Putin’s Nuclear Gambit
The threat is not idle and the options for responding are not good.
John Leicester, reporting for AP (“What’s Putin thinking? Tough to know for nuclear analysts.“):
Will President Vladimir Putin pull the nuclear trigger? For Kremlin watchers trying to figure out whether the Russian leader’s nuclear threats are just bluffs, there is no more pressing — or tough — question.
For now, analysts cautiously suggest that the risk of Putin using the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal still seems low. The CIA says it hasn’t seen signs of an imminent Russian nuclear attack. Still, his vows to use “all the means at our disposal ” to defend Russia as he wages war in Ukraine are being taken very seriously. And his claim Friday that the United States “created a precedent” by dropping atomic bombs in World War II further cranked up the nuclear stakes.
Everyone agrees that we need to take the threats seriously. How seriously is up for debate.
The White House has warned of “catastrophic consequences for Russia” if Putin goes nuclear. But whether that will stay Putin’s hand is anyone’s guess. Nervous Kremlin watchers acknowledge they can’t be sure what he is thinking or even if he’s rational and well-informed.
The former KGB agent has demonstrated an appetite for risk and brinkmanship. It’s hard, even for Western intelligence agencies with spy satellites, to tell if Putin is bluffing or truly intent on breaking the nuclear taboo.
“We don’t see any practical evidence today in the U.S. intelligence community that he’s moving closer to actual use, that there’s an imminent threat of using tactical nuclear weapons,” CIA Director William Burns told CBS News. “What we have to do is take it very seriously, watch for signs of actual preparations,” Burns said.
That he hasn’t moved yet is good to know.
Kremlin watchers are scratching their heads in part because they don’t see how nuclear force could greatly help reverse Russia’s military losses in Ukraine. Ukrainian troops aren’t using large concentrations of tanks to wrest back ground, and combat is sometimes for places as small as villages. So what could Russian nuclear forces aim for with winning effect?
“Nuclear weapons are not a magic wand,” said Andrey Baklitskiy, a senior researcher at the U.N.’s Institute for Disarmament Research, who specializes in nuclear risk. “They are not something that you just employ and they solve all your problems.”
I don’t think tactical success would be the goal.
Analysts hope the taboo that surrounds nuclear weapons is a disincentive. The horrific scale of human suffering in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the U.S. destroyed the Japanese cities with atomic bombs on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, was a powerful argument against a repeat use of such weapons. The attacks killed 210,000 people.
No country has since used a nuclear weapon. Analysts guess that even Putin may find it difficult to become the first world leader since U.S. President Harry Truman to rain down nuclear fire. “It is still a taboo in Russia to cross that threshold,” said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at RAND Corp. and a former analyst of Russian military capabilities at the U.S. Defense Department. “One of the biggest decisions in the history of Earth,” Baklitskiy said.
The backlash could turn Putin into a global pariah. “Breaking the nuclear taboo would impose, at a minimum, complete diplomatic and economic isolation on Russia,” said Sidharth Kaushal, a researcher with the Royal United Services Institute in London that specializes in defense and security.
Putin is already a global pariah. Even the Chinese are backing away from him. But, yes, it would be a move from which he could not recover.
Long-range nuclear weapons that Russia could use in a direct conflict with the United States are battle-ready. But its stocks of warheads for shorter ranges — so-called tactical weapons that Putin might be tempted to use in Ukraine — are not, analysts say. “All those weapons are in storage,” said Pavel Podvig, another senior researcher who specializes in nuclear weapons at the U.N.’s disarmament think tank in Geneva. “You need to take them out of the bunker, load them on trucks,” and then marry them with missiles or other delivery systems, he said.
Russia hasn’t released a full inventory of its tactical nuclear weapons and their capabilities. Putin could order that a smaller one be surreptitiously readied and teed up for surprise use. But overtly removing weapons from storage is also a tactic Putin could employ to raise pressure without using them. He’d expect U.S. satellites to spot the activity and perhaps hope that baring his nuclear teeth might scare Western powers into dialing back support for Ukraine. “That’s very much what the Russians would be gambling on, that each escalation provides the other side with both a threat but (also) an offramp to negotiate with Russia,” Kaushal said. He added: “There is a sort of grammar to nuclear signaling and brinksmanship, and a logic to it which is more than just, you know, one madman one day decides to go through with this sort of thing.”
We spent the four decades of the Cold War getting pretty good at this stuff and haven’t lost that knowledge. We’re not going to be surprised. Further, if Putin does order these moves, there’s a decent chance that the generals and other elites would see it as an insane move and take him out.
Analysts also expect other escalations first, including ramped-up Russian strikes in Ukraine using non-nuclear weapons. “I don’t think there will be a bolt out of the blue,” said Nikolai Sokov, who took part in arms control negotiations when he worked for Russia’s Foreign Ministry and is now with the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.
It’s not clear what other tricks he still has up his sleeve at this point. If he could have gone bigger, he’d have done so by now to avoid this humiliation.
Analysts also struggle to identify battlefield targets that would be worth the huge price Putin would pay. If one nuclear strike didn’t stop Ukrainian advances, would he then attack again and again? Podvig noted the war does not have “large concentrations of troops” to target. Striking cities, in hopes of shocking Ukraine into surrender, would be an awful alternative. “The decision to kill tens and hundreds of thousands of people in cold blood, that’s a tough decision,” he said. “As it should be.”
I’m afraid that this smacks of mirror imaging. I’m not sure Putin thinks about these things the way we do.
Putin might be hoping that threats alone will slow Western weapon supplies to Ukraine and buy time to train 300,000 additional troops he’s mobilizing, triggering protests and an exodus of service-aged men. But if Ukraine continues to roll back the invasion and Putin finds himself unable to hold what he has taken, analysts fear a growing risk of him deciding that his non-nuclear options are running out. “Putin is really eliminating a lot of bridges behind him right now, with mobilization, with annexing new territories,” said RAND’s Massicot. “It suggests that he is all-in on winning this on his terms,” she added. “I am very concerned about where that ultimately takes us — to include, at the end, a kind of a nuclear decision.”
To me, this is the obvious conclusion: he’s bluffing and blustering because Western support for Ukraine has helped turn the tide against him. It’s a desperate move. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t be followed b an even more desperate move.
Walter Russell Mead contends in a WSJ column that “Putin’s Nuclear Threat Is Real.”
As the Biden administration scrambles to manage the most dangerous international confrontation since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, it must see the world through Mr. Putin’s eyes. Only then can officials know how seriously to take the nuclear saber-rattling and develop an appropriate response.
While American presidents going back to George W. Bush have failed to appreciate the depth and passion of Mr. Putin’s hostility to the U.S., the Russian president isn’t that hard to read. Like a movie supervillain who can’t resist sharing the details of his plans for world conquest with the captured hero, Mr. Putin makes no secret of his agenda. At Friday’s ceremony marking Russia’s illegal and invalid “annexation” of four Ukrainian regions, he laid out his worldview and ambitions in a chilling and extraordinary speech that every American policy maker should read.
Mr. Putin sees global politics today as a struggle between a rapacious and domineering West and the rest of the world bent on resisting our arrogance and exploitation. The West is cynical and hypocritical, and its professed devotion to “liberal values” is a sham. The West is not a coalition of equals; it represents the domination of the “evil Anglo-Saxons” over the Europeans and Japan. Mr. Putin sees this American-led world system as the successor to the British Empire, and he blames the Anglo-Saxon or English-speaking powers for a host of evils, from the Atlantic slave trade to European imperialism to the use of nuclear weapons in World War II.
The key here is that these aren’t, as most Western observers take it, the deranged rantings of a lunatic. He genuinely thinks Russia has been held back from its rightful place of leadership in the world by an Anglo-American-led effort.
Making threats about the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine advances both Mr. Putin’s goals in Ukraine and his larger campaign against the American-led order. Nuclear weapons, he hopes, could shift the military balance on the ground, and the fear of nuclear war could force Washington to dial back military support for Ukraine. The threat or use of nuclear weapons could split Europe between “peace at any price” governments and governments of countries closer to Russia whose determination to resist nuclear blackmail would only grow.
That’s not an implausible theory, actually. The Europeans are already paying an outsized cost for the embargoes and would, to put it mildly, suffer more from a relatively low-level use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine than we would.
There is one other consideration. Ever since taking power in Russia, Mr. Putin has been frustrated by his inability to parlay his country’s immense arsenal of nuclear weapons into real political power in the world. Nuclear weapons made the Soviet Union a superpower; Mr. Putin wants that stature back. Extracting significant concessions from the West by nuclear blackmail over Ukraine would be a major step in his goal of regaining the Soviet Union’s place in world affairs.
I think that’s wrong. Putin has turned himself into a laughingstock and demonstrated that Russia’s vaunted military is pitifully weak. Extracting himself from that situation by nuclear blackmail wouldn’t change the Western perception. But it’s possible that he and the Russian people would see it differently.
None of this is good news for the Biden administration. Yielding to Russian blackmail over Ukraine would be a massive blow to American credibility and power overseas and would look weak to Americans who have cheered Ukraine on. Yet deterring a Russian attack involves the risk of a deepening American engagement in an escalating war.
Mr. Putin’s armies are in headlong retreat across much of Ukraine. His support at home looks threatened. But the threat he poses to vital American interests must not be underestimated, and the threat that he will use nuclear weapons in Ukraine is real.
That’s both true and unhelpful. Biden has a hard choice to make and he’ll make it. And I don’t think it’s backing down. Elliot Cohen, writing for the Atlantic (“Russia’s Nuclear Bluster Is a Sign of Panic“) certainly hopes not.
Putin, one must always recall, is a former secret policeman, for whom mind games are always the first and rarely the last resort. Is former German Chancellor Angela Merkel known to be uneasy around canines? Bring a dog to the meeting. Fear is the Chekist’s chief weapon. Because some Western politicians and many Western pundits are known to get the shakes at the mere mention of nuclear weapons, Putin has an opening for the biggest mind game of all. Judging by continued and credible reports that the United States and Germany, among others, are withholding some types and quantities of weapons from Ukraine, it’s working.
Almost as bad is the chorus of cries to open negotiations, because “sober adults think about [the] world as it is,” as William Ruger of the American Institute for Economic Research put it. “Putin is more in a corner than anyone would like him to be, because that’s not good for anybody,” John Kerry, the current special presidential envoy for climate who cannot help but remind listeners that he is a former secretary of state, recently said. And thus, of course, he urges negotiations on current Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. So too does Pope Francis. So too do many well-educated observers who do not trouble to think hard about what lies behind the well-orchestrated pronouncements from Moscow.
Negotiations aren’t necessarily about appeasement. They’re often about clear signaling. Putin must be made to understand the price he would pay for crossing the nuclear threshold.
Cohen echoes Mead here:
To be sure, underlying the Russian threats is a stream of Russian paranoia about the West, which finds expression in all kinds of wild claims about satanism, the abolition of gender, and plans to turn Russians into soulless slaves. To the extent that this paranoia is not purely synthetic, it draws on a deep well of Russian ambivalence about the West—resentment and fear of it, a sense of inferiority toward it, and yet a deep awareness of its allure, which is why even Russia’s current leaders have sent their children west to be educated, their mistresses west to luxuriate, and their billions in loot west to be safe.
To yield to nuclear blackmail, however, would be folly. Give in now, and anyone with nuclear weapons will learn that the secret to success in a negotiation is to froth at the mouth, roll up one’s eyes, and threaten a mushroom cloud. To yield to Putin would be, as Churchill said in a different but not entirely dissimilar context, to take “but the first sip from a bitter cup.”
I don’t think anyone in the Biden administration, and certainly not the President himself, thinks otherwise. But there’s still the matter of risk calculation: is defeating Russia’s attempt to annex Ukraine worth risking nuclear war? All signs point to no.
What then to do, and to threaten to do, particularly if Russia does indeed detonate one or more nuclear weapons, either as a signal or against some Ukrainian target?
The West’s economic sanctions arsenal is far from empty. The United States, in particular, has not brought out the biggest weapon of all: unlimited secondary sanctions on anyone doing business with Russia, save under licenses granted by the U.S. Treasury. Nor has it moved yet to confiscate the roughly $300 billion Russia has in accounts held abroad. Use of nuclear weapons by Russia would justify that and more.
Militarily, American air power could take Russia’s dire situation in Ukraine and make it catastrophic. The Russian air force is a negligible factor at this point, as its astonishingly poor performance in Ukraine indicates. Western air forces understand Russian air defenses very well and have long worked on ways to dismantle them; the U.S. and its allies have plenty of air power available in Europe to do so.
This would, in my judgment, be a bridge too far. We are, by any reasonable measure, fighting a proxy war against Russia. We’ve been supplying intelligence support, weapons, and training to Ukrainian forces throughout the conflict and, indeed, going back to the 2014 annexation of Ukraine. But that’s a whole different animal than directly shooting down Russian airplanes or killing Russian soldiers. At that point, Putin would absolutely be justified in targeting the United States.
Finally, diplomacy does indeed have a role to play here—but most definitely not in compelling Ukraine into a negotiation it abhors while a brutal invader occupies its lands. The diplomatic option consists rather in reminding key Russian leaders that should Moscow use nuclear weapons, it will soon see them sprouting in self-defense in Poland, Turkey, Kazakhstan, and quite likely Finland and other countries. That will not make Russia safer or stronger.
China has a stake in this, too: A world in which the nuclear taboo is broken is one in which Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea may feel that they need the security of their own nuclear deterrents. India, facing a Pakistan that may have more nuclear weapons than it does, and whose politics are terrifyingly unstable, has no interest in seeing nuclear use become acceptable. Those who can still talk to Moscow should be urged to convey that message to Russia’s leadership—if they are not, in fact, doing so already.
This all strikes me as wildly inflammatory with very little upside. There’s no way in hell would I put nukes in Poland, Turkey, or Kazakhstan. That honestly strikes me as an idle threat. And even threatening to arm Taiwan with nukes would radically escalate tensions with China, giving us two crises with nuclear-armed adversaries to deal with.
The fight in Ukraine is not, despite what some have said, an existential war for Russia. No one is claiming Russian territory, and no Ukrainian army is going to drive to Moscow. It may very well be an existential fight for Vladimir Putin as a leader and even as a human being, but that is a separate matter.
I think that’s all correct. The Russian people are already signaling that they’ve had enough. They’re not interested in their sons dying for Ukraine.
He has not been put in a corner, but rather has put himself in one. For him to use nuclear weapons, many others—hundreds, if not more—have to go along. The United States and other countries probably have the means to communicate to each and every one of them that they will personally pay a price if they do so, if not at the hands of Ukraine’s friends, then under a successor regime in Russia that will have to hold them accountable in order to be readmitted to the economy of the developed world.
I tend to think this is right as well but it’s potentially a double-edged sword. If there’s no offramp, why cooperate?
The Ukraine war may be approaching its culminating point. All along, the prospect of Russian military collapse has been real: Many wars end with one or more spectacular defeats that dramatically change moods and atmospheres, front lines and governments. Russia’s call-ups are not a mobilization but rather a press-ganging of those too unfortunate or poorly connected to avoid service. Sending men with decrepit weapons and kit and minimal military training into ill-housed and depleted units filled with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress is a recipe for more crack-ups and many more body bags headed back across the border. It will lead to further failure at the hands of an ever more skillful and victory-inspired Ukrainian military keen on liberation and vengeance for the pillage, torture, kidnapping, and massacre inflicted on its country. The sooner the ultimate shock is delivered and Russian forces shattered and driven from occupied land, the quicker the suffering ends, and the more swiftly the uncertain cloud of nuclear threats dissipates.
Pope John Paul II, who knew the Soviets all too well, repeated incessantly during dark times, “Be not afraid.” We should heed his counsel. And inspired by Ukrainian heroism as well as rational calculation, we should send them more and better weapons and ammunition now.
That seems to be the trajectory we’re on and it’s one I support. But we shouldn’t pretend that it’s without serious risk. It’s all well and good to say there will be hell to pay if Putin launches nukes but a lot of people will die in the meantime.