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Weighing a Nuclear Threat

Washington should take the threat seriously and minimize the risk of attack.

Senators Meet For Weekly Policy Luncheons
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a tragedy and a crime, but it does not threaten American security. Even the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan, who has yet to find a war he doesn’t want the U.S. to fight—his new book blames America for not having stopped Adolf Hitler—admitted that Ukraine is not important for this country’s defense. Kagan was categorical: “There is no way that Putin’s conquest of Ukraine has any immediate or even distant effect on American security.” Yet he still supports Washington’s proxy war against Russia, like many others. 

Those who, like Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, forthrightly put Ukrainian interests first—stating that funding Kiev is America’s “number one priority”—also conveniently proclaim that Russia is a paper tiger. Washington seems to assume that only Americans, and those they support, will stand firm and fight against the odds. Push back against Moscow and the Kremlin’s occupants will scurry to safety, never to threaten anyone again.

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Sed contra, see Vladimir Putin’s willingness to confound his critics—first by invading Ukraine, and then redoubling his efforts when the initial attack was thwarted. U.S. officials dismissed Moscow’s threats even though for most of the last three decades Putin and other Russians expressed dismay and anger at NATO’s expansion toward Russia’s borders and the allies’ aggressive military and political assault on Russian interests. Despite allied presumptions, Putin and many of those around him view Ukraine’s status as an existential issue, one evidently worth fighting over.

Members of America’s governing class still believe that Washington runs the world. Characteristic is David Petraeus, one of a score of failed generals serving in Afghanistan now back on the stump after his conviction for spilling government secrets in pillow talk with his mistress. He proposed U.S. military strikes on Russian forces in Ukraine and the Black Sea if Moscow used a nuclear weapon against Ukraine, imagining that Putin would surrender rather than fight. It’s a mad idea from someone with a grossly inflated reputation, reflecting the dangerous arrogance with which Washington overflows. During the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union managed to avoid nuclear war despite a couple of close calls. Petraeus would invite—indeed, almost demand—the Russians to attack.

Whence the broad, almost unanimous backing of the foreign policy establishment? Far from being costless, every increase in allied support puts greater pressure on Moscow to escalate. To stand by and allow the destruction of Moscow’s military would ensure Putin’s overthrow and destroy any illusion that his nation remained a great power. Having already unleashed the nuclear dogs of war, he likely would retaliate at least against Ukrainian targets. He might hold off on NATO and U.S. facilities and forces, saving them as targets if Washington struck again. Yet it might be difficult to prevent an escalatory spiral toward all-out nuclear war.

The horror of such a conflict can scarcely be imagined. Business Insider just published a matter-of-fact discussion about the likely consequences. Wrote Aria Bendix and Taylor Ardrey: “A nuclear attack on US soil would most likely target one of six cities: New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Washington, DC. But a public-health expert says any of those cities would struggle to provide emergency services to the wounded.”

One suspects that Bendix and Ardrey make the understatement of the decade, if not the century. Columbia University’s Irwin Redlener told the duo: “There isn’t a single jurisdiction in America that has anything approaching an adequate plan to deal with a nuclear detonation… It would just be a horrific, catastrophic disaster with many, many unknown and cascading consequences.” 

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What would that mean in practice? According to Redlener, “In New York City, the detonation of a Hiroshima-sized bomb, or even one a little smaller, could have anywhere between 50,000 to 100,000 fatalities—depending on the time of day and where the action struck—and hundreds of thousands of people injured.”

Or maybe more. Alex Wellenstein with the Stevens Institute of Technology predicted 225,000 dead and 610,000 injured in New York City. And that assumes the attacker doesn’t use a more powerful bomb or more than one warhead, in which case casualties would be far higher.

But don’t worry, insisted Brooke Buddenmeier of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He explained: “The good news is that ‘Get inside, stay inside, stay tuned’ still works.” Never mind the tens or hundreds of thousands of dead and dying: “I kind of liken it to ‘Stop, drop, and roll.’ If your clothes catch on fire, that’s what you should do. It doesn’t make you afraid of fire, hopefully, but it does allow you the opportunity to take action to save your life.” Just wonderful news.

The experts consulted by Business Insider “agreed that for a city to be prepared for a nuclear attack, it must acknowledge that such an attack is possible—even if the threat is remote.” Such is the state of today’s world.

Although Petraeus’s call to war is outstanding in its irrationality, if not insanity, there are plenty of smaller steps that together could pull the U.S. into the conflict. Russia is aware that allied, and especially American, training, supplies, and intelligence have enabled Ukrainian forces to thwart Moscow’s plans. U.S. officials exulted publicly in helping to kill Russian generals and sink Russian ships. Sending tanks, the latest demand, and possibly planes, as oft requested, would bring Washington and Europe closer to direct combat with Moscow. 

Greater American involvement, especially the open introduction of U.S. personnel into Ukraine, risks inadvertent American casualties and direct Russian strikes on NATO facilities and personnel. Moreover, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky already attempted to use a Ukrainian missile strike on Poland to ostentatiously lie the U.S. into the war. Although neither side would want to turn the conflict into a continental conflagration, never have two nuclear-armed powers fought a major conventional conflict, let alone over stakes viewed as vital by at least one of the parties.

Washington should take the threat seriously and minimize the risk of attack. Policymakers should temper their ambitions to avoid pushing Russia into a corner from which it must choose either humiliating defeat or perilous escalation.

The decision is America’s. Not Ukraine’s, not Europe’s. Typical of the presumption that the U.S. is duty-bound to risk destruction on behalf of its allies, French diplomat Mathieu Droin, currently ensconced at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, declared, “It is up to the Ukrainians to say if they are willing to bear the risks of escalation rather than for the West to decide for them. And Ukrainian calls in this regard could not be more clear: Heavier, more sophisticated equipment is not a fear-enhancer, but a fear-eraser.” 

Kiev is entitled to make decisions for itself, but not for Americans. If Droin wants to put his country’s future into Zelensky’s hands, so be it. Washington, however, should decide the risks that it is willing to take on behalf of Ukraine, and thus what Ukrainian ambitions the American people should underwrite.

This suggestion horrifies not just French diplomats and Ukrainian officials, but also members of Washington’s bipartisan War Party. Thus, Petraeus and others who share his view simply assume away the possibility of unpleasant consequences.

For what would Washington’s elites risk the American nation and all that it contains? As Kagan admitted, there is no security case for the U.S. going to war with Russia over Ukraine. For hundreds of years, Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire and its successor, the Soviet Union. Between 2008 and 2022, NATO refused to bring Kiev into the transatlantic alliance because none of its members was willing to fight for Ukraine. The persistent debate over arming Kiev demonstrates that they still don’t want to go to war for Ukraine.

There are still good reasons to punish Russia for overt aggression and assist Kiev in preserving its independence, but these interests are limited. Americans who want to fight should feel free to do so—after booking a flight to Europe and joining the Ukrainian army. They should not be pushing the other 330-plus million Americans toward the conflict.

U.S. policymakers should strictly limit assistance to Kiev. Washington should emphasize bolstering Ukraine’s defense, frustrating further Russian attacks and encouraging both sides to seek diplomatic solutions. The U.S. should not underwrite a grandiose Ukrainian campaign for victory, especially to recapture the rest of the Donbass and Crimea. Doing the latter could become the trigger for nuclear threats and even strikes by Moscow. The cause is not worth the risk for America.

Washington is filled with ivory tower warriors ever eager to fight other people’s wars with other people’s money and lives. The cost of doing so over the last two decades has been trillions of dollars wasted and hundreds of thousands of casualties caused. War with Russia would be far worse, truly catastrophic. Ukraine partisans like Mitch McConnell should put U.S. interests first for a change.

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