By John Erath
Two weeks ago, the Center hosted a briefing for Congressional staff on the Russia-Ukraine standoff, featuring two leading experts on the region. Such briefings are an important element of our mission, connecting lawmakers with the specific knowledge that will (hopefully) lead to informed decision making. Despite everyone’s preoccupation with the holiday season, the event drew a large number of participants, a measure of the timeliness of the issue and the level of interest as leaders grapple with how to deal with Putin’s aggression. One of the themes that the panelists stressed was the priority Moscow places on dominating the post-Soviet space, which Putin refers to as “Historic Russia,” and the willingness in the Kremlin to use any possible means to preserve its imagined sphere of influence. This led me to think about what is most important to those of us at the Center: the role of nuclear weapons. Putin has been able to take risks with his interference in neighboring states because, in part, everyone understands that conflict with Russia could become nuclear.
Two recent developments highlight the dangerous turn of events. First, Russia has linked its “red lines” explicitly to possible nuclear action. Second, Putin has threatened to deploy nuclear-capable intermediate range missiles to Russia’s western borders. These steps were, of course, specifically timed to respond to concerns about renewed threats to Ukraine. The message is clear: support to Ukraine could lead to nuclear war. With this understanding, I wrote a new article highlighting the pernicious twist coming from Moscow — instead of nuclear weapons deterring aggression, they are enabling it. Rather than playing Putin’s game and trying a military response to Russia’s bullying, the article recommends several ways of increasing the opportunity cost of aggression while highlighting the importance of practical arms control as a tool to avoid conflict. “By emphasizing a constructive approach to arms control and non-proliferation, western governments can also refute the dangerous precedent of using the threat of nuclear weapons to deter strong responses to non-nuclear aggression.”