The Elephant in the Room: Reflections on the nuclear deterrent and the Ukraine


As Russia flexes its military muscles around the world, after annexing the Crimea and while conducting an ongoing military intervention in the eastern Ukraine, one factor stands out as “the elephant in the room” which no one will mention.

That factor is the nuclear deterrent of the United States and its NATO allies.

For over 40 years it was the lynchpin of NATO strategy for containing the massive land forces of the Soviet Union. It stayed in place even after the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989 and the Soviet Union was disbanded in December, 1991 following an abortive miltary coup in August of that year.

It remains in place, as Putin remilitarizes Russia and has embarked on a militaristic foreign policy whose immediate fruits–in the Crimea and portions of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in the Donbas region of Ukraine–we can now see with great clarity.

Russian military intervention in and violations of Ukrainian sovereignty continue daily, across a border which Russia has through military means rendered wide-open.

The elephant in the room is the U.S. and NATO nuclear deterrent.

Without it, U.S. military doctrine always recognized, Western Europe would not be able to defend itself against Soviet invasion by ground troops and other forces.

Today, it would appear that NATO countries are ill-prepared to defend their periphery by conventional means against an invasion by Russian ground troops.

Nonetheless, one has the strong impression that President Barack Obama has taken the U.S. and NATO nuclear deterrent off the table.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has grasped this fundamental change in the U.S.-Russian balance of power, and has acted decisively to take advantage of it in the Ukraine.

During the conflict between the West and Russia over Syria beginning in 2011, Putin and then President Dimitry Medvedev (2008-2012) made a number of veiled and not-so-veiled threats of nuclear war. Obama, at least in public, never seemed even to acknowledge them.

After the chemical weapons attacks at Ghouta by the Bashar al-Assad government on August 21, 2013, President Obama flinched at the moment of truth and refused to pull the trigger on a long-threatened and long-awaited military response against Syria for crossing his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons.

Putin’s veiled and not-so-veiled nuclear threats have continued.

One has the strong impression that Putin came to the conclusion that Obama would never use nuclear weapons, no matter what the provocation. Meanwhile, the provocations continue.

What indeed happened to the U.S. nuclear deterrent as a part of NATO’s strategy for defending against a Russian ground invasion in Europe?

Is it not time for people to start talking about the elephant in the room?

Perhaps Senator John McCain (R.-Arizona), as the new Chair of the Senate Armed Forces Committe, can initiate a full review of American nuclear strategy and readiness, particularly as it pertains to countering Russian threats and military actions in Europe.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

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