The first nuclear age was marked by deterrence, the second by hopes that nuclear weapons might be eliminated. The war in Ukraine may herald a third nu

A third nuclear age may be dawning in Ukraine

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2022-09-23 07:30:22

The first nuclear age was marked by deterrence, the second by hopes that nuclear weapons might be eliminated. The war in Ukraine may herald a third nuclear age, much more dangerous and uncertain than what came before.

O n 11 March, President Joe Biden sharply rejected politicians’ and experts’ calls for the United States to get more directly involved in the Ukraine war, ruling out direct conflict with Russia: ‘The idea that we’re going to send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews — just understand ... that’s called World War III’ (1) . He nonetheless accepted war was possible if the Russian offensive spread to the territory of a NATO member state.

Thus a distinction was established between NATO’s territory (inviolable) and the territory of Ukraine, which falls into a unique geostrategic category: according to the US, maintaining this distinction will require an accurate understanding of the balance of power between the belligerents on the ground, strict control of the degree of operational involvement of Ukraine’s declared supporters (especially concerning the nature of arms transfers to Ukraine) and, above all, continual reassessment of the limits of Russia’s determination — all with a view to leaving room for a negotiated way out acceptable to both Russia and Ukraine. Some trace the US’s caution back to a statement by Russia’s president Vladimir Putin on 24 February: ‘No matter who tries to stand in our way or ... create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.’ These words, and his order that Russia’s nuclear forces be placed on high alert (‘a special regime of combat duty’), amounted to attempted coercion, and could suggest that Biden’s reaction constituted backing down. In January, neoconservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens had called for the revival of the concept of the ‘free world’, and warned, ‘The bully’s success ultimately depends on his victim’s psychological surrender’ (2) .

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