America’s rhetoric on Russia has escalated recently, says Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal. Last month Joe Biden called Vladimir Putin a war criminal; in March he called for “regime change”, a comment his aides then had to walk back. Last week, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree it can’t do the kinds of things it’s done in Ukraine.” This is dangerous talk. People seem to be downplaying “the real possibility of nuclear-weapon use by Russia in Ukraine”. That’s not to say it would use a huge “strategic” missile; rather, it could deploy a smaller, “tactical” nuclear weapon on the battlefield.
Don’t assume Putin’s nuclear threats are empty: he’s a “cauldron of resentments” for whom hatred of the West is the “central intellectual organising principle of his life”. He’s morphed from a “calculating and somewhat reptilian” leader to one who is both careless and nihilistic. And he’ll do anything not to lose this war. Once the nuclear “taboo” is broken, having held since 1945, it’s broken for good. So it’s time for America to think more and talk less; to return to its “admirable terseness” of the war’s early days. Our leaders need to wake up every morning thinking one thing: “What can we do to lower the odds?”