“Russia is behaving in a 19th century fashion.” So remarked then Secretary of State John Kerry in March 2014 when Vladimir Putin’s forces marched into Crimea. Responding to the Russia’s invasion, plebiscite and subsequent annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, the United States and its allies imposed a variety of sanctions on Russia. It made little difference. Eight years later Putin reprised his “19th century” gambit by attacking Ukraine, hoping to decapitate its government and absorb the entire country into Russia.
Putin expected that Kyiv would fall within a week. Not only did that not happen, but he continues to fight a determined Ukrainian foe, which—buoyed by Western and especially American weapons and training—has inflicted a number of tactical defeats on his manifestly incompetent forces. In the face of these failures, Putin applied the same approach to four eastern and southern Ukrainian oblasts, which his forces already occupied and that proved successful in Crimea. He held sham referenda resulting in votes to join Russia followed by annexation.
Putin has been following Hitler’s playbook. In 1936 Germany reoccupied the overwhelmingly German-populated Rhineland and faced nothing more than European condemnation. Two years later, he demanded the annexation of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, whose ethnic Germans comprised some 23% of the country’s population and who, like most ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, welcomed both the occupation and the annexation. No doubt Putin expects all of Ukraine eventually to fall, as did Czechoslovakia in 1939.
But there is a difference. The population of the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine is not as overwhelmingly supportive of Russian occupation and annexation as were the ethnic Germans of Sudetenland. Equally, if not more important, Ukrainian forces have been pressing Russian units on multiple fronts, with considerable success. Finally, Ukraine’s allies have been far more supportive than the supine British and French who agreed to Hitler’s terms in the 1938 Munich Agreement. As long as Ukraine continues to receive American and allied support, they could well recover some, if not all, of Russian-occupied territory.
Desperate to avoid the humiliation of further losses to the Ukrainians, Putin has threatened that he would “certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people.” And, for emphasis he has added, “It is not a bluff.” Russia clearly is behind the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline to Europe. Even more troubling is Putin’s apparent readiness to respond with nuclear weapons to any Ukrainian attempt to retake the regions that the Kremlin dictator now considers to be sovereign Russian territory.
Putin’s henchmen have been threatening nuclear weapons virtually since Russia launched its invasion on February 24. His ever more explicit threats appear to be more serious in the face of the real possibility that Ukraine could retake what he now terms sovereign Russian territory. Whether Putin would make good on those threats is unclear, however. To begin with, any fallout from a tactical nuclear weapon could affect Ukraine’s neighbors that are NATO members and thus likely trigger Article 5 of the NATO treaty leading to a war for which overstretched Russian forces are woefully unprepared. In addition, the fallout could well affect the very territories that Russia has just annexed. Moreover, should Russia detonate a weapon over the Black Sea for demonstrative effect, that could still trigger Article 5 and a NATO military response.
Nevertheless, Putin’s threats intensify the dilemma that has haunted the Biden administration and has influenced the degree of its support for Ukraine, almost from the outset of the war. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made it clear that he will not be deterred by Putin’s implied nuclear threats and that his forces will prosecute the war to regain the country’s lost territory. At issue is to what degree Washington can continue to support Ukraine given the Russian annexation, Zelenskyy’s war aims, and Putin’s nuclear saber rattling.
It has been reported that Biden has warned the Russians that the US will respond forcefully should Russia detonate a tactical nuclear weapon while the Americans continue to supply Ukraine with key weapons such as the HIMARS rocket system that has devastated Russian targets. Yet there are reports that Washington has not picked up the pace of its support to Ukraine. Moreover, some would have Washington persuade Zelenskyy to drop his war aims and reach an agreement with Russia.
To the contrary, Washington should not only ramp up its weapons shipments to Ukraine if Biden’s warnings are to be taken seriously, but it should also reconsider its reluctance to send tanks and other weapons that Kyiv has requested. Biden should make it clear to Putin that Ukraine is not Czechoslovakia, that America’s leaders are not Britain’s Neville Chamberlain and France’s Édouard Daladier, and that a Munich-like agreement to carve out a key part of Ukraine is, and will be, out of the question.