Oct 6, 2022
People enjoy cheering on a little guy who appears to be holding his own against a bully. Much of reaction to the Ukrainians’ gutsy effort to repel the brutal Russian invasion of their country has been like that up to now.
But now the situation has been changed radically by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s not so veiled threat to use nuclear weapons if the Ukrainian counter-offensive extends to Russian territory—something that in Putin’s mind includes a large chunk of landscape in eastern and southeastern Ukraine where Russian-speaking separatists have fought the Ukrainian army since 2014.
Putin’s threat to employ “all the means at our disposal” was presumably a reference to tactical weapons meant for battlefield use rather than the nuclear monsters capable of wiping New York or Moscow—or Kyiv—off the map. But the difference hardly matters. For as most people grasp only too well, any use at all of any nuclear weaponry would propel the fighting in Ukraine to a higher level of awfulness with terrifying potential.
With good reason, then, many commentators see this as the present moment as the most dangerous since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when the U.S. and the Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear war. The relevant question now—one to which there is no present answer--is what Putin would do if backed into a corner. It would be foolish to suppose his nuclear threat was what he specifically said it wasn’t—a bluff.