Is Putin Thinking the Unthinkable?
By Rafael Hoffman
For over seven decades, the horrific specter of a nuclear war played no small role in preventing open conflict between great powers. Part and parcel of that phenomenon was that no world leader in possession of atomic weapons was willing to risk igniting a war under the cloud of mass destruction—especially that of his own country.
Even during the tensest years of Cold War, only once, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, did the world harbor serious fears that nuclear arsenals could be used.
Yet now, 30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union put the world at ease from the prospect of such a terrifying event, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s repeated threats to defend recently captured territories in Ukraine have many once again seriously thinking about the unthinkable.
Upping the Ante
Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this February, amid the shock of an unprovoked attack on an independent European country, the world was additionally put on edge by Mr. Putin’s order to place his nation’s nuclear forces on high alert. In reality, the move only increased staffing at weapons sites. Still, with the U.S. and NATO allies arming Ukraine, it was a reminder of the high risks that conflict between nuclear-armed powers entails.
As the war dragged on, with each side experiencing advances and setbacks, Mr. Putin’s nuclear threat disappeared from the headlines, but apparently not from his mind.
Amid the mild success of Ukraine’s counteroffensive launched last month, Mr. Putin declared his intention to annex four largely Russian-speaking regions: Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. The areas have been the focus of fighting since Russia withdrew from its failed attempt to capture Kyiv in the first month of the war and are largely occupied. Hastily arranged popular referendums for annexation, rejected by the West as fixed and illegitimate, were accepted by Russia’s legislature and the regions were welcomed back to the motherland by Mr. Putin.
Despite international refusal to recognize the annexation’s legitimacy, it gave Russia the potentially dangerous cover to treat ongoing fighting in these areas as an attack on its homeland.
In his speech discussing the annexation, Mr. Putin left little doubt that in his mind, converting these areas into Russian territory raises the war’s potential nuclear risks.
“In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us,” he said. “This is not a bluff.”
With Ukraine’s counteroffensive still making gains in the now contested regions, fueled almost entirely by weapons from the U.S. and NATO allies, many fear that annexation could be a convenient pretext for escalation.
“Annexation absolutely raises the ante,” said Paul Kubicek, Professor of Political Science at Oakland University in Michigan and an expert on Ukraine and Russia. “Russia is going all in on this, and Putin is being ambiguous, trying to keep Ukraine and the U.S. and NATO second-guessing how far they want to push in these territories. We’ve already seen Putin’s inclination to escalate in this process.”
‘Desperate Times Breed Desperate Measures’
While nuclear powers have never fought a major war against each other, this is not the first time two were on different sides of a proxy war against each other. America’s involvement in the Korean and Vietnam wars placed it against Soviet-backed communist forces in those two nations, and a similar scenario played out in reverse after the USSR’s 1978 invasion of Afghanistan, when the U.S. backed rebel mujahedeen groups. Yet, none of those conflicts resulted in any threat of nuclear conflict.
On the face of it, Western backing of Ukraine against Russian invaders should be no different than these wars, yet some experts fear that Russia’s poor performance on the battlefield could affect Mr. Putin’s calculus differently.
“Desperate times breed desperate measures,” said David Shlapak, Senior Researcher at the RAND Corporation, specializing in military strategy and nuclear weapons. “Putin sees the options for gaining anything out of this that he can parade as a victory are narrowing. He sees the game going against him and might be looking for a way to flip the board and start from scratch.”
Russia’s initial attack targeting Kyiv revealed its leadership’s confidence that Ukraine could be easily conquered and transformed into a vassal state. That belief was initially shared by the U.S., whose early response was to offer President Volodymyr Zelensky an escape route. After withdrawing from its attack on Kyiv, Russia successfully regrouped and solidified control over much of Ukraine’s ethnically Russian areas in the eastern Donbas and southeastern areas along the Sea of Azov.
Yet, while Ukraine’s counteroffensive has yet to retake major cities, its troops have made significant gains around Kharkov, which remains in Ukrainian hands, in the northeast, and Kherson in the south, which fell to Russia in the early weeks of the war. Moreover, the renewed threat to Russia’s territorial gains has prevented Mr. Putin from being able to portray the Ukrainian areas under his control as normalized Russian provinces. That goal was belied even more so by the Kremlin’s decision last week to declare martial law in the annexed areas to allow for large portions of the population to be relocated from war zones.
That uncomfortable picture, some fear, is pushing Mr. Putin to consider options long considered off the table.
“How can Russia recover from losing to Ukraine?” said Professor Kubicek. “Russia’s status as a great power is at stake and if Ukraine can retake a major city like Kherson, Putin’s political life could be at stake.That could make him willing to go where no one has gone before.”
The prospect of nuclear weapons conjures up terrifying images of the mass destruction they are designed to inflict.
While all atomic weapons can cause outsized damage and breaking the taboo on their use might lead to dangerous escalation and broadening of the Ukraine conflict, large warheads known as strategic nuclear weapons are not what most experts suspect Mr. Putin is even considering using. Rather, those who feel that Russian leaders might be weighing some nuclear option believe they are pondering the use of what are known as tactical nuclear weapons, smaller arms designed for battlefield use rather than the destruction of large population centers.
“These weapons should be thought of as extremely powerful conventional weapons. They can create extremely large explosions,” said Iain Boyd, Director of the Center for National Security Initiatives at the University of Colorado. “They are designed for use with friendly forces in proximity and will not have radiation fallout.”
Tactical nuclear weapons can be delivered by planes, rocket launchers, and smaller ones from artillery. The amount of destruction they can potentially reap covers a wide scale ranging from the equivalent of .3 kilotons of dynamite to 100 kilotons. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were estimated to have 15 and 21 kilotons respectively.
During the Cold War, both the U.S. and the Soviets built up significant arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons. Beginning in the 1990s, America’s military largely abandoned them, citing concerns over radiation fallout and security. Military strategists also felt that advanced conventional weapons could serve a similar purpose while mitigating those risks. Arms treaties do not track tactical nuclear weapons, but it is estimated that Russia still possesses some 2,000 of them, likely 10 times what remains in the U.S. war chest.
Despite the large-scale destruction and death these weapons can wreak, unlike strategic ones, they carry far less risk of residual radiation fallout to those in the area who survive the blast.
“When we worry about fallout, that is associated with a ground burst when the fireball touches the earth and sucks up debris which becomes intensely radioactive and then gets released and blows downwind,” said Mr. Shlapak. “There is no reason for Putin to contemplate a ground burst, an airburst has some fallout, but it’s a small amount and the radioactivity should go away in a few days or weeks.”
A Scare Tactic
While an attack with any form of nuclear arms would shock the world, whether using one of Russia many tactical weapons would turn the tides of the war in its favor remains unclear.
“The idea is horrible to contemplate, but even so, most military analysts say that a tactical nuke will not be a game changer for Russia on the battlefield,” said Professor Kubicek. “But it may be enough to compel Ukraine to rethink its strategy.”
Should Russia choose to employ a tactical nuclear weapon, its impact, some feel, would not be chiefly on its given target, but in changing the trajectory of the conflict and scaring Ukraine and its allies into accepting a settlement on Moscow’s terms.
“If delivered accurately on target, they would create large-scale destruction that could accelerate the end of the conflict,” said Professor Boyd.
Still, many question whether a tactical nuclear weapon could even be effective in the type of combat that is ongoing in Ukraine.
“The same weapon that could kill hundreds of thousands in a city could have a hard time disabling more than a battalion on the battlefield,” said Mr. Shlapak. “Unless they’re willing to use a lot of them or to strike shipment points where Western supplies are coming in, they will not be very effective.”
Troops spread out over a long front make it difficult to target large numbers with a tactical nuclear weapon and eliminating a command post or other key points could likely be done as effectively with conventional missiles. As such, Mr. Shlapak posited that discussions that might be going on in the Kremlin on nuclear weapons were focused on what he termed a “ceremonial” use aimed at intimidating Ukraine and its allies rather than achieving battlefield victory.
“It’s a way to shift the discussion from military to politics,” he said. “Putin might want to use them as a coercive measure to intimidate the Ukrainian people and peel away Western support.”
The Nuclear Saber
From the beginning of its invasion of Ukraine and increasingly as they have suffered setbacks, Russia has already resorted to alternative means of attempting to wear out the Ukrainian people’s tolerance for resistance. The most significant have been its attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, which last week caused significant power outages around the country.
While not a nuclear attack, some have seen its seeming willingness to fire at or near atomic energy facilities, risking dangerous accidents, as a form of radioactive intimidation short of using a weapon.
“I think it started as Russia throwing explosives around and seeing where they land,” said Mr. Shlapak of attacks near nuclear power plants. “Even if it was not intended as nuclear posturing, the fact that it is discussed in the West is not unwelcome in Russia.”
Russia has other means of rattling its nuclear saber without firing an actual weapon, such as conducting tests over the sea or in unpopulated areas. The last open-air atmospheric test was carried out by China in 1980. The U.S., Great Britain, and the USSR abandoned the practice after signing a treaty in 1963. Since then, all testing has been conducted underground.
“A test over sea or over a remote part of Siberia would allow Russia to indicate its seriousness, but not cross the line of an actual attack,” said Mr. Shlapak.
Even before its invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Putin and his country raised some nuclear red flags with the West. He quit several nuclear arms reduction and missile treaties signed during the Soviet period. While Western countries moved toward cutting arsenals, Russia has steadily increased its stockpiles. Currently, Russia is the world’s largest nuclear power, with 5,977 strategic warheads, with the U.S. holding 5,428.
In 2018, Mr. Putin said that Russia would not initiate a first strike but worried many in the West with his response to an interviewer’s question.
“An aggressor should know that vengeance is inevitable, that he will be annihilated, and we would be the victims of the aggression,” he said at the time. “We will go to heaven as martyrs, and they will just drop dead. They will not even have time to repent for this.”
In addition to the horrific prospect of the destruction that a tactical nuclear weapon attack could cause, questions of how the U.S. and its allies would respond and whether escalation would be inevitable likely vexes many policy-makers and Pentagon strategists.
“All of the usual warfare options including a retaliatory tactical nuclear strike [would be options]. However, that would be unlikely and unnecessary, in my opinion,” said Professor Boyd of potential NATO responses. “If a large enough tactical nuke were used, then a coalition of forces from Ukraine’s east Europe allies along with NATO [and the] U.S. might be formed, and push Russia completely out of the Ukraine.”
As the Kremlin is possibly weighing the use of tactical nuclear weapons, Western diplomats and military personnel are faced with a seemingly impossible choice between an insufficient deterrent and unwanted escalation.
“There could be more pressure to intervene more forcefully and send a NATO force to Ukraine, but who wants to start World War III over a conflict in Zaporizhzhia?” said Professor Kubicek. “I don’t envy the Biden administration because no one knows how far Putin will go.”
In addition to the risk Russia runs in igniting a military response from NATO, many feel that use of any nuclear force could draw rebuke and even a cooling of ties with its most important ally, China. China has already expressed some level of displeasure with the Ukraine campaign, and it is likely that any nuclear use could drive a further wedge between the two nations.
“[Chinese President] Xi apparently communicated a sense of unease on the possibility of Russian use of nuclear weapons,” said Mr. Shlapak. “I don’t think use of a small weapon would shatter their relationship, but they might see a rhetorical cooling of ties at least until China can read the global tea leaves and see how remaining Russia’s friend impacts China.”
Another factor that could restrain Mr. Putin’s nuclear calculus is how the Russian people would view their use.
“It might be hard to sell the Russian people on the necessity of using it,” said Professor Kubicek. “If Russia was attacked, they might be okay with it, so a lot may depend on to what extent they’ve internalized these newly created borders.”
‘What Comes Next?’
The question that no one besides Mr. Putin and possibly those in his very small inner circle know how to answer is: With all things considered, how likely is it that he will actually consider using a nuclear weapon, potentially leading to drastic and unpredictable consequences for Russia and the world?
Some have pointed to Mr. Putin’s past as an agent in the KGB and later as head of the Russian Federation’s intelligence agency for insight into his outlook on risk taking.
“I don’t think that Putin is a great strategist, but those who rise through the ranks of Russian intelligence have to be clever, manipulative, and have a strong sense of survival,” said Mr. Shlapak. “There might be the clever and manipulative side of him that this is an ingenious idea, but self-preservation could push in the opposite direction. If things go badly and Putin ends up out of power, he could find himself in a very dangerous position.”
As most discussions of the possibility of Mr. Putin employing nuclear weapons start with how desperate he believes his position in Ukraine is, evaluations of the likelihood of actually taking such a step also pend on that point.
“I can see both sides of the calculus. It might just be that [Putin] sees he can make ambiguous threats and the world gets nervous from the initial headlines, but from his point of view, this might be the least bad of a lot of bad choices he’s looking at right now,” said Professor Kubicek. “I still don’t think it’s likely, but it can’t be dismissed. If Putin feels desperate and cornered, I think he would contemplate battlefield use of a nuclear weapon to avoid crushing defeat.”
Much of the world’s concern over the possibility that Mr. Putin could put some part of his nuclear arsenal to use stems from the belief that there are few high-level advisors who consider Russia’s present situation from an objective position, outside of the nation’s own propaganda version of the war. Likely fewer are in a position to contradict their leader. Against that background, even with little to gain, and a great deal to lose, some fear Mr. Putin could continue to drive up the premium on his recent string of dangerous and ill-fated decisions. “No use of any nuclear weapon in any form solves any of Vladimir Putin’s problems. It would be a foolish thing to do, but that does not rule it out,” said Mr. Shlapak. “There are serious people worried about it. They don’t think the initial use would lead to a global catastrophe, but the question becomes, what happens next?”
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