Am I mistaken or are those nuclear weapons that I see poised just beyond the crest of yonder hill? And what does their presence suggest?
As the Ukraine War continues to drag on, few pundits and even fewer elected officials are eager to discuss publicly such sensitive questions. Credit Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, with having the gumption to take them on, even if his answers remind us just how terrifying such matters can be. When it comes to contemplating the possible use of nuclear weapons, strategy invariably ends up exposing the absence of strategy.
For the United States in recent decades, war has become something of a habit. The proxy war in which it is presently engaged is different from all the others: In this instance, the enemy has at hand a massive nuclear arsenal.
Launched in an act of naked aggression, the Ukraine War has not gone well for the attacker. Few will be inclined to shed tears for Vladimir Putin, who through his own folly has gotten himself into a dilly of a mess.
I make no claim to knowing how the Ukraine War will end. But if the tide of battle continues to favor Putin’s adversary and outright Russian defeat looms as a possibility, the nuclear option may eventually seem like the best card left in his hand. It is not difficult to imagine him contemplating ways of playing it to escape from a fix of his own making.
Indeed, as efforts to negotiate a ceasefire flounder, and as fighting exacts an ever heavier toll on all parties, the appeal of the nuclear option is likely to increase. Actions that just weeks ago would have been deemed beyond the pale will gradually creep into the realm of possibility.
That’s what bothers Senator Romney, who has turned to the accommodating pages of the New York Timesto spell out his expressed views on the matter. In an op-ed titled “We Must Prepare for Putin’s Worst Weapons,” Romney urges Americans to “imagine the unimaginable” and to think about how the United States should respond to the prospect of potential Russian nuclear weapons use.
Romney identifies — only to dismiss — actions on the part of the United States and its allies that could reduce incentives for Russia to go nuclear in the first place. He rejects the idea of limiting the flow of arms and intelligence to Ukraine as a way to nudge President Volodymyr Zelensky into cutting a deal with the Kremlin. Seeking a negotiated settlement, he writes, “would be like paying the cannibal to eat us last.” The proper course for the United States, therefore, is to do its utmost to help Ukraine “win,” even if pursuing that course leads “a cornered or delusional” Putin to cross the nuclear threshold.
Romney assumes, without explanation, that any such event would involve the use of only a single weapon. In other words, he dismisses the possibility that a cornered or delusional Russian leader would employ several or even dozens of nukes. Even so, he bravely insists that in any such eventuality, the United States would have “a wide range of options available.”
In spelling out those options, Romney mostly succeeded in scaring the bejesus out of me.
Chief among his favored courses of action would be for the United States and its European allies to respond to any Russian nuclear weapons use by launching a “potentially obliterating” conventional counterstrike aimed at destroying “Russia’s struggling military.” That NATO possesses the capability of finishing off Russian forces in and around Ukraine is no doubt the case. Whether Putin would thereby wave the white flag of surrender seems less certain. He too would have options. A conventional allied counterstrike, for example, could elicit from the Kremlin further nuclear escalation — bigger warheads, longer range weapons, more sensitive targets. And then where would we be? Romney is mute on the question.
The United States could also, he suggests, present China — not presently a party to the war in Ukraine — and “every other nation” with an ultimatum similar to the one that George W. Bush articulated after 9/11: “You are either with us or you are with Russia.” [Dear Reader: I’m not making this up; those are Romney’s precise words.]
Any nation refusing to comply with this demand, according to Romney, would thereby “become a global pariah,” its economy subject to severe sanctions. While the rippling effects of these sanctions might “ultimately be economic Armageddon,” the former presidential candidate writes, that would be “far preferable to nuclear Armageddon.”
Romney’s analysis invites two brief points in response. First, a policy offering a choice between two variants of Armageddon amounts to an admission of strategic bankruptcy.
Second, I for one am grateful that Mr. Romney’s bid to become commander-in-chief came up short. He lacks the basic qualities needed for the job, beginning with common sense.