Push nuclear button or admit defeat

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Push nuclear button or admit defeat

The author is an international news team reporter at the JoongAng Ilbo.

On Sept. 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the West was not qualified to discuss democracy as the United States left a bad precedent by using nuclear weapons against Japan twice. He made the remarks before declaring Russia will annex four Ukrainian regions — Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Putin shouted at Ukraine, “Stop all military actions and war and return to the negotiation table.”

The precedent mentioned by Putin refers to the two atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. At that time, the overwhelming power of the nuclear bombs turned the two cities into a living hell and forced the “Great Japanese Empire” to surrender unconditionally. Currently, Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons are even more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan. Russia has about 2,000 tactical nukes, 10 times more than in the United States.

Putin has fixed a “nuclear doctrine.” The conditions to launch nuclear weapons was initially only “when under nuclear attack,” but “when the national security was at risk due to conventional weapons attacks” was added in 2000, and “when the existence of the nation is threatened” was added in 2020. Russia’s situation is completely different from America and France, where the systematic devices to control the nuclear button are multi-layered.

After Putin lost control and made multiple nuclear threats, some people raise the possibility of a military clash between the U.S. and Russia, probably more serious than the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The Economist pointed out that during the missile crisis, there was a collective leadership that could check on the authority of Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but there are no aides powerful enough to stop Putin.

Graham Allison, the author of “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis,” told the New York Times, “The plausible scenario is if a leader is forced to choose between a catastrophic humiliation and a roll of the dice, that might yield success.” The moment of choice for Putin would be when “Ukraine succeeds in pushing Russian forces out of the areas Putin annexed on Friday.”

Until now, Putin’s choices have been a series of bad moves — invasion, military reserve mobilization and annexation. I hope he chooses to admit defeat, not the nuclear button, when faced with the last choice.
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