By STEPHEN BLANK
From the moment Putin attacked Ukraine, first in 2014 and then in 2022, Russia’s nuclear endowment has stood as the greatest single obstacle to providing Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defend itself. Even though many weapon systems are now flowing from here and Europe to Ukraine, many of these shipments came only haltingly and grudgingly.
In some cases, officials and bureaucrats fabricated bogus arguments to slow-roll Kyiv’s requests. For example, we were told that it took 18 months to train Ukrainians on the F-16 when in fact this was achievable in four months. Similar obstacles were raised in regard to tanks and long-range artillery like the HIMARS system.
Yet Russia has not gone nuclear, despite the sending of those earlier systems. Admittedly, some serious analysts now argue that Putin is preparing a nuclear option, presumably a tactical or so-called non-strategic nuclear attack on Ukraine (an unprovoked nuclear attack on Europe or the U.S. would, as Moscow knows, be a suicidal gesture).
But it is also now arguable not only that deterrence will hold but also that it is becoming increasingly difficult for Moscow to conduct an attack with tactical nuclear weapons on Ukraine. That kind of operation will only further enrage both Ukraine and its allies and strengthen their resistance.
Additionally, since prevailing winds travel from west to east, they will blow back and radiate the Russian forces too. Third, a nuclear attack — especially now, as China undertakes its so-called peace mission to pose as a mediator in the conflict and has become, in effect, Russia’s chief financial officer — will fly in the face of Xi Jinping’s public admonitions against nuclear use. Beijing will undoubtedly not sit still for such an affront to its leader or its vital interests. And the same may also be said about India’s neutrality in this war, should Russia launch a nuclear attack. Moscow cannot afford to lose either of these powers’ support.
Equally, if not more importantly, this nuclear operation may now face increased tactical and operational risks that may even remove it from consideration. In early May, a MIM-104 “Patriot” Air Defense Battery, for the first time, took out a KH-47M2 Kinzhal, an advanced maneuverable air-launched ballistic missile that Russia had claimed was an unstoppable hypersonic weapon invulnerable to U.S. missile defenses.
This outcome shocked the Russian government to its core. So it promptly arrested three missile designers for treason while Ukrainian intelligence retorted that they had deceived Putin and the Russian government. This event also showed that these Patriots in Ukrainian possession can also intercept and shoot down Russian tactical nuclear weapons.
Fabian Hoffman, a doctoral research fellow at the University of Oslo, told Newsweek that Kyiv’s ability to intercept missiles in such an intense, time-coordinated, multi-vector attack indicates “that even if you arm these delivery vehicles with tactical nuclear warheads, there is a decent chance that they will not land at their target.” Under these circumstances, it is now more problematic for Moscow to brandish its nuclear weapons’ supposed invulnerability to missile and/or missile defenses. Russia’s bombers now stationed in Belarus can also become vulnerable to such interceptions, thereby reducing their utility in threatening Kyiv or NATO.
These developments gravely undermine the argument for restraint in helping Ukraine. It is now clear that by giving Ukraine the land, sea and air weapons it needs, as well as the financial resources it needs to survive, we will strengthen both conventional and nuclear deterrence, and probably not just in Europe. Doing so will not only rebuff Moscow’s ongoing efforts to use nuclear weapons as instruments of psychological warfare but also materially contribute to shortening this war.
Recent reports indicate that many officials maintain that this conflict may become an unresolved frozen war like Korea. Continuing to withhold weapons from Ukraine out of fear of Russia ensures precisely this outcome and saves Putin from retribution when defeat becomes evident. An outcome that leaves Putin and Russia armed to the teeth and convinced that their time will yet come to restore the empire cannot be an American or European interest.
Therefore, the time for foot-dragging and slow-rolling, neither of which was justified, is over. As strategy and foreign policy researcher, George Bogden, has just argued, the U.S. must rise to the challenge with something more than public hand-wringing about Russia and lead its allies and partners to take advantage of the greatest opportunity we have had in a generation to make Europe whole and free.
Failure to do so confesses our weakness and irresolution while giving Putin more rationalizations to continue to murder hundreds, if not thousands, of Ukrainians and Russians. Sending F-16s and the other systems Ukraine needs to Kyiv not only articulates a different message, but also will end the carnage sooner. How can that not be in our interest let alone our values?
Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). He is a former professor of Russian national security studies and national security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College and a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia.