Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling in the Russia-Ukraine War is growing louder. With Ukraine recovering areas seized by Russia earlier in the conflict, President Vladimir Putin is issuing stark warnings that Russia may use nuclear weapons to maintain control of territory it now claims as its own. Much remains unclear about Russia’s posturing, including how Russia might use nuclear forces and, most critically, whether Putin is bluffing. But, as far as the United States is concerned, one thing is clear: Should Russia make good on its nuclear threats, many in Washington now advocate a conventional attack on Russian forces in theatre, from the Black Sea fleet to targets in Ukraine and perhaps Russia itself.
David Petraeus, for instance, advocates a NATO effort “that would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea.” Similarly, the Atlantic Council’s Matthew Kroenig advises “a limited conventional strike against the Russian forces or bases that launched the nuclear attack.” Former NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller expects a “strong non-nuclear” military response should Russia go nuclear, just as the former commander of US army forces in Europe Ben Hodges calls for “destroying the Russian Black Sea Fleet or Russian bases in occupied Crimea.”
These calls may seem reasonable, even circumspect, given that Russia will have let the nuclear genie out of the bottle. However, proponents of a strike are burying the lede. Make no mistake: What Petraeus, Kroenig, and others advocate is nothing less than a decision that would precipitously raise the risk of an all-out war between the United States, NATO, and Russia. After all, a conventional attack would invite a Russian response; the United States and its allies would likely feel compelled to respond yet again; and so on. This is a recipe for a great power war, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the World Wars. All the more dangerous — and unlike the world wars — a direct US-Russia war could escalate further into an all-out strategic nuclear exchange that might well see the United States (and the world as we know it) destroyed.
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