About those nuclear threats by Russia

Both global norms on protecting the innocent and military deterrents by the U.S. may be restraining the Kremlin from pulling the nuclear trigger.

President Vladimir Putin watches a Russian military exercise at Donguz shooting range near Orenburg, Russia, two years ago.

As Russia’s military forces lose ground in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin has escalated his threats to use nuclear weapons. The United States, he said Friday, had “created a precedent” in 1945 by dropping atomic bombs on imperial Japan to force its surrender. Russia, warned Mr. Putin, will defend “our land” – which he now claims includes eastern Ukraine – “with all the forces and resources we have.”

The U.S. takes these threats seriously, promising “catastrophic consequences” for Russia as a deterrent. Yet the fact remains that ever since Russia began to lose the war soon after its invasion in February, it has not used a nuclear weapon or even prepared them for battlefield use.

One reason is that the world has rejected the 1945 “precedent” and created a strong taboo against the use of nuclear weapons. A global norm to protect innocent civilians from weapons of mass destruction has held pretty well. Even within Russia, “it is still a taboo ... to cross that threshold,” Dara Massicot, a former Pentagon analyst of the Russian military, told The Associated Press.

On Monday, the Kremlin even criticized a call by one of its loyalists, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who had advocated the use of “low-yield nuclear weapons” in Ukraine. A spokesperson said the Kremlin prefers a “balanced approach” to the issue of nuclear weapons and not one based on emotion. Russia will rely on its military doctrine of using nuclear weapons only if another weapon of mass destruction is used against it or it faces an existential threat from conventional weapons.

The rise of humanitarian law since World War II – known as the Geneva Conventions – may have helped restrain Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Its troops have killed thousands of noncombatants, yet the global outcry – and Ukraine’s studious investigation of such war crimes – could be coloring the Kremlin’s thinking on nuclear weapons.

The keeper of those humanitarian laws, the International Committee of the Red Cross, has been busy trying to protect civilians in Ukraine. Last week, ICRC Director-General Robert Mardini was in Kyiv calling for a halt to military operations around a Russian-held nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine. He said any release of radioactive material from the Zaporizhzhia plant would bring “consequences for millions of people.”

More countries openly oppose Russia’s taking of Ukrainian lands and its tactics. Statements by China and India indicate those two powers do not want any military escalation. And the European Union warns that Russia’s political leaders will be held accountable for violations of international humanitarian law.

It may not seem like it to Ukrainians, but part of their defenses against Russian forces is a global norm, or international laws safeguarding the innocent. The world’s embrace of its progress against nuclear weapons can be a mighty weapon.

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