Senator Mitt Romney has an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that we must prepare for Vladimir Putin to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Romney says that we should take Russia’s nuclear threats seriously—Russian TV has even been broadcasting speculative scenarios showing how Putin could wipe out the British Isles—and prepare a “response.”
Romney does not spend much time considering whether U.S. actions could make Russian use of nuclear weapons more or less likely. He argues that Vladimir Putin might become “cornered and delusional” as Russia continues to lose the war, and admits that this could lead Russia to turn, in desperation, to the use of nukes. But for Romney, this is not an argument for adjusting U.S. conduct in order to reduce the risk that Putin will take such an insane step. The key paragraph of the op-ed reads as follows:
Some will conclude that to avoid provoking Russia—and thus avoid the prospect of a possible Russian nuclear strike—we should pre-emptively restrain Ukraine from routing the Russian military. We could limit the weapons we send, hold back on intelligence and pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky to settle. I disagree; free nations must continue to support Ukrainians’ brave and necessary defense of their country. Failing to continue to support Ukraine would be like paying the cannibal to eat us last. If Mr. Putin, or any other nuclear power, can invade and subjugate with near impunity, then Ukraine would be only the first of such conquests. Inevitably, our friends and allies would be devoured by brazen, authoritarian nuclear powers, the implications of which would drastically alter the world order.
This is a very useful example of a dangerous, stupid kind of logic that we can expect to hear more and more. It is important to understand exactly why it is so stupid and dangerous.
Romney says that there are those who think we should avoid taking actions that would make Russia more likely to use nuclear weapons. By this, they mean trying to make sure Russia isn’t completely cornered, with nuclear weapons being the only thing Putin has left to avoid a catastrophic humiliating defeat that could jeopardize his rule. Indeed, some of us do argue that it is deeply unwise to put Putin in a position where his only remaining options are total crushing defeat or a possibly world-ending nuclear Hail Mary. As Thomas Friedman has warned, “Putin is running out of options for some kind of face-saving success on the ground—or even a face-saving off ramp.” Some, like Noam Chomsky, have encouraged the U.S. to give Putin this kind of “face-saving off-ramp” in order to reduce the risk that this increasingly deranged and desperate dictator will take a step that could lead to a nuclear conflict.
Romney disagrees. Note that he does not argue against the proposition that present U.S. actions (massively escalating military support for Ukraine and getting closer to a “proxy war” while declining to push for a diplomatic settlement) make a nuclear response from Russia more likely. Instead, he appears to argue that it doesn’t matter that this makes Putin more likely to use a nuclear weapon, because the alternative would be “paying the cannibal to eat us last” and would mean that Putin can “invade and subjugate with near impunity.” Some may find this persuasive, thinking a diplomatic settlement would reward Russian aggression and encourage it to invade countries in the future.
But this narrative is false. As foreign relations expert Anatol Lieven explained in a recent Current Affairs interview, it overlooks the crucial fact that Russia has already lost the war. Russia failed in its objective, which was to topple and replace the Ukrainian government. Russia has not even secured full control of the Donbas. Russia has suffered immense losses of troops, had its economy wrecked, become a pariah state, strengthened Ukraine as a nation, strengthened NATO, and shown its military to be a paper tiger that cannot even conquer territories within a few miles of its own border.
This is a critically important fact to understand. A diplomatic settlement now would not result in a “victory” for Russia that encourages further invasions. Russia has proven that it is utterly and completely incapable of invasions. It cannot even conquer a poor country like Ukraine. It is not going to invade Finland. It is not going to invade the United States. Russia has shown that it is not, in fact, any kind of serious threat. Romney portrays Russia as a kind ravenous cannibal that, if not stopped, will devour the entire world. Since Russia cannot even devour the Donbas, this is an utterly deranged fantasy. It is pure fearmongering.
Once we understand that Russia has already suffered a defeat, and has already been strongly disincentivized from pursuing future invasions, it becomes clear how insane it would be at this point to take steps that could make Russia more likely to use nuclear weapons. With the aggression having failed to pay off, what we need is to facilitate a deal between Ukraine and Russia that both parties can accept. Since Putin is likely secretly eager to find a way to end this calamity for his country without being completely humiliated or losing power, such a deal (basic details of which have been outlined by Lieven and Chomsky) should be within reach.
Or, on the other hand, we could push Putin as far as possible in order to maximally punish him, knowing that at any point this irrational, violent, delusional man has a weapon in his back pocket that could lead to the end of the world. We would, of course, as Romney says, be doing this in the name of “freedom,” even though it could result in the gruesome deaths of millions. They would be dead, and Ukraine would be a radioactive wasteland, but at least Putin would have been taught a lesson.
In his interview, Anatol Lieven pointed out that once upon a time, statesmen were very, very concerned by the prospect for nuclear war and understood that it had to be avoided. Lieven worries that today, as nuclear weapons become more of an abstraction, and we find it hard to imagine the kind of destruction they can inflict, we are beginning to talk about them more casually. (America should “show it can win a nuclear war,” says a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.) I certainly think there is insufficient understanding of the danger we are in, and Americans in particular are hesitant to grapple with the truth about what it means to drop a nuclear weapon on a civilian population—probably because we are the only country that has ever done such a thing. (Henry Kissinger, in a recent Financial Times talk warning that we need to take the nuclear threat more seriously and be less cavalier about it, calls them “categories of weapons that in 70 years of their existence have never been used,” conveniently omitting the years of their existence in which we used them twice to obliterate hundreds of thousands of civilians.)
Romney does not think we need to take steps to avoid pushing Putin too far, because he doesn’t think nuclear use by Russia will necessarily lead to “nuclear Armageddon.” Instead it could be a form of “economic Armageddon.” He suggests that NATO could directly enter the conflict and send forces to Ukraine. Romney does not dwell on the possibility that doing so would lead to the war spiraling out of control, and that as NATO troops were killed en masse, domestic pressure for the use of nuclear weapons would escalate. Romney seems fairly confident things will work out fine, even in the case of a direct NATO-Russia war that Joe Biden has previously warned would be a catastrophic “World War III.”
We should be very concerned that there is a person in a position of power who is willing to contemplate a U.S.-Russia nuclear war, and does not seem terribly concerned about the risk of escalation. There have always been those in this country like Dr. Strangelove’s General Buck Turgidson, who think the loss of millions of lives can be described as “getting our hair mussed” a bit and are happy to send other people’s children to war. U.S. Air Force general Thomas Power , a real-life Turgidson, once said: “Why do you want us to restrain ourselves? … At the end of the war if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win!” Some in the Soviet Union had a similar attitude; Nikita Khrushchev reported that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, some top officials were advising him not to back down even if it meant Armageddon, but he concluded that it was not worth destroying the world to preserve the national honor of the Soviet Union.
We must avoid nuclear wars, and we can. A diplomatic settlement in Ukraine is feasible especially now that Russia has been defeated. But it requires U.S. officials to be committed to statesmanship and shed bizarre delusions about Russia cannibalizing the world unless its military is destroyed beyond repair. World War I showed that world leaders who think themselves perfectly reasonable can in fact lead millions to their deaths in total needless catastrophes. We have not yet seen the end of “crackpot realist” ideology—the mentality that presents itself as pragmatic and realistic while in fact agitating for the insanity of war as the solution to problems. The existence of op-eds like Romney’s should alarm every person who values the continued existence of human civilization. Instead of treating nuclear conflict as an unthinkable horror and focusing on steps to ensure that it never, ever happens, Romney thinks we should be making plans, and simply reassures us that things definitely won’t end in catastrophe, even though we would be depending on the (clearly delusional and violent) Vladimir Putin to act with caution and restraint. There is no need for a U.S.-Russia war to happen, but if one does come about, it will be because there are political elites in this country who do not understand the reality of war and accept no responsibility for actions that might exacerbate conflict. They peddle silly myths about Putin as a world-dominating Hitler type (he is more like George W. Bush, as even George W. Bush recently hinted). These people are dangerous and should not be published in mainstream newspapers.