Yale history professor Timothy Snyder, in a May 9, 2023 NY Times opinion piece (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/09/opinion/russia-war-ukraine-nuclear.html) and on Lawrence O’Donnell’s MSNBC show on May 11, 2023, posited that nuclear weapons are not the real threat in the Ukraine-Russia war, and in other conflicts. The real issue is the threat of nuclear weapons. He points out that since the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII (which he said the US had already won), no country has used nuclear weapons. In fact, he pointed out that countries with nuclear weapons have been singularly unsuccessful in prevailing in armed conflict. For example, consider the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the US in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, France in Algeria, the UK in holding on to the British Empire, even a stalemate between Israel and Lebanon and China and India in periodic fighting over the Kashmir border.
Prof. Snyder asserts that any country that uses nuclear weapons would instantly become a pariah, and that using nuclear weapons would cause neighboring nations to develop their own nuclear weapons. He contends that this possibility, along with the uncertainty of the aftermath of using a nuclear weapon, prevents any semi-rational leader from ever using nuclear weapons. However, just the psychological fear of possible use can be meaningful. For example, he states that after Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine if Ukraine resisted his “special operation” or if the US and NATO supplied arms to Ukraine, these countries delayed providing material support to Ukraine, which has prevented Ukraine from already prevailing in the war.
While Prof. Snyder’s view that the real issue with nuclear weapons is the psychological effect of the threat of their use, not their actual use, that opinion seems to me to rest on the rationality of national leaders. How does that apply to Putin? Or North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who recently vowed to enhance his nuclear arsenal in “practical and offensive” ways? April 10, 2023, ABC News post, https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/north-korean-leader-vows-offensive-nuclear-expansion-98488461). Or, God forbid, Trump, who day by day seems to be losing his grip on reality but currently maintains a lead in the Republican 2024 Presidential race? If Putin, who I believe lives only to gather and use his own power, sees a Russian defeat in Ukraine as inevitable, he could in desperation use nuclear weapons to try to prove he (and by proxy) Russia is truly a great power. Just this possibility says to me that the world should still do its best to eliminate nuclear weapons and be cautious about assuming no country will ever use them.
But an even more interesting issue that Prof. Snyder does not address is why have smaller, apparently less powerful countries consistently prevailed in armed conflict over seemingly powerful nuclear capable countries. My view is that powerful countries always downplay and ignore the will of people to defend their way of life. The founding of our country is a prime example. The thirteen colonies prevailed against the British then one of the most if not the most powerful nation in the world, because they were fighting for an idea—independence—while the British were on unfamiliar terrain and their troops had little personal stake in the outcome. The same has been true of the US in Vietnam, in the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, in the disastrous US intervention in Iraq and now in Russia’s failing invasion of Ukraine.
I wish country leaders would recognize that initiating military force rarely if ever leads to the outcome they foresee. Maybe more humility and less arrogance would be start.
Give peace a chance.