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Ukraine has various Western allies who support the Ukrainian war effort for different reasons. Russia sees this support more and more as direct participation in the war. It appears that if Russia chooses to escalate the conflict even further as retaliation for this support, people in Ukraine will bear the brunt of this violence.

So the question is, what additional retaliatory/aggressive steps could Russia take against Ukraine's western allies that are below the threshold of overt acts of war and not pureley speculative - Russia could do many things in theory, an answer needs to show that a certain option is somewhat plausible:

  • plausible based on from recentish history (Country A did B to country C) and Russsias actual capabilities or ...
  • plausible based credible threats made by Russia itself - credible meaning outside observers believe Russia has that capability, and ...
  • plausibly effective: a similar action in the past has coerced a country to a policy shift
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    The sky is the limit in such cases. Once you have gone down the road Russia has gone down, everything is possible. What is realistic and what not is difficult to say without speculation (which is offtopic here). Jan 26, 2023 at 12:56
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    We can't answer that question as we don't know their motivations and what options they currently have available. At best we can make guesses as what they might do.
    – Joe W
    Jan 26, 2023 at 13:42
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    the questions cleary limits the possible options in scale ("below treshold of overt war") and likelyhood ("realistic based on precedent") chill out folks
    – mart
    Jan 26, 2023 at 13:47
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    @EarlGrey No, I mean 2023 - background is the Germays delivery of Leopard 2 Tanks to Ukraine, and the fear that this may escalate the conflict further.
    – mart
    Jan 27, 2023 at 7:19
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    @mart Is there a precedent to the current situation in Ukraine? Closest I can think of is Nazi Germany taking Sudetenland, except that 1) the nazis succeeded militarily, and 2) nobody was helping the Czechs (to the contrary), and 3) it would seem the Sudetenland Germans welcomed the Wehrmacht much more than the Ukraine Russian speakers are welcoming the Russian Army, and 4) other differences.
    – gerrit
    Jan 27, 2023 at 9:21

8 Answers 8

22

Stop selling gas or oil to the West

Gas is actually still flowing, even if it is greatly diminished. Even through Ukraine.

This would reduce Russian income, which might explain why they haven't done it yet.

Stop selling grain or oil to third parties, and blame the West

From a Western viewpoint, it is clear just who the villain is. The war is also a major geopolitical event. For much of the rest of the world, there is a regional war between Russia and Ukraine, and the West insists on making everybody pick sides. They would rather still buy Russian oil shipped in Western-insured tankers, and so on.

In a way this has been ongoing for the last year, so there is every reason that they will continue in this direction. Cancel the grain deal again?

Confiscate Western assets in Russia

This would risk retaliation, but there are lots of business interests who haven't left (yet?). Some say that they're trying to protect their employees. Some do not want to sell at a loss. Russia makes it hard for some to leave.

Again this could be a question of gradual escalation of things which are ongoing, anyway.

Complete blockade in the UNSC

The Soviet Union decided not to veto the resolutions about UN forces for the Korean war because they were boycotting the council in protest. Russia won't repeat this mistake. They could simply veto every motion on the table.

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    "Complete blockade in the UNSC" Hmm, I'm not sure. To me it seems like this would lead to the replacement of the UNSC by some other body where Russia has no veto power, like maybe just giving the decision power that the UNSC has to the UN general assembly with 3/4 supermajority or something like that. That would probably take a decade, but would still contribute further to Russia's downfall.
    – Nobody
    Jan 26, 2023 at 20:05
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    @Nobody - The problem is that "giving the decision power that the UNSC has to the UN general assembly" would require the assent of the UNSC, which the Russians could then veto.
    – Valorum
    Jan 26, 2023 at 21:13
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    @Valorum: More plausible, but still very difficult, would be the Chinese solution (i.e. recognize a different country as the "true successor" to the USSR, displacing the Russian Federation, and installing some random other former Soviet republic, such as Ukraine itself, in Russia's UNSC seat - it's "Chinese" because we've already done this with China/Taiwan).
    – Kevin
    Jan 26, 2023 at 22:00
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    @Valorum: Taiwan never got to veto its own ouster. It was just a General Assembly vote.
    – Kevin
    Jan 26, 2023 at 22:09
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    @pjc50, the UNSC represents the victors of WWII. At first, one of them had nukes, then two, then three, and so on.
    – o.m.
    Jan 27, 2023 at 11:28
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Don't give them any ideas!

It appears that if russia choses to escalate the conflict even further, as retaliation for this support, people in Ukraine will bear the brunt of this violence.

There's considerable violence already, such as acts of genocide and use of cruise missiles against civilian areas. It is not clear that there was ever any restraint. Or that Russia has anything to escalate with; they have already had to resort to mandatory conscription.

I suppose if I had to make a list in increasing order of escalation:

  • cyberattacks (already ongoing, not considered to be acts of war)
  • terrorist attacks by non-Russian proxy forces (see war in Syria)
  • terrorist attacks by Russian nationals (see Salisbury poisonings)
  • attacks on infrastructure (Nord Stream pipeline)
  • attacks on shipping in the Black Sea
  • arming some anti-Western state (Iran? Although in practice this is going in the other direction, as Iran are sending drones to Russia)
  • deniable attacks on Western positions ("oops our cruise missile overshot")
  • overt attacks on Western positions (this is probably the threshold for overt war)
  • use of nuclear weapons inside Ukraine
  • the Cold War doomsday scenario: use of nuclear weapons outside Ukraine. This would be expected to be a launch of all missiles, as it would be expected that the US would launch retaliatory strikes against all Russian military installations.
6
  • That's similar to the list in my head. Who's the Russian proxy in Syria? Wagner? Assad? Both? We could quibble terminology (where the Salisbury poisinings a terror attack or simply murder, was Syria a brutal counter-insurgency, including terrorizing the populace as all counter insurgencies do?).
    – mart
    Jan 26, 2023 at 13:10
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    Some of these would be considered acts of war, which the question excludes.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 26, 2023 at 16:57
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    Notably they have already done most of these things at some point in recent memory.
    – Yorik
    Jan 26, 2023 at 20:15
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    The question is about potential attacks on the Ukraine's allies, not Ukraine itself. So, some points seem out of place (e.g. "use of nuclear weapons inside Ukraine", "cruise missiles against civilian areas"). Also, the case of Nord Stream pipeline attack isn't a clear cut at all (in contrast to say Salisbury poisoning).
    – Greendrake
    Jan 27, 2023 at 3:57
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    I'm reminded though that using nukes in any way might be over the Chinese red lines though. If China hits Russia with some serious economics sanctions, it might be worse than for them in this war in the long run than simply allowing the Western weapons to proceed at the pace they are now. Jan 27, 2023 at 13:29
11

Attacking military aid before it gets to Ukraine

Your question mentions the concept of overt war which I think is a central concept in escalation. I think we can agree that there is at this point an overt war between Russia and Ukraine. Both of those parties are supported by other countries, for example through the supply of weapons, training or intelligence.

There is no overt war between the supplying countries and the warring countries, e.g. the United States is not directly at war with Russia even though it is providing military aid to Ukraine.

Legality from an international law perspective

I think different legal arguments can be made.

Russia's legal reasoning

Russia might reason that its war on Ukraine is justified and some Western countries have joined Ukraine's side in that war. In a way, Russia's Deputy Chair of the Russian Security Council has claimed that in December of 2022.

This reasoning works on the basis that Russia and Western allies supplying Ukraine with heavy weapons are already at war with Russia. Then, some of those supplies (barring exceptions) would be fair game from an international law perspective because they are military targets. For example, Article 52(2) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva conventions states:

  1. Attacks shall be limited strictly to military objectives. In so far as objects are concerned, military objectives are limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.

Specifically, if the US provides Ukraine with M1 Abram tanks then they would in all likelihood be shipped to a port in Western Europe after which they would be transported east by train Here's a news report of such a transport.

Note that the clarification from Protocol I (the Geneva Conventions doesn't further define the concept of 'military objectives') does not distinguish between who controls the military objective. Even though tanks destined for Ukraine are transported across the Atlantic by US ships, they are still military objectives for Russia because they are directly linked to the war in Ukraine. More precisely, those ships fit the definition laid out in Article 52(2).

This treaty is relevant in this reasoning because Russia will argue that it is already at war with those Western allies supplying these weapons.

Legal reasoning why Russia would not be justified to attack

The Western allies supplying Ukraine would use a different reasoning. They would state that Russia's war of aggression on Ukraine is illegal. They help Ukraine through the principle of collective self defense which is enshrined in Article 51 of the UN Charter.

Participating in this self defense does not give Russia a legal right to self-defend against this collective self defense. As reasoned by Alexander Wentker in EJIL: Talk!:

At the outset, it should be recalled that whether a State has become a party to an international armed conflict has no bearing on the lawfulness of the use of force by or against the respective States. That question is governed solely by the jus ad bellum. Western States’ becoming party to the conflict alongside Ukraine would not entitle Russia to use force against them, since, even once States are parties to an armed conflict, every instance of use of force by and against them must be assessed against the prohibition of the use force. As others have shown, other States can lawfully assist Ukraine in collective self-defence against Russia’s armed attack (so long as they act in accordance with necessity and proportionality) and Russia has no claim to self-defence against this self-defence.

Pros and cons of Russian attacks on weapon supplies before they reach Ukraine

Taking out such a transport would be a moral victory for the Russians, significantly reduce Ukraine's war effort (at least for some time), and further stir up debate in the West whether supplying weapons isn't a greater risk than they are willing to take (the attack hits even closer to home).

This isn't without risk for Russia either though, because it amounts to attacking NATO forces in NATO's article 5 territory. Nevertheless, it's no certainty that an attack would lead to a NATO response.

For example, if the attack focuses on a US supply then the US might decide not to trigger article 5 consultations because they don't want further escalation through NATO. Instead, the US could do some proportional retaliation aimed at not escalating further. In that case, there is no overt war between the US and Russia but the level of escalations back and forth does go up.

Perspectives on attacking weapon supplies before they reach the conflict

From Russia's perspective, the attack might be seen as legitimate because the rhetoric has already shifted to being at war with NATO (rather than just Ukraine). Early on in the war Russia has also mentioned willingness to attack military aid. According to the New York Times:

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, seemed to threaten such an attack, recently telling the state-run news outlet RT that “any cargo moving into Ukrainian territory which we would believe is carrying weapons would be fair game.”

Even from an outsider's perspective, Russian attacks on those US weapon supplies to Ukraine are as legal as Ukrainian attacks on Russian military convoys dedicated to the war in Ukraine but still physically located in Russia. The latter has been widely acknowledged in the West as a legal course of action on Ukraine's part.

Historic precedence

A New York Times article dating back to March of 2022 argued it's unlikely that Russia would attack Western supply lines based on historic precedence.

Since then, I think the conflict has developed a lot. Back then the West supplied simple weapons while this has now escalated to the supply of main battle tanks. Nevertheless, one of the article's main points still holds:

The prospect of direct conflict with the nuclear-armed NATO alliance provides President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia with a powerful disincentive.

On the other hand, most of the steps in the escalation ladder have since been taken. If Russia does want to escalate proportionally (i.e. without the back and forth of escalations spiralling out of control) then this seems like one of the options.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Politics Meta, or in Politics Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 11, 2023 at 0:59
10

Venturing beyond suggestions already made:

  1. Direct strikes at Ukrainian nuclear power plants in order to create a pan-European environmental disaster.

  2. Destroy Ukrainian dams in major rivers leading to a humanitarian disaster that would divert Western forces to providing humanitarian aid in lieu of providing military aid.

  3. Threaten to create environmental disasters (e.g. oil spills in the Baltic Sea) if Russia isn't appeased.

  4. Intentionally release large numbers of violent criminals from Russian prisons as "refugees" from Russia to Europe in order to sour Europe on accepting refugees while freeing Russia of the economic cost of supporting prisoners.

  5. Conduct aggressive and provocative military exercise with Russian military resources not suitable for use in the Ukraine war in order to divert the attention and military resources of Ukrainian allies towards a felt need to protect themselves and away from support for Ukraine.

  6. Threaten to transfer some of Russia's nuclear arsenal to North Korea and Iran.

  7. Transfer naval resources to Iran for use in harrying oil tankers and Western military vessels in the Persian Gulf.

  8. Condone sales of pirated intellectual property into Western black markets.

  9. Create internment camps for all citizens of countries that are Ukrainian allies who are located in Russia or Belarus.

  10. Issue letters of marquee and reprisal against the merchant ships of Ukrainian allies.

  11. Confiscate assets of Russian citizens (especially top tier business and professional types and draft evaders) who have emigrated out of Russia, and/or threaten their families, if they don't return to Russia.

  12. Systemically destroy Ukrainian agricultural crops (which are a major export to Ukrainian allies).

  13. Sabotage communications and transportation routes that are used by Ukrainian allies to send supplies to Ukraine.

  14. Send assassins to countries with Ukrainian refugees targeting family members of Ukrainian leaders.

  15. Attempt to strike surveillance, communications, and GPS satellites of Ukrainian allies.

  16. Loot and destroy the embassies and consulates of Ukrainian allies in Russia and Belarus.

  17. Fund separatist and Islamist militant organizations in the countries that are allies of Ukraine. Sell them military grade equipment.

  18. Take a harder line limiting trade and hydrocarbon exports to Turkey.

  19. Shut down all remaining commerce and fishing in the Black Sea.

  20. Blockade the Strait of Gibraltar to squeeze Mediterranean allies of Ukraine.

  21. Promise sanctuary to people hotly sought by law enforcement in countries that are Ukrainian allies.

  22. Activate anti-aircraft missile radar at airspace near by not in Ukraine and harry commercial aircraft with Russian military aircraft, without actually shooting down Western aircraft or bombing other countries, in order to force commercial flights to greatly limit the airspace where they are operating relative to the status quo.

  23. Introduce blights to the agricultural crops of Ukrainian allies increasing their need for Russian food exports.

  24. Reignite all possible border disputes in the International Court of Justice or other international forums with a subtext that war is possible if it doesn't get what it wants.

  25. Pursue WWII reparations claims against Germany and Italy even if legally futile.

  26. Covertly fund opposition and pro-Russian politicians in countries that support Ukraine, and overtly praise these opposition leaders publicly.

  27. Spook merchant ships from Ukrainian allies with surprise attack submarine surfacing or military aircraft buzzing, in international waters, without actually pulling the trigger to strike these ships. In the same vein, menace North Sea oil rigs.

  28. Spread plausible but false rumors about military capabilities about to come on line that Russia doesn't actually have.

  29. Falsely claim to have kidnapped large numbers of citizens of countries that are Ukraine allies, ideally in cases where someone is actually missing but Russia doesn't actually have them or people who are identified by name by could plausible be one of many people.

  30. Legally cancel, for purposes of Russian law, all debts public and private owed by Russians (both the government and its citizens) to the West, and seize all Western private and public assets in Russia.

  31. Seize yachts belonging to wealthy Westerners in international waters in a tit-for-tat for actions taken against Russian oligarch assets.

  32. Counterfeit large volumes of convincing copies of currency such as U.S. dollars and Euros and flood Western economies with it.

  33. Release accurate secret dossiers on prominent Western people that had been held back for a rainy day to use as blackmail and also fake dossiers that defame prominent Westerners.

  34. Release nuclear "dirty bombs" in Ukraine as opposed to tactical or strategic nuclear bombs in a scorched earth strategy.

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    Promise sanctuary to people hotly sought by law enforcement in countries that are Ukrainian allies => isn't this already the case? Snowden is the most famous example. Jan 27, 2023 at 1:43
  • @JonathanReez That was where I got the idea from. But it is an action that could be repeated on a much larger scale.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 27, 2023 at 1:45
  • 1
    "freeing Russia of the economic cost of supporting prisoners". Forced labor is legal in Russia, IIRC. And then there's Wagner. Jan 27, 2023 at 12:56
  • Annoying Israel too much by giving Iran too many freebies/assets could backfire through as Israel insofar has kept to the stricter neutrality by not providing Ukraine with anything miliary, either direct or indirect (EuroSpikes etc.) And if Iran misuses some asset triggering US & Israeli strikes, those drone factories would probably be pretty high on the target list. Jan 27, 2023 at 13:00
  • "Blockade the Strait of Gibraltar". I don't see Russia having the assets to pull off something like that. Are you thinking of unrestricted submarine warfare? That led to US entering WW1 and WW2... (Of course, for the latter, Hitler was stupid enough to declare it first, saving the US the internal debate.) They could try blockading some of the Baltic though, including through minelaying. Ships blowing up in semi-deniable fashion as has happened in the Gulf (mostly due to Iran) or even how "shit happened" to a number of Western/Turkish ship in the Black Sea earlier in the conflict. Jan 27, 2023 at 13:10
7

There are not many good options for them:

  • Russia is struggling heavily to win over Ukraine alone. If they now open the second front against NATO that has about 2,000 Leopard 2 tanks not counting the rest of weapons, I really do not see how this would help Russia to win a war.
  • Striking Europe and USA with nuclear weapons is problematic because there are some very large cities like Moscow and Saint Petersburg in Russia that would see the efficient NATO retaliatory strike. In general nuclear war is such a madness that I still hope the sane mind to take over.
  • Limited yield nuclear weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine would set the whole world against Russia and may not even be really so crushing as soldiers are dispersed over large areas.
  • Russia may also attack European countries one by one while expecting others to stand aside. Even if this would work by some miracle, this would just mean a second Ukraine while they cannot conquer a single one. Due historic memories, the Baltic states are likely to fight together even if nothing else does.
  • True genocide, nuclear bombs over the cities of Ukraine or even some Baltic state. Through the all history of humanity, does anybody, ever secured a respectful status in the world with such a methods? And, if not, what is exactly the goal?

So nope, I do not think they can really escalate much more than they are already doing. Most of actions listed in another answer are either already ongoing or unlikely to change anything.

1
  • Realistically, the most effective uses of nukes by Russia in this conflict would be in Western Ukraine, disrupting Western supply and just life there. But see my comment under pjc50's answer why this might be politically a huge gamble. Jan 27, 2023 at 13:42
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Short of war but not confined to "above board" economic/political/propaganda sphere (as per om's answer)?

i.e. Kinetic/destructive/criminal? but AVOIDING direct NATO retaliation?

Few things would be useful beyond simple revenge/pettiness.

I am not disputing the long list of things they could do in @pcj50's answer.

But the problem is that Russia would be presumably doing this for two reasons

1. To modify Western public opinion by the actions they take as per this question.

It can't do that without owning up to those very acts.

I.e. They could cut a data cable. OK, great. Quite inconvenient for the West.

  • If they say "we cut the cable because of Ukraine" then that is owning up to direct action on Western infrastructure: Risky!

  • If they don't say anything, then they can't really expect much actual action from the West on Ukraine, since that is supposedly an unrelated incident: Not very useful.

When the US was shadow-arming mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 80s, they were very careful at first to have plausible deniability. They were non-US weapons (starting with Lee-Enfield bolt action rifles, IIRC) routed through Pakistan.

Now, USSR knew it was the US. And the US knew that the USSR knew. The point was to kill Russians (largely at first because the CIA wanted payback on Vietnam). Later to boot Russians out militarily. This was not in the public opinion/diplomatic sphere.

Contrast that if the US had wanted to pressure Soviet public opinion. They would have had to own up to doing it: "Get out of Afghanistan! Or else!"

See also the Nord Stream pipeline sabotage. Not saying Russia did it. Not saying they didn't. But if they did, they can't make use of doing so to shape Western public opinion without owning up to it. Make it obvious enough so that Western public can "read between the lines": you may inflame and harden Western public opinion instead.

2. To materially/militarily affect the war in Ukraine

If Russia does want to act solely at the military effectiveness level, say by instead sabotaging weapon supplies they certainly can do it covertly. But then they have two different factors going on:

  • To have an effect, you need to sabotage a lot.

  • If you sabotage a lot you run a good risk of getting caught. Especially when your operators are as skilled as those who targeted the Skripals. Again: Risky!

So, on balance I'd stick to variations on o.m.'s politico-economic list. Work on Western war-weariness, cost of living concerns. Spin up the "Russia was pushed into it" narrative. Improve your support at the UN.. Etc...

Doing enough to move the needle with "hard retaliation acts" would risk escalation, getting ignored, or hardening Western support to Ukraine.

4
  • Regarding your last point on the Skripals, isn't that on purpose? It's because they leave enough of a trail that it really makes the news (as new pieces of evidence come to light). I think it's in line with other incidents such as the OCPW hack and the mail bombs in Spain. Let's call it 'indirectly owning up to it'.
    – JJJ
    Jan 26, 2023 at 22:20
  • There are 2 aspects here. #1 is incompetence. I'd say that was not intentional. #2 is what you say and has been discussed here: using Novichuk nerve agent was a signal to Russia dissidents. Loud and clear! But it was still covert, and denied, to everyone else. So that still leaves you in case 1. above, covert but not owned up to operations will not move the Western public opinion needle much. That is a very different constituency than terrorizing Russian anti-Putin expats. Jan 26, 2023 at 22:24
  • Yes, in this case it probably wasn't intentional that all those clues were left. Nevertheless, in my understanding Russia has two groups who do these foreign operations. The GRU which is military intelligence and the FSB which is the foreign service. The former are the ones behind the OCPW and the Skripal incidents and they are known for operating in this way (though with diplomatic immunity so even if they get caught the consequences are minimal). The FSB is supposed to be better at operating covertly. To me, choosing the GRU for an operation means that they're fine with a small mess.
    – JJJ
    Jan 26, 2023 at 23:11
  • If they cut the cable and don't say anything, they can rely on the pro-Russian faction of Western countries joining the dots for them. Jan 27, 2023 at 16:50
0

What it's already doing - sponsoring and supporting anti-estabilishment parties, spreading Russian narratives, and trying to weaken both support for the governments, and the governments themselves, or install a government that is Russia-friendly.

Sadly, I have this from the first row here in the Central Europe.

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    – Community Bot
    Jan 27, 2023 at 15:07
-1

A nuclear bomb test at an uninhabited area, far enough from NATO countries to avoid their radioactive pollution, but still close enough for them to observe. My bet is high in the atmosphere somewhere above the Black Sea.

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  • 1
    And what? Does anybody have any doubts they nuclear bomb is working?
    – Stančikas
    Jan 27, 2023 at 13:12
  • @Stančikas Military leaders surely not. Baerbock apparently did not know that Russia can't be thrown out from the UNSC, so I am not that sure about her. Jokes aside, the message here is that 'the next one will be in Ukraine'. Jan 27, 2023 at 13:36
  • Even better: a nuclear bomb test somewhere in international waters where the prevailing winds will carry radioactive fallout into the territories of its rivals.
    – nick012000
    Jan 31, 2023 at 19:58

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