The war in Ukraine is entering a new and deadly phase.
Nuclear war has always been a risk in the confrontation between Russia and the West. This risk is now extreme.
The reason is linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin has long hinted that he is ready to forge a compromise with Kyiv that would end the fighting. Although the details are hazy, such a compromise would see Ukraine ceding territory to Russia in exchange for peace.
Ukraine has always said that it would never sign such an agreement unless Moscow agrees to withdraw all troops currently occupying Ukrainian territory.
The result was a stalemate. So far.
Now Putin has upped the ante. He promised referendums today in occupied Ukraine on his possible integration with Russia. And he warned NATO that if the referendums are successful (which they will be), any attack on forces in occupied Ukraine will be seen by Moscow as an attack on Russia itself.
Russia has long reserved the right to be the first to use nuclear weapons in the event of a conventional attack. NATO claims a similar right.
In short, we are entering new and dangerous territory, where a minor battle between the two sides in the Ukrainian conflict could quickly escalate into an all-out nuclear war.
Putin’s second decision this week was his decision to mobilize part of the Russian reserve forces. It promises to put around 300,000 more people on military call and give thousands of ordinary Russians a taste of the war being waged in their name.
Curiously, this could end up putting renewed pressure on Putin to seek a peaceful compromise. Foreign wars are not popular in Russia. They remind people of Russia’s futile fight in Afghanistan, a fight that saw far too many people come home in body bags.
In this sense, anything that downplays the war in Ukraine is likely to be more popular than anything that promotes it.
This means that there is still the real possibility of a negotiated settlement to end this war. Both parties should give in. Russia should give up its imperial aspirations. Ukraine should cede part of its territory.
NATO should scale back its ambition to be Europe’s final arbiter.
All of this may seem unlikely, but the alternative is worse. The alternative is more nuclear strategy – on both sides.
“I’m not bluffing,” Putin said this week. This may or may not be true. But the fact that we have to ask the question should worry us.