The recent conventional missile strikes on residential areas – even including a children’s playground – demonstrate the Russian regime has no regard for civilian casualties, so perhaps, for them, the use of a tactical nuclear missile would not represent the crossing of a significant moral Rubicon.
This may well be the point of the attacks: to terrify the Ukrainians and their international supporters into backing down and enabling Putin to snatch some kind of victory from defeat.
This cannot be allowed to happen. The Russian despot has been pushed onto the ropes by the bravery of Ukrainian soldiers in defence of their country, their democracy; if he is allowed to bounce back, the world will live to regret it.
Therefore, in addition to supplying the weapons systems asked for by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to create an “air shield” to protect his people from further attacks and increasing the economic pressure on the Kremlin, the West needs to start turning the screw on Putin’s allies in Beijing, Riyadh and elsewhere.
The US is beginning to increase the pressure on Saudi Arabia, with the Biden administration re-evaluating relations following the Opec+ decision to cut petroleum output to cause a spike in the price, a move that helps Putin.
A key question is whether Putin’s allies think that using nuclear weapons is acceptable. If they do, the West needs to find that out and treat them accordingly. If they do not, they must either convince Putin that he cannot use them or join the international coalition against him.
China, in particular, could also perform another useful function. Writing more than 2,500 years ago, the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu stressed the importance of allowing a defeated enemy a path – sometimes described as a “golden bridge” – by which to escape, lest they choose to fight to the death.
The ideal scenario would be for Russian forces to be defeated and for Putin to be put on trial for war crimes. However, if this cannot be achieved, then it may be that, as sickening as it sounds, Putin will need some such incentive to choose life over nuclear Armageddon.