I’m old enough to remember the Cuban Crisis when everyone thought the world might end. As a youngster, I sat glued to the family TV in London, watching blurry warships slicing through the ocean. The moment of truth, we knew, would come if US warships intercepted Russian missile-carrying vessels.

In the event, the confrontation never happened as Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev at the last minute pulled Russian missiles from Cuba and President John Kennedy promised the US wouldn’t invade Cuba. Everyone in the West sighed with relief. Armageddon was postponed. Now, though, the nuclear threat again hangs heavy with President Joe Biden declaring last week the Ukraine war could devolve into “Armageddon.”

As the Ukraine crisis lurches from bad and bloody to much worse, what’s amazing is the spine-chilling fear of nuclear annihilation seems to have vanished. Instead, armchair twitterati declare: “We can’t let Putin get away with it,” and “nuke ‘em”, while in Russia, TV show hosts threaten: “Push us into a corner, everyone will be destroyed.”

Raining missiles

Now, with Russia having rained missiles on Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and other cities after the Crimea-Russia bridge blast and a string of Ukrainian territorial wins, there’s worry a humiliated Vladimir Putin could use battlefield tactical nukes that can be delivered from an artillery gun or a missile. Some are relatively low-yield but most have as much power or more than the H-bomb that devastated Hiroshima.

The guessing is Putin might deploy a small tactical nuke against the opposing army or detonate one in a deserted area as a warning.

What’s the catch? It would devastate the region where it’s exploded, rendering it uninhabitable and emit toxic radiation that can blow in all directions, including Russia.

What would the US reaction be if the Russians deployed a tactical nuke? The US has warned Russia of “catastrophic” consequences.

But does that mean nuclear retaliation or a stepped-up conventional campaign and further Russian isolation? Washington has been careful not to talk of a nuclear response but it’s a slippery slope. Where are the intelligent, patient negotiators who could bring the two sides together to hammer out a deal? Yes, we know Putin needs a “victory” to keep his job. But surely there must be a global statesperson somewhere to act as “honest broker.” Our own Prime Minister Narendra Modi might be well-placed but his brief lecture to Putin didn’t appear to have much impact.

Who else? Putin’s due Thursday to meet Turkey’s Erdogan who could be a go-between, but he’s rude and autocratic and unlikely to be the best negotiator. Germany’s chancellor is a newbie and his predecessor Angela Merkel, who balanced the Russians and the US, is retired. France’s Emmanuel Macron is a potential candidate but nobody seems to take him very seriously.

Ready to negotiate?

In a possible sign Russia may be ready to dial down tensions, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday Russia wouldn’t reject a meeting between Putin and Biden at an upcoming G20 meeting if one were proposed and was open to “serious offers” to negotiate.

Such an offer can’t come too soon as the war has clearly ratcheted to a new level. What can India do? Is there room for value-based diplomacy or should we just stick to our stance we’ll do what’s in our own interests?

We’re walking a tightrope, hoping the US needs us for the Quad and will turn a blind eye to our crude oil purchases and UN abstentions. We need Russian weaponry, but after this war ,which is exhausting Russian supplies, will they have any left over to supply us? And what about items like the Antonovs that have Russian and Ukrainian parts? Even our aircraft carrier made in Russia had Ukrainian engines.

Such cooperation is now a thing of the past. It’s clear Russia will be a very unreliable arms supplier for the foreseeable future and we’ll need more arms from the West.

Perhaps we shouldn’t worry too much about Russian weaponry. Even a large chunk of Pakistan’s tank fleet has components that come from Ukraine. They could be every bit as stuck as us. What’s clear is India needs to take a cold hard look at the future and work out which direction we head from here and where our interests really lie.