So far, Russia’s war on Ukraine has had the positive effect of uniting NATO and prompting Finland and Sweden to ask for membership. It has united much of the world in sympathy and support for the Ukrainian people. 

But it has cost untold thousands of lives, destroyed families, rippled bad economic news around the globe, raised energy prices, threatened Europe’s ability to stay warm during the coming winter and provided the unthinkable specter of Russia carrying out threats to use tactical nuclear weapons.

We join freedom-loving people everywhere in hoping for a swift end to the conflict that allows Ukraine to retain its independence. But we cannot escape the truth that war is never good, and that its human toll, touching good people on all sides, is incalculable. 

As a rule, autocrats don’t give up easily. They rely on perceived strength and brute force to stay in power. Vladimir Putin’s newest assault — sending Russian missiles and Iranian drones on indiscriminate attacks directed at infrastructure and civilians — is as frightening as it is deadly.

Russia-Ukraine updates: Missile strikes continue and leaders discuss the attack

But it’s also a sign of desperation.  

We agree with The Washington Post editorial board, which said recently that the best thing the Biden administration and NATO allies can do is to “keep up sanctions and arms shipments that weaken Russia’s military and empower Ukraine to fight back.”

President Joe Biden has warned Putin about grave consequences if Russia unleashes nuclear weapons. At a recent fundraiser in New York, the president said he doesn’t doubt Putin is serious about using such weapons, and he warned of “Armageddon” should such a thing happen. 

Indeed, the United States would face a tactical dilemma if Putin used even tactical nuclear weapons. Biden would be under pressure to join the conflict directly, limiting the U.S. to conventional weapons but reinforcing America’s role as the world’s biggest power. But such an expansion of the war could easily spin out of control.

Russia loses its stronghold in Ukraine. Will it resort to tactical nuclear weapons?

It’s important that Biden not make any specific threats in regard to retaliation. Specifically ones that would handcuff the White House in a situation that would require quick and nimble action.

As Steven Pifer of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists wrote this week, Ukraine’s military is not gathered in large enough formations to make a nuclear strike profitable. Putin has not changed the nuclear posture of his forces or given any outward indication that his threat will be carried out imminently. Most likely, he is using the threat to frighten Ukraine into negotiating an end to the war.

But it would be wrong to err on the side of not taking the threat seriously.

To the people of Ukraine, the war is existential, and the nation has shown every indication it intends to continue fighting under any circumstances — perhaps even a nuclear attack.

Ukraine’s advances, and especially its ability to damage the Kerch Strait Bridge and to regain thousands of square miles in the nation’s east and south, have put Putin in a corner. That’s a dangerous place, especially if it pushes him to respond in ways that threaten NATO member nations, but it is still a much better place than if Russia were winning.

Ukraine reclaims territory, Russia suffers significant loss of manpower. Is Ukraine on the path to victory?

There are signs that Putin is beginning to lose his grip. Some on Russia’s right are blaming the Defense Ministry for the setbacks. Thousands of people have fled Russia in recent weeks ahead of Putin’s planned draft. 

The war may threaten a worldwide recession. It may exacerbate the debts and deficit budgeting that plague many Western nations, including the United States. It may threaten Europe’s energy supply and cause political upheaval. 

But if it is allowed to spread beyond the borders of Ukraine, it could do much more damage than that. Washington must tread confidently and cautiously at the same time, using its position as the world’s strongest superpower to keep a lid on the conflict despite Putin’s desperation to retain power.