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NATO Warns Russia: Putin Would ‘Regret’ Any Use Of Nuclear Weapons

The Evangelist edition
October 6, 2022
By Joel GEHRKE, Foreign Affairs Reporter

Russian President Vladimir Putin would learn to “regret” any use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, according to a senior officer in NATO’s command structure.

“The response will be such that the Russians will regret what they have done,” Dutch Adm. Rob Bauer, chairman of NATO’s military committee, said Wednesday at the Warsaw Security Forum. “And I think that is extremely important.”

Bauer refused to offer any more insight into NATO’s response in such a scenario, citing the hypothetical nature of the question. Yet the conversation nonetheless reflected the twin moods of exuberance and anxiety percolating across the trans-Atlantic alliance as Western officials salute Ukraine’s battlefield successes while monitoring the risk that Putin might regard nuclear weapons as a way to stabilize the Russian position — even as Russian officials respond to their struggles by directing more ominous protests against President Joe Biden’s support for Ukraine.

“The administration’s decision to continue pumping the Kyiv regime with heavy weapons only secures Washington’s status as a participant of the conflict,” Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov said Wednesday. “The supply of military products by the U.S. and its allies not only entails protracted bloodshed and new casualties, but also increases the danger of a direct military clash between Russia and Western countries.”

That rhetorical threat came as Ukrainian forces continue to press their advantage in eastern Ukraine, where Putin has tried to annex four regions into Russia, in apparent defiance of both international law and the inability of the Russian troops to hold the territory.

“We are working on the assumption that the situation in the new territories will stabilize,” Putin said Wednesday during a Russian Teacher of the Year event.

Putin ordered a “partial mobilization” of Russian conscripts last month after Ukrainian forces executed an ingenious counteroffensive that drew Russian troops into a vulnerable position near Kherson, the southernmost of the districts Putin has claimed as Russian territory, before launching a surprise attack in the Kharkiv region at the northern end of the Russian line. That counteroffensive has continued, with Ukrainian troops making progress further south into Donetsk and Luhansk — the Donbas region rent by conflict since the original Russian invasion of 2014.

“The Ukrainian army is carrying out a pretty fast and powerful advance in the south of our country as part of the current defense operation,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Tuesday in an update on the war. “Dozens of settlements have already been liberated from the Russian sham referendum this week alone. In Kherson region, Kharkiv region, Luhansk region and Donetsk region altogether … our warriors do not stop. And it’s only a matter of time before we oust the occupier from all our land.”

Those battlefield gains have continued more quickly than the Russian mobilization order, as Putin’s decision prompted more than 200,000 fighting-aged Russians to leave the country in order to dodge the draft, according to reports. That mass exodus has helped to create the sense that Ukraine’s advantage in the war is “irreversible,” as former CIA Director David Petraeus put it.

“There is a new reality on the ground in Ukraine, and it is one that is absolutely disastrous for Vladimir Putin and the Russian forces,” Petraeus told the Warsaw Security Forum on Tuesday. “Essentially, Ukraine has done vastly better, since the very beginning of this war, when it comes to recruiting, training, equipping, organizing, and employing additional forces … and there’s literally nothing Russia can do about it at this point. The fact is that a country that is less than one-third the size of Russia has a vastly better and much more capable military on the ground.”

The worse the situation gets for Russian forces, the more Western policymakers consider the prospect that Putin will escalate the conflict.

“Putin is on the backfoot. He’s humiliated. Russia has been intimidated on the international stage. And there’s a lot at stake. This is his war,” Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the House of Commons defense committee, said Wednesday in Warsaw. “And he could find an excuse
… to actually launch or cause some sort of nuclear attack. And today, now, at this moment, we need to be crafting what our response should be and tell him.”

Ellwood floated the idea of a “conventional” military retaliation by NATO, “probably involving every F-35 in NATO’s arsenal and taking out perhaps every asset that is in Ukraine itself,” as he argued for Western leaders to deter Russia.

“This idea of strategic ambiguity — of being vague about what you might do, but you might do something — is not strong enough,” he said.

Petraeus, who likewise suggested on Sunday that NATO could “take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield” in response to a Russian nuclear strike against Ukraine, refused to discuss such hypothetical situations in Warsaw. And yet he argued that, in any case, a Russian nuclear strike wouldn’t pay practical dividends.

“It will not reverse this very, very stark reality that I have described,” he said. “It will kill a lot of people at the location, it might make it uninhabitable, but it will not change this dynamic, which … is absolutely irreversible. So he is in a very desperate situation, from which no option that I can identify could actually extricate him.”

Bauer agreed on both military and diplomatic grounds. “The Russians will lose the last support in the world if they use nuclear weapons, I’m convinced of that,” the Dutch admiral said. “So I think it is not a smart thing to do. It is a stupid thing to do. Will it not happen, therefore? No, that is not necessarily the case. … There are many things in this war, in this conflict, that is a surprise to us, and then you have to react to that. But the most important thing is there will be a response.”

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