Biden must be crystal clear with Putin and his generals about risks of nuclear war

Rep. Waltz on Russia’s nuclear capabilities

Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., responds to Biden’s statement that the U.S. should not be worried about Russian retaliation using nuclear weapons

Like it or not America is at war with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It doesn’t matter if the Kremlin tyrant is irrational, ill or crazy – the West faces a credible threat beyond the carnage in Ukraine. To stop Putin, we may be forced to return to the bad old Cold War days of mutually assured nuclear destruction.  That policy served us well then and it remains valid today. 

President Biden must find the gumption to be crystal clear with Putin and his generals. Tell them to stop escalating the Ukraine crisis to a global stand-off. Then announce to the world that America’s nuclear forces will return to an indefinite high alert status, a necessary move.

This didn’t need to happen but we have no real choice.  Yes, we must respond to Putin escalating his Ukraine war to one threatening all the West, almost as if he scripted it for prime time television. 

Recall, on Sunday he staged a video of himself sternly stating and then commanding Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the Russian General Staff General Valery Gerasimov that “… western countries are not only taking unfriendly actions against our country in the economic area … [but] leading NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] countries are making aggressive statements against our country as well.  For this reason, I order the defense minister and chief of the general staff to put Russian nuclear deterrent forces on the highest alert.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to the head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs Alexander Shokhin during their meeting in Moscow, Russia
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Some western leaders wonder out loud: Is Putin crazy? Would the Russian really launch a nuke over sanctions and unspecified threats? The answer to the first question is “Perhaps” and the second is a firm “Yes.”

Recently we’ve heard reports from people who know Putin. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “I have met with him many times, and this is a different Putin.  He seems erratic… he has descended into something I have not seen before.”  Even H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser, said “I don’t think he’s a rational actor because he is fearful.” 

These leaders echo what my analysis found by viewing recent videos of the tyrant. The Russian president is void of emotion, always separated from others to include his family, perhaps he’s paranoid or disconnected from reality. His eyes seem devoid of reaction. 

The bottom line is no one knows whether Putin is rational, ill or crazy enough to order a nuclear attack, and we have no reason to believe his generals, given their mistakes in the Ukraine war have the courage to refuse the tyrant’s nuclear launch order.

President Joe Biden delivers his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, Tuesday, March 1, 2022, in Washington.

What is not in doubt is the Russians have plenty of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. In fact, there are leaders in both the West and Russia that believe Putin would use his atomic arsenal to get his way.

A few years ago, the former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves asked a panel of security experts addressing the topic “Thinking the Unthinkable” whether Russia would use a nuke.  Alexander Vershbow, then NATO’s deputy secretary general, responded: “Yes: a short answer is yes.”

Why did Vershbow say “Yes?” It’s not just because Russia has a giant strategic nuclear arsenal – thousands of weapons – and a fleet of bombers, ballistic missiles and submarines to deliver them, all updated in recent years.  Besides, Russian nuclear submarines are now drilling in the Barents Sea and mobile nuclear forces roam forests in Siberia, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.

It really comes down to Putin’s will to use such weapons to satisfy his ambition to restore the Russian-Ukraine empire, starting with Ukraine.  After all, in every recent Russian large-scale exercise such as the 2021 Zapad in Belarus, there was a scenario that included tactical nuclear strikes against NATO targets, what Moscow dubbed an “escalation to de-escalate” concept, a credible threat when one considers Russia has acquired an edge over NATO in tactical nuclear weaponry and platforms like the Iskandar ballistic missile now deployed in western Russia. 

Vyacheslav Alekseyevich Nikonov, a member of Russia’s parliament, told a 2017 security forum in Slovakia that Russia would use nuclear warfare to deter NATO should the alliance decide to enter eastern Ukraine. So, by that logic, would NATO’s assistance to Ukraine in the ongoing war become a pretext for Putin to launch nuclear weapons?

Putin has already demonstrated poor judgment by invading Ukraine believing that his army would have the upper hand.  However, reality slapped him in the face; the Ukrainians are resisting and his army isn’t quickly wrapping up that mission.  Is becoming bogged down in an irregular conflict in Ukraine sufficient to go nuclear?

Understand that a “limited” use of nuclear weapons can’t be ignored.  Even a small tactical nuclear weapon like a 10-kiloton blast would produce severe damage out to one mile and won’t be ignored by the victims.  The problem, according to former US Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, is that “Anyone who thinks they can control escalation through the use of nuclear weapons [of any size] is literally playing with fire.  Escalation is escalation, and nuclear use would be the ultimate escalation.”

Residents take shelter in the lower level of a Kyiv metro station during Russian artillery strikes in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 2, 2022.
(Erin Trieb/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Even Jon Wolfsthal, a former Biden national security adviser warned “… it’s not clear that he [Putin] knows using them [nuclear weapons] against Ukraine would be suicide.  So, we need to be pretty clear.”  However, the White House sees “no reason to change” our nuclear alert level, and Biden assured Americans not to fear nuclear war.

Unfortunately, Mr. President, we don’t get a second chance when nuclear weapons start to rain down. War is hard to contain and the Kremlin’s “escalation to de-escalate” concept is pure fantasy.  Once the nuclear Genie is out the bottle it’s Katy-bar-the-door – no restraint from the victims of such an attack whether in Ukraine, Latvia or Washington.

At this point Mr. Biden must accept the hand Putin has dealt.  Take him seriously and put our nuclear forces on alert. President Biden, with the backing of NATO, you must make it very clear to Putin that ANY use of nuclear weapons will trigger a horrific US response, especially a strike on a NATO country, regardless of the size of the strike. 

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