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The Dawn of an Even More Dangerous Cold War

On March 3, Senator Lindsey Graham went on Hannity on Fox News and called for the assassination of Vladimir Putin. To make clear this was no slip of the tongue. Graham tweeted the same day, “Is there a Brutus in Russia? Is there a more successful Colonel Stauffenberg in the Russian military? The only way this ends is for somebody in Russia to take this guy out.”

It doesn’t require much imagination to conjure up the global holocaust that could ensue from a US senator calling for the murder of a Russian leader who sits on top of a vast nuclear arsenal. Graham’s words earned rebukes even from right-wingers like Fox News’ Laura Ingraham and Senator Ted Cruz.

Unfortunately, even if outright calls for assassination were rare, many other powerful and influential voices were nearly as reckless as Graham, using incendiary language that could easily turn the already terrible situation in Europe into a much larger war.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a crime that threatens the peace of the world. His thinly veiled threats of nuclear retaliation both underscore his criminality and make clear the existential stakes. Any unprovoked attack on a sovereign state—whether Iraq in Kuwait, the United States in Iraq, or Russia in Ukraine—should be regarded as an attack on the international order and the core concepts of human decency.

Russia’s actions have properly earned worldwide rebuke, with 141 nations supporting a UN resolution condemning the invasion (only five voted against the resolution and 35 abstained). The Europeans have strongly rallied in response to this attack, taking the lead in imposing strong sanctions on the Russian economy. There has been a welcome effort, shared by many governments, to assist the over 2 million Ukrainian refugees (marred, alas, by the racism inflicted on people of color in Ukraine who were part of the flight).

Less salutary, but certain to give Putin pause, is the fact that Germany and France have committed to steep increases in military spending, while in Sweden and Finland—both firmly neutral throughout the Cold War—there is increasing public support for joining NATO. Putin’s push for a revival of Russia as a regional hegemon has already failed. Russia will come out of the war diplomatically isolated, economically weaker, and facing a much larger and more unified alliance of hostile states. For the foreseeable future, Russia will be a pariah nation.

But if the long-term prospects for Russia are bleak, the world as a whole still faces a blighted future. An isolated Russia remains a nuclear power. Putin’s recklessness should make us all the more wary about the risks of a wider conflict. The narrow and perilous path to safety requires both standing up for Ukrainian sovereignty and avoiding nuclear brinkmanship. That means finding an off-ramp for all sides that allows for de-escalation and negotiation.

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