The Canadian city of Halifax hosted a security forum last week – an important North American event that addresses global security issues.
As you might guess, Russian aggression in Ukraine was the key subject. The forum even changed its logo, adding blue and yellow colours to it, and most of the panels were either devoted to the Ukrainian issue or the discussions ended up there.
However, the participants and organisers seemed to “not notice the elephant in the room” – the nuclear threat against Ukraine, which Russia declared not long ago.
During the three-day forum, the organisers needed help finding a single hour for a public discussion about nuclear security and Putin’s threats. However, in private, it remains a topic. A separate closed discussion was dedicated to this matter. EuroPravda participated in it. We could also hear it during non-public talks with Ukraine, confirming Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna, representing the Ukrainian government in Halifax.
We can assure you that it has been a crucial change: according to Western and Ukrainian actors, the danger of a “conventional” nuclear attack on Ukraine has significantly decreased.
On the sidelines of the Halifax forum, they talked quite frankly about it.
Nuclear elephant in the room
The Halifax Security Forum is held every November. It is co-funded by the US and Canadian governments.
However, it has a completely different concept than most other international forums. If at the Munich forum, even dictators are given the floor, and the forum becomes a platform for negotiations with them, the meeting in the capital of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia openly limited the number of participants.
This year, only those who, according to the organisers, profess democratic values were invited there. No representatives of the Russian or Chinese authorities were at the event. The Iranian authorities had no opportunity to speak in Halifax. Instead, opponents of the Iranian leadership were given the widest opportunity to do so.
Even the Pentagon chief, Lloyd Austin, who participated in the forum and mentioned nuclear security in his speech, did so in a completely different context: the fact that nuclear Russia is waging war against its neighbour may push other dictatorial and authoritarian regimes to work on nuclear weapons. They will see that having “the nukes” gives the state a certain immunity at war with a non-nuclear neighbour. The opinion is certainly correct, but we cannot call it something new: Ukraine has been repeating it since 2014. Even US officials noted it in the Obama times.
The new dimension of this threat, which became clear after Putin’s recent threats, the US Secretary of Defence decided not to see. Washington believes that Putin’s intentions have been neutralised.
With good words and ballistic missiles
“As long as there’s a nuclear weapon, there’s a high risk. Therefore, the threat level is not changed”, a representative of the US State Department for nuclear safety, at the expert discussion in Halifax, shared his assessment at “not for quoting” mode.
After a minute, as if contradicting his own assessment, the diplomat admitted that the meeting between Xi Jinping and Joe Biden was a turning point in deterring a Russian nuclear attack.
Some interlocutors of “European Pravda” spoke about the fact that the Xi-Biden negotiations let the West “be a little more at ease” and significantly reduced the likelihood of nuclear attack on Ukraine. It is about a three-hour meeting between the leaders of the United States and China in Bali during the G20 summit.
“President Biden and President Xi reiterated their agreement that a nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won and underscored their opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine,” the White House statement following the meeting reads. “Xi told Biden that China is urging dialogue and negotiations toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Nuclear weapons cannot be used, and nuclear wars must not be fought,” Nikkei reports the position of the Chinese leader.
China is one of the very few countries whose leader has influence over the Kremlin’s position. The unequivocal warnings against Putin were stated publicly and were duplicated unofficially. This could not but have an impact on Moscow.
American intelligence is optimistic.
Jim Risch, the most senior member of the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee who gets briefed by intelligence, now believes that the unequivocal response of a few of Putin’s partners, such as China, has already made it possible to avert the nuclear threat.
“There are two things Putin will not do. Number one, I don’t think he’ll use nuclear weapons. Number two: I don’t think he will attack a NATO country. That would really turn the world greatly against him,” Risch believes.
More important, the US and NATO have been surprisingly tight-lipped about their response to Kremlin’s attempts to “rattle nuclear sabers.”
Last month, NATO warned that it would resort to a military response to the Russians if they used tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine. And at the same time, through the retired American general, the mass media “leaked” an option of such a scenario – a non-nuclear attack by the allies on the Russians, even destroying the Black Sea fleet of the Russian Federation.
In addition, the United States brought an additional fleet to the Mediterranean Sea, which carries high-precision ballistic missiles capable of striking the Russian Federation. All this together now makes the West relatively confident that nuclear war has been averted.
Although the chances are still not zero, they are also trying to use them.
Russia’s nukes: not only a threat but also an excuse
Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna, who headed the Ukrainian delegation in Halifax and held meetings with foreign colleagues during the forum, also agrees that the West has lowered the risk of the nuclear threat.
“(In response to the questions of colleagues) there was a very clear signal from our side – the use of nuclear weapons, that is, a nuclear strike is very unlikely. However, there is still a likelihood of using the Zaporizhzhia NPP as a weapon. Therefore, in conversations with our partners, we underline that this should be equated to a nuclear strike,” the Deputy Prime Minister emphasised.
Western partners are aware of the danger of a nuclear accident at the ZNPP and have warned the Russian Federation about the inadmissibility of such a step. However, there have been no real harsh warnings as about the conventional nuclear attack.
Following the decline of the direct nuclear threat, a new consequence of Russian blackmail has been up.
According to Stefanishyna, Kyiv is convinced that some partners use it as an excuse to say “no” to Ukraine.
“We feel that the nuclear threat has become an element of protection for some partners. They explain that they cannot do this and that because they are afraid,” the Deputy Prime Minister explained.
However, the suspicions of the Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister about such concerns remain an open question. Instead, the fact is that Russia is more successful in Europe, in contrast to the USA, using its nuclear blackmail.
German MP Roderich Kiesewetter (former military officer, nowadays a member of the committee for foreign affairs, CDU) believes that the likelihood of a nuclear war is low. Putin gains more by threatening with nuclear weapons, not by using them. “Threatening the world with the nukes already gives him high bonuses, dividing Europe and the West on the support of Ukraine. Many European politicians start to restrain themselves the way they won’t do if there were no Russian nuclear threats,” the German politician explains.
The actions of the German government are one of the most vivid illustrations of how exactly this approach works. He adds: “I hear from Chancellor Scholz when he says that no tanks, Marder or Leopard can be provided to Ukraine because this would “lead to a horrible escalation.” I suspect that these are the words he’s heard from Putin in their phone talks,” sums up the representative of the German opposition.
So it seems very likely that Russia will continue to reap political dividends from its nuclear threats even if it has refrained from escalating to a nuclear strike. It will just resort to the latter, not as openly and rudely as it did in October.