Why isn’t the media taking the threat of nuclear war more seriously?

Topol intercontinental ballistic missile

I don’t understand why the media is virtually ignoring the threat of nuclear escalation, should Putin get desperate or angry enough to use a nuclear weapon in the Ukraine. It seems to me that we ought to be talking about it — and making absolutely sure that U.S. policy won’t make things worse.

Here’s a piece I wrote last week for Responsible Statecraft, the online magazine of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

The New York Times “buried the lede,” as they say, in its June 1 major story by reporters David E. Sanger and William J. Broad about the “dangers of a new, riskier nuclear era” in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Urkaine.

The article recounted how “established restraints” are “giving way to more naked threats to reach for such weapons — and a need for new strategies to keep the atomic peace.”

The news peg, of course, is that the use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin, whether it’s out of pique or desperation, is literally no longer “unthinkable.”

What the authors waited over 1,000 words to tell us, however, is that the White House is scrambling to figure out how to respond:

A sign of the risks of this new age has been a series of urgent meetings in the administration to map out how Mr. Biden should respond if Russia conducts a nuclear detonation in Ukraine or around the Black Sea.

The casual mention of these life-or-death war-gaming sessions, deep inside the story, is a perfect reflection of the mainstream media’s lack of alarm – and lack of interest – in the threat of a nuclear conflict. This is true even as the Biden administration sends ever-deadlier and more advanced weapons into the region.

How should we respond if Putin uses a nuclear weapon in Ukraine? Do we escalate or de-escalate? How much should we worry about it?

These are questions that we should be hotly debating in Congress and in the media, not ignoring or burying.

Biden touched on the nuclear question in a New York Times op-ed published on Tuesday, but in vague terms, writing:

I know many people around the world are concerned about the use of nuclear weapons. We currently see no indication that Russia has intent to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, though Russia’s occasional rhetoric to rattle the nuclear saber is itself dangerous and extremely irresponsible. Let me be clear: Any use of nuclear weapons in this conflict on any scale would be completely unacceptable to us as well as the rest of the world and would entail severe consequences.

What are those “severe consequences”? That was left to our imagination.

Officials wouldn’t tell Sanger and Broad what they concluded from the “urgent meetings.” But they wrote:

As Mr. Biden’s opinion article hinted, his advisers are quietly looking almost entirely at nonnuclear responses — most likely a combination of sanctions, diplomatic efforts and, if a military response is needed, conventional strikes — to any such demonstration of nuclear detonation.

The officials further tried to play down the prospect of an apocalyptic nuclear exchange by telling Sanger and Broad the idea was to “signal immediate de-escalation.” As the reporters noted, that is “a sharp contrast to the kind of threats of nuclear escalation that Washington and Moscow pursued during the Cold War.”

But that Biden’s advisers are looking “almost entirely” at nonnuclear responses suggests that they haven’t entirely ruled out a nuclear one.

Shouldn’t they?

“There should be a public discussion about the consequences and the options,” said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association. And some options should be ruled out.

If Putin uses a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, he says, “responding with nuclear weapons makes absolutely no sense. It would only lead to escalation — and it would show that the U.S. is willing to kill a lot of people, too.”

And Kimball said the White House shouldn’t be doing this alone, or in secrecy. “How our government responds — and they will have to respond quickly — will potentially affect the lives, and potentially lead to the deaths, of millions of people.”

Meanwhile, Biden announced on Tuesday that he is sending Ukraine advanced rocket systems and munitions that a Kremlin spokesman warned are “adding fuel to the fire.”

In the Times’s main article on Biden’s decision to send the rockets to Ukraine, Michael D. Shear acknowledged that “top administration officials have been concerned about provoking a broader war,” specifically by “providing equipment that could allow Ukraine to strike deep inside his country.”

As Shear put it:

That has proved to be a tricky line to walk for the president and his advisers since Mr. Putin sent his troops into Ukraine nearly 100 days ago.

In a “background press call” by two anonymous “senior administration officials” on Tuesday night, one reporter asked the obvious question: “I mean, I’m no expert, but if you took the thing to the border with Russia and fired it towards Russia, wouldn’t it go 48 miles into Russia?”

The answer was basically: We trust them and you should trust us. The direct quote: “The Ukrainians have given us assurances that they will not use these systems against targets in Russian territory.  And so, based on those assurances, we’re very comfortable that they will not.”

As Shearer pointed out, “Biden’s administration has already sent Ukraine about $5 billion worth of antitank and antiaircraft missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, helicopters and other military equipment.”

But the new weapons are in a different class: the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, is “capable of firing satellite-guided rockets” that carry “roughly the same explosive power as a 500-pound bomb dropped from the air.”

According to Pentagon budget requests, the rockets cost about $150,000 each. They are made by Lockheed.

Biden opted not to send Ukraine a longer-range rocket, which could travel as far as 186 miles. CNN reporters Jim Sciutto, Natasha Bertrand and Alex Marquardt, who first broke the story about Biden’s decision to send the rockets, wrote that the longer range was “a major hang-up” because “some worried” it “could allow the Ukrainians to take the fight into Russia.”

So when it comes to provoking Putin, Biden draws the line somewhere between 48 miles and 186 miles. But why? We don’t know. And we don’t know if it makes sense.

What if it’s these rockets — the most advanced weapons sent to date — that turns the war in Ukraine into a nuclear, or even global conflagration? Will it have been worth it? How will we feel about the fact that there was essentially no public debate before it happened?

What history has taught us, over and over again, is that you often don’t see major inflection points in real time, only in retrospect. That’s why reporters have to ask hard questions — even unpopular questions — when so much is at stake.

8 COMMENTS

  1. My theory based on amazement that Russia failed to conquer Ukraine or otherwise crush it within, like, three days of invading: since the goal is gain control (or hegemony as the commissars might have put it) over Ukraine to get it into Russia’s Eurasian market mechanism, the nation needs to be damaged as little as possible. So as little force as needed is being exercised, allowing pro-Ukrainian propagandists to dis Russia’s military. It follows then that fighting is worse in East Ukraine since Russia’s certain to incorporate it into the motherland. But the rest of the nation needs to be brutalized as little as needed to get its submission. (That said, I have a soft spot for the idea that the Russian military is somewhat overestimated, in part, maybe, imputing to the troops an estimation based on the materiel.)
    This is a long about way of saying, I wouldn’t say nukes will never happen and of course should be considered but I think the odds of that happening is minimal given the above.
    Should go without saying that nothing in the above should be taken as any sort of justification for the invasion. It was completely unjustified.

  2. Dan, I think the answer is pretty simple.

    First, none of us knows what mixture of vicious, calculating, and reckless Vladimir Putin is. It’s simply unknowable what would cause him to order the use of nuclear weapons. So, it doesn’t pay to spend too much time trying to figure out what his response to our actions will be. What we do know for certain is that if we bow to his demands because of fear he might use nuclear weapons, his demands will escalate. So that’s out.

    What we can try and influence is Putin’s subordinates. He doesn’t have a button that he can push to start Armageddon; he relies on others. It is standard Russian military doctrine that they will use nuclear weapons if their territory is invaded by a force capable of reaching Moscow or, of course, if there’s a first strike against them. So we certainly should not do either of those.

    So how can we influence those subordinates? By proving to them that the only real threat to Russia is Vladimir Putin. He has created an image of himself as a brilliant, indispensable leader. The plan to invade Ukraine is his and plainly not that of his military, which is substantially more competent than was shown in the assault on Kyiv. So, we have to help Ukraine gradually grind down the Russian army until his subordinates understand that the war in Ukraine is threatening their control of the rest of the Russian empire. At that point, they’re not going to obey orders to start the End Times. They’re going to remove Putin from power and blame it all on him.

    I do think we need to realize that Russia’s war on Ukraine is both genocidal and a resource war designed to monopolize oil and food production. If Putin can gain control of Ukraine, he can trigger global famines and recessions almost at will. We’re witnessing that power right now, with much of world inflation being due to artificially high oil prices and famine already stalking Africa.

    This is a deadly serious threat, one that the west has to win. The bottom line is that Ukraine must not be defeated. We’re not seeking a military victory per se, but a moral victory, such that Russians seize back control of their destiny from Putin. The hardest part will be convincing the west to stay in the game. We do not want a weak Russia, because that would invite China to take up a variant of the game Russia is trying to play. We want Russia to be democratic and strong. We failed in the 1990s to achieve that. We need to get it right now.

    I hope this helps. I believe it is what Biden is trying to accomplish. But we need to spread the word that this is what we must accomplish.

  3. Considering how stupid and emotional Americans are these days, it would be a mistake to talk publicly about a nuclear threat, wouldn’t it? Widespread panic would ensue, we could see violence in our streets, and besides, it would be a bit foolish politically to play what could be a game of Chicken Little. Biden has faced criticism for possibly escalating the war by providing more and more deadly weapons to Ukraine, which some could see as a dangerous provocation.

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