A Growing Nuclear Threat Requires a Diplomatic Solution to the Russo-Ukrainian War

Photograph Source: Neil H – CC BY 2.0

Many years after Ukraine declared independence in 1991, the physical symbols of the country’s decades-long membership in the Soviet Union were still visible: in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, a massive statue of Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet state, dominated the city’s main square. He was cast with a confident forward stride, showing the way to the Kharkiv Regional Administration building located just opposite him. Farther away in a residential neighborhood, a modest concrete statue of a seated Lenin reading a book occupied a quiet corner of a school’s playground.

Having lived and studied in Kharkiv in the 1990s, I knew the city well and was sickened to see images of that school and the administration building on fire, their windows blown out, targets of Russian missiles. I have no idea what became of the people I knew and whom I liked. The possibilities are grim. But the statues of Lenin, both big and small, were spared the shelling because they were removed a long time before the Russian assault. For many Ukrainians, Lenin and his successors were part of the country’s long history of colonial domination.

That the statues were torn down should have told President Vladimir Putin of Russia something important. Ukraine is not, as he asserted, an artificial space that Lenin carved out of Russian territorial reality and now must be returned. Ukrainians partly rejected Lenin’s statues because he led a government in Moscow that extinguished Ukraine’s early twentieth-century efforts at independence; it was a regime that later engineered genocide and settler colonialism in the country. Putin’s ideological certainty that Ukrainians yearned for an ethno-cultural reunification with Russia—one curiously conducted at gunpoint—is a species of deep historical ignorance.

The larger geopolitical reasons for the war have been fiercely debated since the invasion began on February 24, 2022. Some claim that US-led NATO expansion into Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union eventually triggered Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine. European refusals of earlier Russian proposals for a security agreement that would have guaranteed Ukraine’s neutrality and granted autonomy for its eastern territories are also cited as contributing to the war. Others argue that Putin’s appetite for a reconstituted Russian or Soviet empire is the primary motivation for the conflict; thus, the claim is that he would have taken the current course of action even if new security arrangements had been established and NATO had not expanded eastward. Since these measures were never attempted, we will never know if they would have worked, which makes reading Putin’s sociopathic mind a speculative exercise.

The current controversy centers less on why the war started and more on how to end it. Publicly, the Ukrainian government aspires to victory, full Russian withdrawal, and the return of every inch of territory Moscow has taken since 2014, including the Crimean Peninsula and the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian population mostly agrees. The anger and trauma resulting from Moscow’s atrocities have cemented Ukrainians’ political unity and sense of nationalism. However, intense nationalist feelings in any country often become a type of zealotry, an uncompromising insistence that a nation’s future is fated to be optimal even despite evidence that its allies and enemies will not conform in ways that will make that preferred future a reality.

Others advocate for a negotiated peace with more modest and provisional territorial concessions. Today, however, the mere suggestion of a peace agreement instantly inspires angry criticisms of an immoral caving-in to Putin’s illegal aggression and charges of practically collaborating with war criminals. For many, including some Ukrainians with whom I have spoken, fighting till inevitable victory has become the only acceptable position. Such rigid thinking has frankly blinded people to the fact that the present course will result in more death and destruction, perhaps on a scale that dwarfs the present carnage. A military solution alone that requires maximalist gains and greater foreign military aid, as well as an intolerance of concurrent diplomatic options, could end in a nuclear confrontation. For example, let’s suppose that Crimea can be wrested from Russia by military force. With enough NATO help, it is possible. More than a few military analysts have argued that the moment this looks like a real possibility, the chances of Putin or his military commanders resorting to a nuclear option sharply increase. In that case, there will be no habitable Crimea—or much else—to save. For those who survive such a disaster, they will have the small consolation that they were true to their maximalist goals.

Despite the courage of the Ukrainian army and its stunning successes in repelling Putin’s forces in 2022, the war has become something of a stalemate, and the longer it continues, the greater the chances of escalation. At the one-year mark of Russia’s invasion back in February, James Rands at Jane’s Defense noted that the conflict had already become a war of attrition, and the tremendous loss of personnel and equipment on both sides would make more of the same “unsustainable.” Ivo Daalder and James Goldgeir’s analysis in Foreign Affairs earlier this year proved prescient: Since both sides were not likely to negotiate, the authors argued that the situation would become “a prolonged, grinding war.” Russian attempts to gain ground have largely failed, and although the Ukrainians have advanced in some places, those gains have generally been modest and come at great cost. As Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, recently wrote in the Washington Post, there have been no significant territorial strides by either side since last autumn. That will probably not change in the foreseeable future. And, according to Constanze Stelzenmuller, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings, the West has indicated that it will not invite Ukraine to join NATO anytime soon, but it will keep providing extensive military aid, suggesting that the current impasse will continue. The West should help Ukraine defend itself, but it must also seek ways to end the war on the diplomatic front.

Both Russia and Ukraine have dug in and by large majorities their respective populations support their governments’ war efforts, making the prospects for negotiations unlikely. This increases the chances that the fighting will eventually spill over into NATO countries or that Putin will attempt a nuclear strike. The Council on Foreign Relations noted that the lack of a significant diplomatic solution could lead to “a dangerous escalation, which could include Russia’s use of a nuclear weapon.” Daalder and Goldgeir assert that defeating Russia will be incredibly challenging, but the chances of a Ukrainian victory would be better if US-NATO support were substantially increased. However, “that would risk starting a direct war between NATO and Russia, a doomsday [nuclear] scenario that no one wants.”

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, an organization whose founding members included Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, announced their findings on the current risks of terminal nuclear war. Last January, the organization’s Science and Security Board stated that it moved the hands of its Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds to midnight, the closest humanity has come to nuclear Armageddon. Midnight means the termination of the human experiment. The reasons for the greater threat are “largely (though not exclusively) because of the mounting dangers of the war in Ukraine.” Elsewhere in the statement, the board noted that “Russia’s thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons remind the world that escalation of the conflict—by accident, intention, or miscalculation—is a terrible risk.” It is important to add that by this sixteenth month of the war, the threats from some of Putin’s hardline advisors are no longer veiled. A few have openly written about limited nuclear strikes to tip the balance in Russia’s favor, and Russian army officers have also discussed using nuclear weapons.

A slim but feasible option to reduce growing threats of escalation can be found in the 2015 Minsk II agreement. In principle, its terms were agreed to by Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France. Although far from perfect and never carried out because of disagreements about implementation, its 13 points might at least provide a reprieve in the fighting and a path forward. Among its provisions are a ceasefire, prisoner exchanges, and humanitarian aid to be sent to beleaguered areas. It also allows for Ukrainian sovereignty over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east. Its terms could be modified and expanded to accommodate developments since then.

Given that both a continuation of the current conflict and conventional military escalation, such as deploying NATO troops in Ukraine proper or establishing a no-fly zone, may lead to a nuclear exchange, Minsk II could provide the basis for an end of hostilities. Putin, despite his massive, hideous crimes, is neither invulnerable to external diplomatic pressures, nor is he an all-powerful leader pulling the strings on each politician in Moscow. No leader can control every faction in one’s own government. That means he may eventually succumb to the hardliners who, angry that the Russian army did not decapitate Kyiv’s leadership and occupy the entire country, may pressure him to resort to nuclear weapons.

Michael Slager is an English teacher at Loyola University Chicago.