In what appears a seriously unstable move, Russian President Vladimir Putin has put his nuclear forces in a high state of readiness. Yet, at the very same time, Russia and Ukraine are starting emergency talks on how they might resolve their five-day war. Officials in Kyiv say the Kremlin’s agreement to talk is a sign things aren’t going as planned for the Russian leader.
But the situation in Ukraine is fluid and, almost simultaneously with news of an agreement to hold urgent talks, “Putin ordered the Russian defense minister and the chief of the military’s General Staff to put the nuclear deterrent forces in a ‘special regime of combat duty.’ The move signals tensions could boil over into a nuclear war,” Fox News reported. The timing may seem strange, but Russia has agreed to talks while carrying out combat operations before.
What does Moscow’s move to go to a higher alert state for its nuclear forces mean? Well, in the nuclear deterrence business it means when an enemy goes to a heightened state of alert, the U.S. does as well. For the Defense Department, the system used to establish readiness alert levels for all U.S. armed forces, including America’s nuclear capability, is the Defense Condition Level Warning System (DEFCON). Presently, the U.S is at DEFCON level three. The last time DEFCON two was reached was during the Cuban missile crisis.
“The Biden administration was assessing Putin’s move, which it said unnecessarily escalates an already dangerous conflict. In fact, Putin’s words amount to the kind of threat rarely heard even during the Cold War period,” the Associated Press stated. The idea that the U.S. diplomatic and defense teams are merely “assessing” is not comforting. This suggests to the American public that Biden had not anticipated or had intelligence indicating that Putin’s moves were coming or that such a turn to a nuclear option was even in the cards.
What should be more disturbing, though, to the West is that “President Vladimir Putin put Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal on higher alert Sunday, citing what he said were military and economic moves by the U.S. and its allies in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” as Washington Times reporter David Sands explained. Consequently, one must wonder what is in Putin’s mind? There is an apparent discontinuity in his thinking.
Let’s recap. Putin invades Ukraine without provocation. The Ukrainians resist more successfully than anticipated during the invasion. The U.S. and NATO allies apply very severe economic sanctions on Russia and its oligarchs, and Moscow’s response is to play the nuclear card? That is not a rational reaction. If ever there was a mismatch between two geopolitical responses, economic sanctions versus nuclear war, NATO and the U.S. are facing just such a circumstance. As the crisis in Ukraine continues, confidence in the U.S. president and his administration is crucial for the American public. President Biden must take a strong leadership position.
Following President Biden’s speech on February 24, reporters were at the ready. One question was evocative, and the answer disturbing. Referring to Putin’s threat that the West would face “consequences greater than any of you have faced in history,” a reporter asked President Biden, “Is he threatening a nuclear strike?” Biden responded, “I have no idea what he’s threatening. I know what he has done.” With Putin raising the nuclear alert status of his forces, he’s giving the Biden administration a pretty good idea of what he’s threatening. The question is, how will the U.S. and NATO respond?
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
~ Read more from Dave Patterson.