of Russian power.

NATO's reinvigoration is s a direct product of the failed Russian invasion. Claims that a war costing the USA well over a million dollars a day somehow benefits its economy and its (unspecified) imperialist aims are difficult to take seriously. Defending Ukraine against Russian aggression is not imperialism. Quite the contrary: Russian imperialism in the region has been the principal fact of political life for generations. Biden's policies coupled with Russia's struggles in Ukraine, however, have dampened them--at least for the moment. Thus, new circumstances have arisen that call for focusing on the interests of the United States and NATO.

Aid for Ukraine should now become linked to its pursuit of policies that temper its growing authoritarian tendencies and its adamant refusal to engage in (even back-channel) negotiations with Russia. In a similar vein, Ukraine's allies should call upon its government to embrace military strategies that lessen the likelihood of nuclear retaliation and that can provide Russia with an exit strategy to avoid the extreme national humiliation that had such a disastrous impact on Germany following its defeat in World War I.

Any negotiated peace must provide common security guarantees, ensure the non-nuclear status of Ukraine, and allow for its entry into the European Union. Such negotiations are necessary since visions of a military victory, so predominant today, imperil the future. They must also include relevant members of the international community. De-escalation should also protect the rights and freedoms of those forced to cooperate with the Russian authorities in accordance with Articles 51 and 55 of the Geneva Convention. Lifting sanctions on Russia in exchange for engaging in joint financing of Ukraine's reconstruction is worth considering along with the establishment of an international Board of Trustees for the Stabilization and Reconstruction of Ukraine.

These ideas were formulated in a Declaration composed under the auspices of the International Council for Diplomacy and Dialogue, the European Center for Democracy Development, and the Women's League for Peace and Freedom with the support of various organizational representatives from Ukrainian civil society. They were presented at meetings of the OSCE--European Organization for Security and Cooperation--that took place in Warsaw at the end of September 2022.

Suggestions of this sort speak to the needs of Ukrainians, if not always their state representatives. They are also legitimate given that their country is being reduced to rubble and their suffering is palpable. Ending their nightmare is the priority. But that is possible only with defense of Ukraine's right to national self-determination. Naive nostalgia for Russia's past in judging its present actions is ahistorical and profoundly misguided. Socialists and progressives have other concerns, namely, emain critical of war hysteria, work for peace, defend human rights, and offer policies that might better the miserable conditions of everyday people generated by this atrocious war.

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