After his sham referendums in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of temporarily occupied territories, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is once again rattling his nuclear saber. The ratcheting up of the nuclear threat led President Biden to ponder that this is the closest the world has come to nuclear war since 1962.
“We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis,” Biden told attendees at a Democratic fundraiser last week. “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”
The president also said that he knows Putin “fairly well” and believes that the Russian president was “not joking when he talks about [the] potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons.”
Although Biden drew criticism for his comments, I don’t think he’s wrong. He wasn’t saying that a nuclear attack was imminent but that the risk is higher than it has been in decades.
So where does that leave the world? Is there any middle ground between appeasing Putin by leaving Ukraine to its fate or facing thermonuclear annihilation?
I think there is. I don’t personally believe that Putin will use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. He seems to be at a juncture where it is too late to use nukes to help his army conquer Ukraine and too soon to use them to prevent the fall of his regime.
It might have made some strategic sense to use a tactical nuke to break the Ukrainian line around Kyiv last spring. Punching a hole in the defenses might have enabled the breakthrough that led to the fall of the capital city. Those days have long since passed and such an attack might not have altered the ultimate course of war given Russia’s other weaknesses.
These days, the Russian army is in retreat in the east and south, having been beaten back from Kyiv months ago. With the Russian army is falling back through newly-annexed territory that is – at least in Putin’s view – part of Russia, along with Luhansk and Donbas, two regions that Ukraine and Russia have been fighting over since 2014, matters become more complicated for Putin. As bad as it would look for Putin to use a nuclear weapon at all, it would look even worse to use a nuclear weapon on what you claim to be your own soil, killing your own subjects.
Of course, we know that Vladimir Putin has little regard for world opinion. If he did, he would never have launched his war on Ukraine in the first place.
But that bit of conventional wisdom is not necessarily true. I think that the decision to invade was a miscalculation based on his past successes. Putin did not believe that the world would rally to defend Ukraine as it has. Putin likely thought that there would be protests as there were when he invaded Chechnya, Georgia, and Crimea, but that no real action would be taken to stop him. After all, no American president in the past 20 years (including Trump) seemed to care enough to try to stop him.
I believe that two factors were different this time. First, in the past, Putin only tried to take a little piece of countries that he bullied (in most cases). This time he seemed to be trying to gobble up the entirety of one of the largest countries in Europe. Not only that, but his target was a country with close ties to the West. Second, for the first time in two decades, the US was not distracted by Iraq and Afghanistan and could devote its full attention to the crisis.
This is in no way meant to minimize the contribution of the Ukrainians who refused to stand aside or lie down and die. As we’ve seen in other countries, all the military aid that the West can assemble is useless without brave men and women who are willing to risk and sacrifice their lives to beat back the enemy.
So, I think Putin does care about international opinion. He cares about sanctions. He cares about being a pariah. He cares about his oligarchical backers potentially turning against him. He cares about the possibility that domestic discontent could invite a coup. While some of these things are happening already, there would be a large uptick if he used a nuclear weapon.
There are tactical and strategic problems as well. New York Magazine has a good ‘splainer on Putin’s nuclear options. Russia does have small, low-yield, tactical nukes available, but there is another inherent problem here: Would a low-yield nuclear weapon be enough to alter the course of the war?
A small nuclear weapon has the advantage of not releasing large amounts of radiation or destroying large areas, but that is also a disadvantage in that it would tear only a small hole in the advancing Ukrainian armies. That would mean that Putin incurs international condemnation for discernible military advantage. (Additionally, the Ukrainian army seems well-trained and competent. I’d be surprised if they aren’t already dispersing their forces to minimize their vulnerability to a nuclear attack.)
So what about a larger weapon? Bigger weapons have more destructive power and more radiation. One problem here, aside from provoking a bigger response, is that the prevailing westerly winds over Ukraine would tend to blow fallout back into Mother Russia. Waiting for favorable high-altitude winds could narrow Putin’s window for a nuclear attack and make it difficult to coordinate the attack with political initiatives.
An additional problem is that using a larger weapon would destroy more of the territory that Putin wants to annex. If it’s large enough to knock out a large concentration of Ukrainian troops, it may also be large enough to destroy infrastructure that Putin would need to advance such as bridges and roads.
And then there are also the facts that troops advancing through contaminated territory would need protective gear and that Russian supply and logistics have so far not been good. A Russian advance could end almost as quickly as it begins if soldiers develop radiation sickness, which can set in within hours of exposure.
In the end, if Putin is still rational, he should see that using a nuclear weapon won’t change the course of the war. On the other hand, his aim might be to merely instill terror and exact retribution from Ukraine. In other words, he might destroy a Ukrainian city, Kyiv perhaps, out of spite.
That’s definitely a possibility. Russia has made terrorizing civilians a central part of its strategy ever since the three-day operational plan fell apart last February. The rub is that if the intent was to scare Ukrainian civilians into submission then that plan has also been a failure. The recent wave of missile attacks in retaliation for the attack on the Kerch bridge is only the latest attack targeting civilians around the country.
As with the British during the London blitz of WWII, the net result of attacks on civilians seems to have been to stiffen resolve and anger surviving Ukrainians while depleting Russian missile stocks (as Steve Berman pointed out yesterday). Once again, Putin finds himself angering the world for no real advantage.
There is one scenario in which I see the use of nuclear weapons as more likely. That would be if Vladimir Putin believes that Russia’s survival (or his own) is in imminent danger. This could come in many forms including Ukrainian incursions into Russia proper, a popular uprising, a coup attempt, or NATO intervention. To me, the most likely scenario for nuclear war is a scenario in which Putin sees his grip on power slipping away and decides to take the rest of the world with him into oblivion.
This risk has been apparent since the early days of the war. As in those days, the risk of supporting Ukraine is worth the risk of a nuclear exchange. Appeasing Putin would only encourage other aggression by nuclear-armed countries and increase the risk of nuclear war.
If I turn out to be wrong and Russia does open the Pandora’s box of a nuclear escalation, a swift and strong response is vital. If Putin uses a nuclear weapon once and gets away with it, he will do it again. And this applies not only to Putin but to other rogue dictators as well.
President Biden and other leaders need to continue to isolate Putin and assure him that further escalation will be met with serious consequences. They don’t have to spell out what those consequences will be, but they have to make clear that Russia in general and Putin personally will suffer.
Putin did not believe Biden’s warnings in the run-up to war. If the past eight months have taught him anything, it should be that he should believe the West’s warnings now.
I’m curious if anyone reads my stuff here. If you do, drop me a line on Twitter @captainkudzu and say “hello.”
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