ukraine invasion

Could Putin Go Nuclear?

Ukrainians take shelter amid Russia’s war of aggression. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

That escalated quickly.

Five days ago, it looked like the west’s response to Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression would be tepid. Its first round of sanctions was replete with loopholes large enough to jam gas pipelines through. But Ukraine’s resolve has proven contagious. The Ukrainians’ willingness to die in defense of their national sovereignty and their capacity to inflict casualties on Russia have outstripped the expectations of their friends and enemies alike. This demonstration seems to have stiffened spines in Berlin and Brussels. Over the weekend, Europe and the U.S. declared something close to financial war on the Russian state. The western powers announced they were freezing all Russian central bank assets held in the E.U., U.S., Canada, and Britain and evicting Russian banks from the international payments system known as SWIFT. As a result, the Russian people saw the value of their savings collapse over night.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and E.U. continued funneling weapons to Ukrainian forces.

When Putin commenced his invasion last week, he warned that any nation that “tries to stand in our way” or “create threats for our country and our people … must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.” Just in case his implication was not clear, Putin reminded his adversaries that “Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states.”

On Sunday, following the West’s actions against Russia’s central bank, Putin announced he was putting his nation’s nuclear forces on “special combat readiness” in response to “illegal sanctions” and “aggressive statements” from NATO countries.

The precise meaning of Putin’s order is unclear. Both the U.S. and Russia keep nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles on high alert at all times. According to the theories of deterrence that structured Cold War policy, these weapons of mass death must be forever locked and loaded lest the other side seize an opportunity to launch a first strike so overwhelming it preempts retaliation.

To the extent that Putin’s statement has substance, it would presumably mean removing Russian bombers from their hangars and loading them with nuclear weapons and/or sending nuclear submarines out to sea. Such actions would almost certainly appear on the proverbial radar of the U.S. security state, which keeps a watchful eye on Russian nuclear facilities. The Pentagon said Monday that it had not seen “any specific muscle movements” from Russia’s nuclear forces, and America’s nuclear “alert level” is therefore unchanged.

Expert opinion holds that Putin is merely engaged in rhetorical brinkmanship. If you’ve recently looked up information about nuclear-blast radii and potassium iodide, take solace in these facts:

• The Kremlin issued nearly identical threats of nuclear action during Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

• It would be insane for Russia to expose itself to the threat of nuclear retaliation for the sake of winning a war in which it already boasts overwhelming military supremacy.

• Although the U.S. and E.U. have aided Ukraine through the transfer of arms and the imposition of sanctions, they have not deployed troops to fight in the conflict. And even neoconservative hawks like Marco Rubio are saying that direct intervention would not be worth the risks. For these reasons, it is hard to see the war escalating to the point of a genuine nuclear standoff between opposing atomic powers.

Thus, as Georgetown University professor Matthew Kroenig told the New York Times, Putin is almost certainly engaging in a game of “nuclear chicken, of raising the risk of war in hopes that the other side will back down and say, ‘Geez, this isn’t worth fighting a nuclear war over.’” Kroenig maintains that using empty nuclear threats to dissuade western intervention is a longstanding Russian strategy known as “escalate to de-escalate.”

Matthew Bunn of the Harvard Kennedy School takes a similar view, telling Vox, “I think there is virtually no chance nuclear weapons are going to be used in the Ukraine situation.”

Nevertheless, given the scale of devastation that a nuclear conflagration would entail, even a small increase in the probability of such a development is cause for concern. Further, considering how quickly the present conflict has escalated, it is difficult to opine with certainty about where it could and could not take us.

If one wishes to find causes for alarm, they are readily available.

In 2020, Russia lowered its official standard for deploying nuclear weapons. Previously, Moscow had vowed it would only resort to the nuclear option if “the very existence of the state is threatened.” Two years ago, the Kremlin revised that position, announcing that it “reserves the right to use nuclear weapons … for the prevention of an escalation of military actions and their termination on conditions that are acceptable for the Russian Federation and/or its allies.”

In other words: Russia reserves the right to conduct a nuclear first strike in order to end a war on its preferred terms. This leads Georgetown nuclear-policy expert Caitlin Talmadge to believe Putin could plausibly deploy “tactical” (or “battlefield”) nuclear weapons to achieve his aims in Ukraine if conventional aggression fails to do the trick.

But one of Putin’s aims in Ukraine is to install a puppet government capable of pacifying the populace, and dropping a nuclear bomb on the country seems to be a poor way to win hearts and minds. Initially, Russian military strategy appeared to reflect some concern about mitigating civilian casualties for the sake of maintaining postwar Ukraine’s governability.

This said, after Ukrainian resistance proved more formidable than anticipated, the Russian military is now attempting to demoralize the Ukrainians by leveling civilian areas.

It is far from clear what Putin would consider beyond the pale should his government’s troubles multiply further. What happens if a collapsing ruble and mounting Russian casualties spark widespread dissidence in Russia’s streets — or even a challenge to Putin’s leadership from within the regime? What if taking Kyiv proves insufficient to break the will of a Ukrainian insurgency? What kind of violence might a homicidal dictator embrace with his back against the wall?

“There’s a real possibility Putin could turn to nuclear weapons if he continues to experience military setbacks and sees the diplomatic and political situation crumbling,” Talmadge told the Financial Times. “It’s not just a response to how his conventional campaign [in Ukraine] is going but to these other developments with sanctions and Germany sending weapons to Ukraine. The entire picture to him looks pretty bleak.”

In Russia, as in the U.S., the president has the unilateral authority to order a nuclear strike. We know Putin is reckless and paranoid enough to launch a bloody, destabilizing war in the absence of any martial provocation. We know he is an aging murderer with grand historical ambitions. So it’s hard to say with certainty what he is and is not capable of. Bloomberg reported Monday, “With Covid-19 restrictions increasing his isolation in recent years, Putin has grown more reliant on a small circle of hardline advisers, according to people close to the leadership.” That is consistent with recent reports from the New York Times and the Financial Times.

Putin’s threats are a reminder that atomic war is not the nightmare of a bygone age. The threat of nuclear annihilation didn’t end with the Cold War. Our collective success in averting a nuclear strike in the 76 years since America dropped atomic bombs on Japan is largely a product of luck.

In 1961, a B-52 bomber came apart in midair, dropping two nuclear weapons on North Carolina in the process. One of those bombs nearly went off as three of the four triggering mechanisms required for its detonation activated upon release. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the captain of a Soviet submarine ordered the firing of a nuclear torpedo at the U.S. Navy out of a mistaken belief that his vessel was under attack. Only the resistance of a fellow officer prevented that order from being carried out. In 1980, the Carter administration nearly launched an unprovoked nuclear strike against the Soviet Union after the malfunctioning of a single 46-cent computer chip led the White House to believe the Soviets had just fired 2,200 nuclear missiles at the U.S.

Near misses like these abound. America’s “launch on warning” policy — which commits the nation to firing nuclear missiles (which, by design, cannot be called back) as soon as an enemy strike is detected — greatly increases the risk of an accident ending less happily. As Eric Schlosser has documented, over the course of the Cold War, early-warning systems were “triggered by the moon rising over Norway, the launch of a weather rocket from Norway, a solar storm, sunlight reflecting off high-altitude clouds, and a faulty A.T. & T. telephone switch in Black Forest, Colorado.”

Meanwhile, America’s nuclear stockpile is far less secure than many appreciate. In 2015, a nuclear-launch officer at the Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota — which is to say a person entrusted with the keys that launch intercontinental ballistic missiles — was sentenced to 25 years in prison for leading a street gang, dealing drugs, sexually assaulting a minor, and possessing magic mushrooms.

And America has the most secure nuclear arsenal on the planet.

If Russia’s war in Ukraine doesn’t bring us to the atomic abyss, it will still set back the cause of de-proliferation. Heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow have sidelined negotiations over an extension to the last remaining nuclear treaty between the U.S. and Russia, New START, which is set to expire in 2026. Meanwhile, Russia’s assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty — after Ukraine agreed to forfeit its own nuclear arsenal 30 years ago in exchange for assurances about its territorial integrity — will discourage other nuclear powers from following Ukraine’s example while encouraging other small nations to start their own nuclear programs.

All that nuclear war requires is a single accident, miscommunication, or psychopath with his finger on the button. To permanently degrade human life on Earth, things need to go wrong only once. In our age of pandemics, rising geopolitical tensions, and reality-star presidents, it is abundantly clear that we need more margin for error. If we do not find a way to rid the world of nuclear weapons — or, at the very least, of nuclear ICBMs that are primed to fire at the first warning of early-detection systems that can produce false positives — our luck will eventually run out. History is not over. So we must make the world safe for history.

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