Empty threats from Putin and Kim merit little thought.
Russia and the DPRK constantly threatening nuclear war to scare non-interventionists and then blaming it on the West is part of a textbook strategy.
Nary a week goes by without Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un making a veiled threat to conduct some kind of nuclear provocation.
The noise from Kim has faded into the background. After North Korea warned that there would be "unprecedentedly persistent and strong counteractions" if the US and Korea engaged in the Freedom Shield joint military drills, the US and Korea went on with the drills, which will be completed today.
What was North Korea’s unprecedented counteraction? They fired some missiles into the East Sea (aka the Sea of Japan)—the same thing they’ve been doing for years.
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Americans and Koreans do not take the persistent threats of Kim Jong-un seriously, and there is no mainstream belief that if South Korea and the US stopped maintaining military readiness that Kim would suddenly stop his pattern of belligerence. ROK President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump suspended military drills during their negotiations with Kim. While Kim did suspend missile launches during the talks, he did not engage constructively, and the talks produced nothing lasting.
Vladimir Putin has acted in much the same manner as Kim and has had considerably more success at influencing Western public discourse. After annexing Crimea in 2014, fueling a civil war in eastern Ukraine, and then attacking Ukraine’s mainland last year, Putin has claimed to be the victim of Western imperialism. Americans on the far-left and far-right, including Tucker Carlson, Glenn Greenwald,and Matt Taibbi, have bought it, as have, to a lesser degree, some Realist analysts. (John Mearsheimer doesn’t fall into the same bucket as Tucker Carlson, but Mearsheimer has argued the war is the West’s fault and that Putin is not an imperialist.)
Here’s how Fox News guest Mollie Hemingway responded, saying it is the American side that is engaging in “schoolyard posturing” and that the US must not be supporting Ukraine so aggressively:
But these actions that he [Putin] is taking, mobilizing troops, instituting a draft, reminding people of nuclear weapons is also evidence that he is unwilling to lose. And so we need to think very seriously. Again, is this where we want to be putting our resources? … We have other issues in China. We have other -- there are many other important parts of the world. And so we don't need this kind of schoolyard posturing that we see from people, like senators or senators who become presidents. We need people who are very serious and understand that we do not want a nuclear conflict here. We need to end this as quickly as possible and as favorably as possible to the Ukrainian people.
In reality, Putin doesn’t want a nuclear conflict with the US either, and he knows approximately how many warheads the US has. Katherine Lawlor, a senior intelligence analyst for the Institute for the Study of War, says, “Putin would love it if Western leaders believed that he might [use nuclear weapons]. He is many things, but he is not suicidal.”
The risk of a nuclear war should not and cannot be treated as 0.00%. But neither should they paralyze the US from doing what is morally right and in the national interest. Clearly the Biden administration and the US military has some idea of what is prudent. The decision not to engage US troops in battle is not only to avoid a potential nuclear escalation but also because it would be costly to have US troops get killed from conventional weaponry as well. But it does not make sense to refuse to supply weapons for Ukrainian troops to use because of fear of an attack from Putin.
Putin wants you to think he might attack over weapons supplied, however. He made another threat this week. He said, “The United Kingdom… announced not only the supply of tanks to Ukraine but also shells with depleted uranium. If this happens, Russia will be forced to react.”
“If all this happens, Russia will have to respond accordingly, given that the West collectively is already beginning to use weapons with a nuclear component.”
How Putin’s loyal followers responded on Twitter:
Contrary to Putin’s claims about tank-piercing bullets having a “nuclear component, ” such bullets are not nuclear weapons. It is used, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, “due to its high density, helping it to penetrate enemy armored vehicles.”
The only notable threats to Russian troops from the use of such artillery as opposed to other artillery is it is better at piercing tank armor. The threat of cancer isn’t entirely made up but is extremely exaggerated. According to the VA:
DU is a potential health hazard if it enters the body, such as through embedded fragments, contaminated wounds, and inhalation or ingestion. This is because U’s radiation, while of high energy, penetrates poorly through tissues in the body. Simply riding in a vehicle with DU weapons or DU shielding will not expose a service member to significant amounts of DU or external radiation.
The body of evidence points to both natural and depleted uranium as being primarily chemical toxicants, with radiation playing a minor role or no role at all. Uranium has not been associated with human cancer, but if cancer were to occur, bone would be the most likely location.
So Russia’s leadership is complaining about its victim, whom it invaded, whose homes and schools it has bombed, receiving more effective weapons.
The strategy from Kim and Putin is the same. Scare Americans and America’s allies away from supporting the target of their aggression. At the same time, create a narrative whereby the US and its allies are to blame for any provocation caused by the DPRK or Russia. We must remember this playbook is at work and not fall for it. If there is a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, Kim Jong-un, Kim Yo-jong, and the DPRK regime will be doing the same thing and finding pliable media personalities amongst the same group.
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