This month marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Historians agree that a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union was only averted by a diplomatic agreement negotiated between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev. At a fundraiser held on October 6, President Joe Biden told Democratic donors that the risk of nuclear war and “Armageddon” is now higher than at any time in the past sixty years and that Putin may need a face-saving off-ramp from the conflict.
Americans are increasingly concerned the war in Ukraine could erupt into World War III with Russia. In a recent poll, 75 percent of Americans stated they opposed any military assistance to Ukraine which served to increase the risks of a direct war between the United States and Russia. What is Biden doing to try to negotiate a diplomatic solution to end the present nuclear crisis? Any diplomatic off-ramp for Russia will have to come from the Biden administration since Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a decree last week ruling out peace talks with Russia as long as Putin remains president. However, while the Russian government has stated it would be open to a meeting between Biden and Putin at the G-20 meeting in Indonesia on November 15-16, Biden recently told CNN that he doesn’t “…see any rationale to meet with [Putin] now.”
Rather than risk nuclear conflict, Kennedy kept the lines of communication open with Moscow and negotiated a diplomatic agreement with Khrushchev in which he agreed to withdraw U.S. nuclear missiles from Italy and Turkey. Kennedy also pledged that the United States would never invade Cuba, effectively repudiating the Monroe Doctrine, which had been the bedrock of U.S. national security policy for the previous 140 years, in exchange for the Soviets withdrawing their nuclear missiles from Cuba. By contrast, the Biden administration has adamantly refused to talk with Russian officials at all about the war in Ukraine despite the increasing risk of nuclear escalation.
Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was a response to the Biden administration’s near-total rejection of Russia’s draft proposals that, among other items, requested a written guarantee that Ukraine would never be admitted into NATO, which would have likely averted Russia’s invasion altogether. The administration then missed a golden opportunity to end the war by supporting the tentative peace agreement drawn up between Russia and Ukraine in March. Instead, the agreement was nixed in April when British prime minister Boris Johnson pressured Kyiv to abandon negotiations with Moscow. As Biden himself alluded to, his administration failed to follow Kennedy’s sage advice to provide Russia with a diplomatic face-saving exit ramp, leaving Putin with only two options to end the war: sending over a million Russian reinforcements to overwhelm Ukrainian forces or employing tactical nuclear weapons to force Ukraine’s capitulation. Of course, either would constitute a massive failure of U.S. and NATO policy.
Following Putin’s annexation announcement on September 30, Zelenskyy formally submitted a request for Ukraine to join NATO, which was supported by nine of NATO’s thirty member states. However, U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan wisely rejected Ukraine’s application out of hand given that if accepted, it would immediately invoke NATO’s Article V mutual defense clause and lead to the outbreak of World War III, something Biden has sought to avoid thus far. On the other hand, if one or more NATO members voted against intervening militarily in defense of Ukraine, it would undermine the alliance’s raison d’etre. Zelenskyy also repeated his call for the United States to launch a preemptive first strike against Russian nuclear forces to prevent Moscow from executing a tactical nuclear strike against Ukraine. His statement underscored the increasing risks of outsourcing U.S. policy to Kyiv, which is aiming to regain all of its lost territories, and suggests that Zelenskyy is willing to do just about anything to ensnare the United States and NATO in a full-scale war with Russia to achieve his objectives.
Following the success of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in Kharkiv last month, Putin evidently determined that since the West was not willing to negotiate an end to the war he had no choice but to escalate the conflict. While Western pundits continue to paint Russia’s mobilization and annexation of Ukrainian territory as a sign of weakness and desperation, it also reveals how determined Putin is to win the war. In his annexation speech, Putin warned Ukraine not to continue its counteroffensive and threatened to use all weapons in Russia’s arsenal to defend Russian territory, including the newly-annexed Ukrainian regions. The day after his televised address, I assessed that Putin had likely made the decision to employ nuclear weapons to win the war if Ukraine recaptured a significant amount of annexed territory. We are about to find out whether that initial assessment was correct or not.
According to Russian military expert Michael Kofman, the wording of Putin’s mobilization order indicates that it is not a partial mobilization but instead a phased general mobilization that does not limit the number of soldiers Russia can mobilize. Reports indicate Russia is in the process of mobilizing 1.2 million troops. Zelenskyy undoubtedly knows that once hundreds of thousands of additional Russian troops arrive on the battlefield, all hope of Ukraine regaining annexed territory militarily will be lost and the war’s momentum will permanently shift in Russia’s favor. Thus, rather than take Putin’s warning seriously, Zelenskyy will attempt to recapture as much annexed territory as possible before Russian reinforcements force him to halt his counteroffensive.
Zelenskyy’s risky gamble to blatantly cross Russia’s nuclear redline could very well provoke it to conduct a demonstration strike, including a low-yield nuclear airburst over Kyiv. This would likely ensure an outright Russian military victory over Ukraine far more sweeping than anything imagined by Western leaders during the past six months. In addition to the option of employing tactical nuclear weapons to defeat Ukraine, Russia also could utilize massive cyberattacks, and conventional and super-Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) weapons to neutralize Ukrainian offensive forces and allow Russian forces to quickly defeat them.
Following a meeting of the Russian Security Council on October 10, Putin gave a televised address condemning Ukraine for blowing up the Kerch Bridge in Crimea and blaming it for the Nord Stream pipeline attacks. After his speech, Russia targeted critical infrastructure across Ukraine in its largest missile barrage in several months. For the West, the danger of Russian nuclear escalation in Ukraine is if the United States and its allies reacted by engaging in direct military strikes against Russian forces that could quickly escalate to a full-scale nuclear exchange. To avert such an apocalyptic outcome, Biden must call for an immediate ceasefire (which I proposed recently). The longer the Biden administration delays calling for a ceasefire, the worse off Ukraine will be.
David T. Pyne, Esq. is a former U.S. Army combat arms and Headquarters staff officer, who was in charge of armaments cooperation with the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas from 2000-2003, with an M.A. in National Security Studies from Georgetown University. He currently serves as Deputy Director of National Operations for the Task Force on National and Homeland Security and is a contributor to Dr. Peter Pry’s book “Blackout Warfare” as well as the upcoming book “Will America Be Protected?” which is due to be released later this year. He may be reached at [email protected].