Fears in Europe grow over Putin nuke threats

VIENNA — Nuclear experts are warning that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats to deploy a nuclear weapon in Ukraine has put the world at its most dangerous precipice of nuclear confrontation since the Cold War.

“The nuclear risk, is it as bad as during the Cold War? The answer is yes,” said Alexander Kmentt, director for disarmament, arms control and nonproliferation with the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“In the Cold War we had essentially two nuclear interests trying to deter one another. We have several potential nuclear flashpoints now. … The latest iteration of those risks, issued by Russia, are just completely beyond the pale.”

While U.S. officials have stressed they have yet to see Russian movements pointing to a nuclear escalation, Austrian officials provide a unique perspective on Putin’s Russia given the distinct space the country occupies.

More from The Hill: How the US might respond to a Russian nuclear attack in Ukraine

While Austria is a member of the European Union and party to the sanctions placed on Russia, it has not provided any military support to Ukraine and the country is constitutionally bound to its position of neutrality.

This, in part, has prevented it from joining NATO even as traditionally neutral Finland and Sweden are on the brink of ascension to the organization.

Moscow and Vienna have long held strategic and deep economic ties. Austria serves as a major energy transit center for natural gas traveling from Russia to Europe, in particular to Italy. The country also gives reverence to the Soviet Union for helping Austria establish its independence after World War II.

In April, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer became the first European leader to meet face-to-face with Putin after he ordered his military to invade Ukraine on Feb. 24.

The meeting failed to pull Putin back, however, and Austria has pushed the boundaries of its neutrality to more firmly join the international community in supporting Ukraine.

“We are for Ukraine,” said an Austrian diplomat, who declined to be named in order to speak candidly, but added that Vienna stands ready to host — however unlikely — de-escalation talks.

Emil Brix, who served as Austria’s ambassador to Russia from 2015 to 2017, said it is important for the international community to state clearly that any nuclear deployment by Putin would be completely unacceptable.

Brix, who said he has met Putin on numerous occasions, describes the Russian leader as someone who is well-informed in things that are “mainly strategically important to him,” who works hard to rationalize his every action but is “not open to many opinions.”

“He only understands strength,” Brix said, though he added that international condemnation may factor into Putin’s “rational thinking.”

Austria has long made nuclear disarmament a major foreign policy priority, and Kmentt, the nonproliferation official, said the goal is a radical change to the current paradigm — where mutually assured destruction was thought to be the best way to prevent the use of nuclear weapons.

That risk now is immediately grave, suggesting the paradigm may no longer be workable.

Hard-line partners of Putin are calling for the use of “low-yield nuclear weapons,” as proposed by the head of Russia’s region of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. This suggests Putin’s threats may not be a bluff.

The debate around the potential use of a “tactical” or “low-grade” nuclear weapon is likely to lead to “all-out nuclear war,” Kmentt said.

“Nobody knows how you can contain escalation once this threshold is crossed,” he said.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper said on Tuesday that she had “nothing to corroborate” in response to a question on whether Russia is moving tactical nuclear weapons to Ukraine’s border.

Kmentt credited the U.S., Europe and NATO for reinforcing unity, coordinating sanctions on Russia and working to rally global condemnation of Putin’s actions.

“You can also make the argument that what the West has been trying” to do is break the paradigm, Kmentt said, but that “we haven’t been as successful as we would have liked on that.”

Ksenyia Karchenko, a Ukrainian refugee in Austria, is putting fears of a Russian nuclear strike out of her mind. As a researcher working with the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, she is documenting Ukrainians’ lived experience during the war.

Ukraine is fighting for its survival, she explained, to finally put an end to Putin’s best attempts to destroy the country and calls for the world to stay united and not capitulate to the Russian leader’s threats.

“This is a huge, bloody history we’re sharing [with Russia], it is important for Ukrainians to have this final battle. There’s no other way for us but to win,” she said.

“If we would say what Ukrainians need, we need to be seen as a real and democratic and independent country … we need weapons.”

The reporter was a guest of the Vienna School of International Studies.

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