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.

Mead closes:

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.

Before continuing:

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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. de stijl says:

    I have no concrete idea what Putin’s longterm gameplan is.

    It looks to be re-establishing a Russian / Soviet empire that used to exist. A counterweight to “the West”. That’s my interpretation now.

    But it makes no sense. Relatively, your economy is tiny. The only reason people take you seriously at all is because you sit on a shit-ton of nuclear weapons that you inherited.

    Trying to not look weak and pathetic by actually being weak and pathetic is not a good look.

  2. drj says:

    is defeating Russia’s attempt to annex Ukraine worth risking nuclear war? All signs point to no.

    Wrong question.

    The proper question is: “Is discouraging Russia (as well as other countries) from engaging in nuclear blackmail worth risking nuclear war?”

    Or: “Is it worth risking nuclear war now in order to prevent nuclear war in the future?”

    This isn’t about Russia’s invasion Ukraine, this would be about Russia using nuclear weapons. A rather different thing.

    The last thing you want to do is to acquiesce to the precedent that nuclear attacks can actually be worth it.

    If Russia uses nuclear weapons, NATO should respond militarily, IMO.

    Not all out, initially, but nonetheless robustly. Shooting down Russian planes could very well be part of such as response.

    Am I sanguine about this? Not at all. But the alternative means that nuclar war is all but certain in the future.

    Blame Putin. Not anybody else.

  3. Scott says:

    It would be too easy to overthink everything. Really, we can’t predict what Putin would do. What we can do is wargame as much as possible. If Putin does this, then this is our response. If he does that, then that will be our response. And now is the time to think this through, not when it happens.

    I do believe that strength and firmness should guide our actions. Because history has shown that weakness with Russia gains nothing.

    As I’ve mentioned before, I am currently reading Truman by David McCollough. I’m
    at the part of the history where we just started the Berlin Airlift. Politically, Truman was really down, the Democrats were predicted to be wiped out as they were split between radical progressives, racist Southerners, and the traditional Democrats. There was a lot of advice to just pull out of Berlin, even from the Pentagon. Truman said no. Start the airlift. We know the huge success of that. It was the end of Russian expansionism and aggression. I feel Ukraine is like that. There can only be one end to this conflict.

  4. Scott says:

    Reading through those articles, it always implies that Putin is the singular power within Russia. Is that actually true? He may be the top dog but maybe not the only dog. I was reading these speculations from the ISW Ukrainian Updates:

    Putin is visibly failing at balancing the competing demands of the Russian nationalists who have become increasingly combative since mobilization began despite sharing Putin’s general war aims and goals in Ukraine. ISW has identified three main factions in the current Russian nationalist information space: Russian milbloggers and war correspondents, former Russian or proxy officers and veterans, and some of the Russian siloviki—people with meaningful power bases and forces of their own. Putin needs to retain the support of all three of these factions. Milbloggers present Putin’s vision to a pro-war audience in both Russia and the proxy republics. The veteran community is helping organize and support force generation campaigns.[6] The siloviki are providing combat power on the battlefield. Putin needs all three factions to sustain his war effort, but the failures in Ukraine combined with the chaotic partial mobilization are seemingly disrupting the radical nationalist community in Russia. Putin is currently trying to appease this community by featuring some milbloggers on state-owned television, allowing siloviki to generate their own forces and continue offensive operations around Bakhmut and Donetsk City, and placating veterans by ordering mobilization and engaging the general public in the war effort as they have long demanded.

    Russian failures around Lyman galvanized strong and direct criticism of the commander of the Central Military District (CMD), Alexander Lapin, who supposedly commanded the Lyman grouping, as ISW has previously reported.[7] This criticism originated from the siloviki group, spearheaded by Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin. Kadyrov and Prigozhin represent an emerging voice within the regime’s fighting forces that is attacking the more traditional and conventional approach to the war pursued by Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu and the uniformed military command. The chaotic execution of Putin’s mobilization order followed by the collapse of the Lyman pocket ignited tensions between the more vocal and radical Kadyrov-Prigozhin camp, who attacked the MoD and the uniformed military for their poor handling of the war.[8] Putin now finds himself in a dilemma. He cannot risk alienating the Kadyrov-Prigozhin camp, as he desperately needs Kadyrov’s Chechen forces and Prigozhin’s Wagner Group mercenaries to fight in Ukraine.[9] Nor can he disenfranchise the MoD establishment, which provides the overwhelming majority of Russian military power in Ukraine and the institutional underpinnings needed to carry out the mobilization order and continue the war.

    Notice there is no visible pressure from the peace side. Assuming that is, if a peace side exists. Which may be present even more of a danger.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    1) Assume Putin is rational: set a price he can’t pay.

    2) Assume Putin is irrational, but others in the Russian hierarchy are rational: set a price they can’t pay.

    Vlad, if you use a nuke we will sink the entire Black Sea fleet. Or, if you use a nuke we’ll send one of your nuclear subs to the bottom. Or, if you use a nuke we will overrun Kaliningrad. Or, if you use a nuke Ukraine will suddenly have a very effective air force with USAF and RAF logos.

    Risk? Yes, there’s risk. There is no risk-free solution. So let’s try it the other way around:

    Assume we are weak and will react by withdrawing support from Ukraine. So, that’s Ukraine sorted. As to the risk: Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Kazakhstan. . . We will have assented to a new, expansionist Russian empire, and any risks we avoid now will be multiplied down the road.

    There is no perfect solution. But the best solution is to make it clear to Putin that he cannot afford to pay the price for using a nuke. We have to stop setting prices the enemy can afford. That’s not deterrence, that’s bargaining.

  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    Events on the ground are out running Putin’s machinations. The Times this AM is reporting that Russian lines are beginning to collapse in parts of the South, while UA troops continue to advance in the east.

    While most of the focus is correctly on what Putin will do, the question lurking is, if he ordered nukes to be used, would that order be carried out? In yesterday’s Guardian, David Petraeus, while claiming he’s had no discussions with anyone in the admin or Pentagon, that the US/NATO would destroy the Russian military in Ukraine and sink their Black Sea fleet. The intended audience for such a comment wouldn’t be Putin, but the Russian military that realizes that the US/NATO can do that. And like US defense analysis’s, the Russian military is aware that tactical nukes won’t change the situation faced in Ukraine.

    During the last months of TFG’s admin, it was rumored that the Pentagon had established informal procedures, in the event that the out going prez ordered something rash. The Russians may have similar procedures.

  7. Kathy says:

    The one use in war of nukes left the impression these are magical, war-ending weapons.

    The truth is far different.

    Japan gave up not because two cities were nuked, but because dozens more could be. And because Stalin was moving his massive armies from Europe to Asia, to join the fight against Japan in occupied China and other parts of Asia. The rationale to bomb two cities rather than just one, was to prove that mass destruction and death could be carried out over and over, not just once.

    No one has used nukes on the battlefield, because they aren’t good battlefield weapons. You can take out a huge mass of tanks, yes, but then your troops on the ground need to deal with fallout and other nasty side effects. And taking out one huge mass of tanks doesn’t end the war. Not to mention what if the war is fought in your territory or that of an ally?

    You’d use so many in the battlefield as to render a large area uninhabitable for decades, and maybe even cool the global climate drastically as well, even if it’s not a full-blown nuclear winter.

    What Putin could do, that actually might win the war, is steal the Truman playbook: nuke one city, then another, then issue an ultimatum for unconditional surrender before he nukes Kyiv.

    I wish I knew what are the chances of that happening.

    Another concern, IMO, are chemical weapons. Those are more useful in a battlefield, have fewer and shorter-term side effects, and are easier for the side using to guard against. But also easier for the other side to protect against, if they have the right equipment.

    To this day I’m convinced Saddam didn’t use poison or mustard gas in 1991, because allied troop did have the protective gear (as opposed to Iranian troops in the Iran-Iraq War), and it was possible Bush might nuke Baghdad or another city in retaliation.

  8. steve says:

    I tend to agree that there are not great military targets to use their nukes upon. Nuking a large city when Russia itself is not being attacked wont play that well in Russia I think and completely sets more of the rest of the world against Putin, though not as many as one would hope. All that said while I think Putin remains rational he may be desperate and that can lead to irrational behaviors. Still, we should not give in to threats and we should be well prepared ahead of time about how we want to respond.


  9. gVOR08 says:

    Balloon Juice has a post by Carlo Graziani. All I know about Graziani is what LinkedIn has, he’s a “computational scientist” at Argonne Labs. He looks at the Russian Army and finds it designed for short, sharp wars on Russia’s borders, not very good at logistics, and heavily dependent on rail for transport. He notes that Ukrainian manpower policies give Ukraine the ability to bring more troops to bear than Russia. He also sees it as like our Civil War, a railroad war. Recently seized Kupiansk was a key hub.

    Putin was frustrated by stalemate in the Donbas since 2014. He thought he could execute another short, sharp war, take Kyiv, kill, capture, or drive out Zelenzky, install a puppet government over at least eastern Ukraine, and present the world with a fait accompli. He was very nearly correct. But he stepped in it and doesn’t appear to have had a Plan B. Sort of like us when Iraqis failed to welcome us as liberators.

    Cohen says above,

    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.

    That may have been true when this started, now Putin’s survival is very much not a separate matter. It’s Putin’s priority. And he sees a path to some sort of win as Germany freezes and the GOPs take over the Senate. He is blustering and bluffing now. What’s he going to do when that doesn’t work? It’s easy to say, and absolutely correct, that we can’t concede Putin anything he wants as long as he has nukes. But McConnell would cheerfully give Putin what he wants in order to deny Biden a win.

  10. Beth says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Or, if you use a nuke we will overrun Kaliningrad

    This might be a bridge too far. Taking Kaliningrad is actively attacking Russian soil. That would probably rally enough Russians to allow Putin to do something else. Sinking the Black Sea fleet, active air engagement over Ukraine, there’s probably something else that scares the Russian military, potential conscripts, and moms enough that it makes it impossible to do anything else.

    That’s on top of what would surely be complete and absolute diplomatic/territorial isolation. The Non-aligneds, the Chinese and the Indians aren’t stupid enough to want mess with an actively enrage West. The Pakistanis and Iranians aren’t crazy enough either. I highly doubt the world accepts any nuclear device getting set off over Ukraine.

    We have to stop setting prices the enemy can afford. That’s not deterrence, that’s bargaining.

    It’s always just bargaining. At this point, we’re not just bargaining with the Russians, we’re bargaining with every nuclear power and anyone country that has any sort of territorial issue. That’s why the Iranians told the Russians to pound it after the referendums. They don’t want someone supporting the Kurds to do that to them.

  11. KM says:


    Taking Kaliningrad is actively attacking Russian soil.

    And yet nuking Ukraine while claiming it to be Russian wouldn’t be seen as him destroying Russian soil? He claimed they wanted to be part of the country so bad they voted on it, thus he irradiated it all to hell and vaporized its inhabitants?

    The Russian people are familiar with the long term damage nuclear contamination can do thanks to Chernobyl. If Putin crosses that line, they *know* it’s over and war’s coming to them. This is a country that spent decades believing it could be nuked at any moment during the Cold War for military action so should their leader decide to set one off, I highly doubt the public will be pleased. Invasion will seem like a logical consequence to such aggression; if invasion comes, the public might rally to fight back but it won’t be under Putin’s banner. He’ll have had a window-related incident by then for bringing this to their doorstep……

  12. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    IMO, if Kaliningrad figures in a response, it would involve a blockade rather than an attack, with warning that any aircraft carrying relief supplies will be shot down.

  13. Beth says:


    I very well could be wrong, but I don’t think I agree with your assessment. I think @Kathy: ‘s comment is probably the better course of action though.

    Edited to add: You want to increase the cost to Russia of escalating, but you have to be careful not to increase the cost so much that now you have to pay too.

  14. Raoul says:

    If Putin uses nukes we should either give the intelligence to Ukraine to take out and take Russia’s nukes and if that’s not possible then give Ukraine some nukes.

  15. Andy says:

    What we are seeing is normal nuclear policy ambiguity. Both Russia and the US are smart enough and have been doing this long enough to understand the danger of drawing clear red lines regarding nuclear weapons.

    Into this ambiguity, you have warmongering neocons like Cohen and various keyboard warriors trying to divine the tea leaves while also prioritizing so-called US “credibility” above all else.

    Let’s break things down a bit:

    – The only war with Russia that the US would lose is a nuclear war. It, therefore, seems obvious that should be avoided since a nuclear war would likely destroy most of the United States. Those who are willing to attack Russia or take a no-compromise hard-line in response to actions that Russia takes in or against Ukraine need to deal with that reality and the logical consequences of what they are advocating.

    – Negotiation is not a sign of weakness or compromise. It’s essential for international relations, and it’s particularly essential when the fate of the human race might literally be on the line. Talking to adversaries gives us information and potential off-ramps that avoid dangerous escalation spirals. It helps avoid all the cognitive traps that result in bad assumptions and bad policy.

    – Most of the people who are imagining scenarios about how Russia might use a nuke know very little about Russia or are overly focused on published Russian nuclear doctrine, which is of limited relevance. The use of nuclear weapons is inherently a political decision and one that would likely be made not based on doctrine but on a subjective calculation of costs vs benefits, especially costs. It’s more useful to consider that governments and politicians usually are willing to fool themselves into a risky course of action in order to avoid a negative outcome that is relatively certain, even when the consequences of the risky action would be worse. This is where real expertise on Russia is important, not the pretend expertise of hawks and the blob who have been wrong about Russia for decades now.

  16. MarkedMan says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    We will have assented to a new, expansionist Russian empire, and any risks we avoid now will be multiplied down the road.

    Expanding on that: we will have assented to a military weaker power seizing a country via 18th century “right of conquest” methods simply because they threatened nukes.

    What lesson will other countries take from that?

  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    The Russians have no more claim to Kaliningrad than they do to the Donbas. The Potsdam agreement gave Kaliningrad to the Soviet Union. Have you seen a Soviet Union around lately? That same declaration gave the USSR a third of Germany. Colonial powers dividing up conquered lands is an interesting precedent to fall back on. The Middle East springs to mind.

    The Soviets gave themselves Ukraine, also the ‘Stans and control of Eastern Europe. A few years back the Soviets would have seen an attack on Uzbekistan as an attack on Mother Russia. It’s all bullshit. There is no Soviet Union, there’s a tin-pot dictator with delusions of grandeur, a pathetic army and a bunch of nukes.

    And not to go all small ‘r’ republican here, but Putin was not chosen in a free and fair election, he silenced, imprisoned and murdered his opposition. So his position as president of Russia is as bogus as Saddam’s position as whatever title he gave himself. The only legitimate political power is that which comes from the consent of the governed. The Russian people have a right to the territory of Russia, but Putin is not the Russian people and he has no right to a damn thing but a fall from a high window.

  18. MarkedMan says:

    So… Putin has allowed at least two strongmen “allies” (Prigozhin and Kadyrov) to build essentially private armies and deploy them in Ukraine. Those armies are now in retreat and heading back to Russia. What happens next?

  19. Michael Reynolds says:


    Those who are willing to attack Russia or take a no-compromise hard-line in response to actions that Russia takes in or against Ukraine need to deal with that reality and the logical consequences of what they are advocating.

    Yes, there are risks. Also risks to refusing to take risks.

    Negotiation is not a sign of weakness or compromise.

    Nonsense. Negotiation presupposes compromise. And any negotiation that starts with, ‘We get to keep some of your country,’ would absolutely be an admission of weakness.

    The use of nuclear weapons is inherently a political decision and one that would likely be made not based on doctrine but on a subjective calculation of costs vs benefits, especially costs.

    Right. Which is why ambiguity is stupid. Ambiguity leaves Russian leadership the ability to assume we will back down. That is dangerous. Clear threats – mutual assured destruction – allows for rational assessments of outcomes. ‘Maybe the Americans will, maybe they won’t,’ is an invitation to error, in fact it’s the same fucking error that led to Putin thinking he could roll into Ukraine.

  20. Argon says:

    I dunno… Maybe we should give South Korea to North Korea because Kim Jong-un has nukes.

  21. gVOR08 says:

    @Argon: Off topic, but LGM has a post about comparing authoritarian country GDP figures to light emission, which says authoritarians lie. Duh. But I’m always struck by pictures like the accompanying photo. A satellite photo showing South Korea at night as a sea of light and coastal China as a sea of lite and in between, North Korea, a sea of darkness with a couple points of light.

  22. Gustopher says:


    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

    Replace “Russia” with “Real Americans” and “West” with “Blue Cities” and see if this reads very different from Republican rhetoric and behavior.

    If the brain worms have gotten into Putin’s head and he really believes that, then he is more dangerous. Way too many Republicans believe that shit.

  23. Gustopher says:

    We are not going to bring Ukraine under our nuclear umbrella (I could see a negotiated settlement where some land is seized, and the remainder of Ukraine is in NATO, but as it stands now, Ukraine is not going to be under the nuclear umbrella).

    I do think that we should freeze Russian assets in the US right now, as a response to the threats of using nuclear weapons. Not just the assets of the small circle of oligarchs, but a wider group.

    There needs to be a significant response to even the threats of using nuclear weapons, and something economic seems less worse than my initial instinct of providing Ukraine with nuclear weapons.

  24. Chris says:

    Great write up. If you lived in Russia and this was in the public discourse, you would likely be falling from a high rise balcony anytime now.

  25. dazedandconfused says:

    The pundits seem to be stuck (probably by habit) on the US v Russia narrative. If shove comes to push, and by that I mean a clear ultimatum, which is not in evidence yet Ukraine gets to make the call.

    As the place about to get nuked the Ukrainians will have a big decision to make. It’s unlikely Putin’s ultimatum (if it ever comes) would be threatening to nuke the US. Unless Putin has gone mad it will be something which might plausibly work out to a win for Russia, win for Russia being a stalemate along the current lines of contact. Something like keeping that 15% or so which they currently hold. Is Ukraine willing to risk nuclear destruction to take back that 15%? Perhaps they might or might not, but that decision would be Ukraine’s, not the US’s.

    That said it would be perilous for pundits to pursue this line of thought, both professionally and in general. Personally because everybody who doesn’t hold the line that total victory is necessary is ostracized these days, in general because a public discussion of whether or not Putin might have a plausible nuclear gambit would encourage one.

  26. Beth says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I frequently have to tell my clients there is a difference between what is morally right/possible and what is practical.

    Now, you may be right that since there is no longer an entity known as the “Soviet Union” and its successor the “Russian Federation” does not necessarily have the right to everything the Soviet Union once controlled. Maybe under that scenario, Kaliningrad should revert to Königsberg and German control.

    Practically speaking however, if that was going to happen, that should have happened in like 1991 and didn’t. Also, Wikipedia tells me that Königsberg was basically ethnically cleansed when it was turned into Kaliningrad and now there are some 400k ethnic Russians. Are we going to now ethnically cleanse the Russians? Make them unhappy German citizens? Are Poland and Lithuania interested in replacing the Russians with the Germans? Finally, the whole premise of the defense of Ukraine is the ideal that European borders will not be re-drawn by force. Are we going to engage in that ourselves?

    Morally, legalistically, maybe you’re right. Practically, not so much.

  27. Modulo Myself says:

    It seems to me that the real offramp for Putin exists in a swerve around the Hague. And not only for Putin, but for everyone who is running this war. From what I know, Russia’s elite (or their military elite) still thinks that Milosevic got a bad rap. Russia invaded a country and committed numerous war crimes. There’s virtually no ambiguity about this either. They can call a bunch of ‘realists’ to the stand as character witnesses, I guess, to explain how Russia was forced to do all of this, but really.

    That’s the key, I think. They’ve lost the war, and Putin has been humiliated. America can’t promise to turn off its gay beam which is turning Russian kids queer and the Ukrainians can’t promise never to have those dreadful biolabs on their soil, because that stuff never happened.

  28. JohnMc says:

    When did Putin say he’d use tactical weapons? Didn’t hear that, myself.

    When did he say he’d use them in Ukraine?

    My quick take was that he has virtually drained his ‘contract’ soldiers and military hardware from every border and was warning NATO not to take advantage.

  29. JohnSF says:

    Chemical weapons have limited utility, except as a “boo!” factor.
    In the first place, Russia is unlikely to have sizable stocks, following disarmament agreements.
    But more, because modern conventional artillery is in fact a much more effective weapon.
    See thread by Dan Kaszeta.

  30. MarkedMan says:

    To analyze only one side of the equation is folly. Yes, Putin or those who follow him may feel provoked to the point they view nuclear first strike is their only option. That is very bad.

    The other side is to capitulate to a weaker foe because they have nuclear weapons. The message that sends and the arms race that follows will almost certainly end in nuclear exchanges down the road.

    There is a tough road to go down. But we are on it and we have no way but forward.

  31. Sleeping Dog says:


    Besides, if the Russians can’t send they’re impressed troops out with med kits, boots, shoes and bullet proof vests, they won’t have gas masks and bio suits either. They’d end up firing on themselves.

  32. JohnSF says:

    There’s no way in hell would I put nukes in … Turkey

    The US already has nuclear weapons in Turkey.
    The fifty-odd B61 bombs at Incirlik.

  33. James Joyner says:

    @JohnSF: Yes. First, I understood Cohen to be talking about making Turkey et al nuclear possessors, not simply putting US arsenals there. And, frankly, I wouldn’t do either with the current regime. It’s rather hard to pull out whats already there.

  34. JohnSF says:

    Statement by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan:

    “We have communicated directly, privately and at very high levels to the Kremlin that any use of nuclear weapons will be met with catastrophic consequences for Russia, that the US and our allies will respond decisively, and we have been clear and specific about what that will entail,”

    Along with statements by minister of other NATO countries indicate fairly clearly that in event of nuclear use by Russia, NATO will begin air defence operations in Ukraine, at a minimum.

    Failure to respond military invites repeated Russian strikes until they break Ukraine; possibly escalating from kiloton tactical up to megaton city destroying attacks.
    Allowing Russia to escape its conventional failure by nuclear threat of nuclear use would be a disaster.

    I suspect this is viewed as unacceptable.
    For very good reasons.
    And that view and it’s implications have, as Sullivan says, been made very clear to Moscow.

    One thing that is noticeable with a bit of digging, and a bit unusual, for added the pucker-factor:
    HMS’s Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant and Vengeance appear to be all currently at sea or on fast turn-round at Faslane.
    Usually one or two are in for refit/maintenance work.

  35. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    The only military reason for targeting Kaliningrad is to remove its missile and air capabilities, including offensive capable elements of the Baltic Fleet.

    If NATO moves into Ukraine, these will certainly be engaged and destroyed, if they intervene.
    Or possibly even as a preemption.
    This is highly risky; but to permit forces based there to attack NATO lines of communication would be insane.

  36. JohnSF says:


    Talking to adversaries gives us information and potential off-ramps that avoid dangerous escalation spirals.

    This can be true.
    However, sometimes talking can actually encourage an escalation spiral.
    Unless limits are set to the implied negotiations, and they accompanied by indications of the dangers to the other party in breaching those limits.

  37. Kathy says:


    I assumed Russia would have large stocks, because why wouldn’t they? Granted chemical weapons don’t have the magic cache nukes do, but they aren’t that far behind.

    Just as well if they stay unused. Eventually they, too, are more effective against civilian targets.

  38. JohnSF says:

    UUSR had massive stocks, which Russia inherited.
    There was an ongoing verified destruction program, which ended in 2017.
    It would have been possible for Russia to produce or conceal small covert stocks; but very unlikely at scale without detection.
    As for the rest, see Dan Kaszeta.
    Even for attacks on civilian targets, to carry out on a large scale would be little more effective than conventional weapons at that scale.
    Chemicals are, primarily more a mental shock thing than a an effective weapon.

    Nuclear weapons are a whole different story.
    Though still not as “one bomb and done” as some folks seem to imagine.

  39. MarkedMan says:

    Putin continues to make mistakes. If he had ruled out nukes it would have opened the door to negotiations. By instead bringing them to the table he has raised the stakes way to high to allow territorial concessions

  40. OzarkHillbilly says:

    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.

    Just want to note that these are not mutually exclusive. He can be possessed of the “deranged rantings of a lunatic” AND “genuinely think Russia has been held back from its rightful place of leadership in the world” at the same time.

  41. Kathy says:


    Though still not as “one bomb and done” as some folks seem to imagine.

    As I noted above, the “one bomb and done” required two bombs.


    He can be possessed of the “deranged rantings of a lunatic” AND “genuinely think Russia has been held back from its rightful place of leadership in the world” at the same time.

    Certainly. What is lunacy without delusions?

  42. Andy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I think your mistake is that you keep putting the US as the central protagonist in a war that is actually between Russia and Ukraine.