If Putin Goes Nuclear in Ukraine, the West Won’t Respond in Kind, Ex-Polish Defense Official Says

November 7, 2014
A Russian mobile nuclear ICBM launcher. Russia has developed a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems. Moscow has also been deploying small, ground-based nuclear weapons close to the borders of the eastern-most NATO allies. Source: Loren Thompson, Forbes.com

Staunton, November 7 – In a comment the Warsaw newspaper Fakt described as extremely disturbing, Romuald Szeremietiew, a former Polish deputy defense minister, says that if Vladimir Putin uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine or in the Baltic region, the West likely would not react in kind.

His suggestion follows the Kremlin leader’s incautious and outrageous remarks about the possible use of nuclear weapons in the current crisis as well as after some analysts have suggested that Ukrainian resistance in a conventional conflict would cost Russia a large and possibly unacceptable level of casualties.

Not only does Szeremietiew put in words the fears many in the region and elsewhere now have that the West is not ready to respond to even that kind of escalation by Moscow, but his words may make that possibility more likely by calling into question the implicit threat that the West would respond to any such Russian action by going nuclear itself.

The former defense official first offered this judgment on the “Facts about Facts” program of Poland’s TVN24 channel.

Three observations are in order: First, this is the judgment of one former official and does not necessarily reflect US or NATO thinking — although it will be interesting to see whether and how any official in either Washington or Brussels will react. It is a certainty that Moscow will be paying close attention to that.

Second, there is a major difference between Ukraine and those countries which are not members of NATO and those like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania which are. The Western alliance is not committed to the defense of the former but is, under Article 5 of the NATO charter, bound to defend the latter.

And third – and this may be the most important thing to keep in mind – many Western defense theorists in fact do argue against responding immediately to a Russian use of nuclear weapons lest that lead to an uncontrolled spiral of escalation beyond the immediate theater of conflict into a third world war.

To a greater degree than anyone interested in peace would like, the likelihood that an aggressor like Putin might choose to go nuclear rests on the implicit notion that anyone who uses nuclear weapons would have nuclear weapons used against him and his country. What makes Szeremietiew’s remarks so frightening is that they suggest this constraint is breaking down.