Are Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats a bluff?
Russian President Vladimir Putin has a habit of waving his nuclear sabers when things start to look bleak for Moscow, and he did so long before his ill-advised invasion of Ukraine.
In February 2008, he promised to target Ukraine with nuclear weapons if the United States stationed missile defenses there. In August of the same year, he threatened nuclear war if Poland hosted the same system. In 2014, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that Russia consider nuclear strikes if Ukraine tried to retake Crimea.
A year later, the Kremlin announced that it target Danish warships with nuclear missiles if they participated in NATO defense systems. And within a few months – in December 2018 and February 2019 – Putin warned the United States that nuclear war was possible, then promised to target the American continent if it were to deploy nuclear weapons in Europe.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has moved its nuclear arsenal so much that it’s starting to get tedious. Even the most marginal levity is apparently fair game, like that of former President Dmitry Medvedev. invocation of nuclear retaliation whether the International Criminal Court (ICC) was pursuing war crimes investigations against Russian soldiers.
One explanation for Russia‘s behavior is that it is trying to dissuade NATO from attacking it. For nuclear deterrence to be effective, states possessing such weapons need three things, commonly referred to as “Three Cs» : capacity, communication and credibility.
Russia certainly has the first of them. With nearly 6,000 nuclear warheads it is the most heavily armed nuclear state in the world. He also communicates – loudly and with regularity – these abilities.
But the question of credibility remains open, depending on the perceptions of others. Simply put, the United States and other nuclear states must believe that Russia will use nuclear weapons under certain conditions, usually in retaliation for a similar attack or when faced with a threat to its survival.
But will he really use them?
Russia said nuclear doctrine identifies the circumstances in which it would use nuclear weapons in a reasonably rational and sensible way.
It’s 2020 Basic Principles of Nuclear Deterrence stresses that Russia will reserve the right to use nuclear weapons “in response to the use of nuclear weapons and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies”. Or, if Russia comes under a conventional attack so severe that “the very existence of the state is in danger.”
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov addressed this directly on March 28, stating that “any outcome of the operation [in Ukraine] of course is not a reason for the use of a nuclear weapon”.
Yet that did not prevent widespread acceptance of the idea that Russia would use nuclear weapons in order to seize the advantage in controlling the escalation. This idea, commonly called “escalate to de-escalate” is even rooted in the US 2018 Nuclear Posture Review assessment of Russian intentions.
But the Kremlin’s perpetual nuclear signal has much more to do with its attempts to intimidate and undermine reflexive control on the west. In other words, he seeks to make the United States and other NATO members so fearful of the prospect of nuclear war that they will accede to Russian demands. This makes it a coercive strategy, but above all a strategy that relies on never being tested.
There are plenty of signs that it is working. In April 2022, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz based his decision not to supply heavy weapons to Ukraine on the justification that “there must be no nuclear war”.
A number of Western commentators have also begun to reconsider the “nuclear taboo”, worrying Putin could use nuclear weapons in Ukraine if he feels cornered, or for reverse of the war. A particularly turbulent grandstand in the New York Times called for immediate talks before great power war becomes inevitable.
It makes no sense for Russia to go nuclear in Ukraine
But what if the Kremlin’s recent nuclear threats were aimed less at NATO and more at Kyiv? Under these conditions, the logic of nuclear deterrence (threatening a non-nuclear country) does not apply.
There are several reasons why Putin might seek to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine: a decapitating strike, to destroy a large part of the Ukrainian armed forces, to cripple Ukrainian infrastructure and communications, or as a warning.
It also usually means using different types of nuclear weapons. Rather than large anti-urban bombs, Russia would use smaller, non-strategic nuclear warheads. There are certainly a lot of them: about 2,000 warheads in Russia’s stockpile are tactical nuclear weapons.
But neither of these scenarios makes sense for Russia. As Moscow returned to diet change in Ukraine as a war objective, using a nuclear weapon to eliminate Volodymyr Zelenskyy would be difficult and risky. This presupposes ironclad intelligence on its location, results in significant loss of civilian life, and forces Moscow to accept significant destruction wherever Zelenskyy is. It would hardly be good for victorious Russian forces not to be able to enter an irradiated Kyiv, for example.
Drilling nuclear holes in Ukrainian lines is equally risky. The Ukrainian military deliberately decentralized in order to be able to operate with maximum mobility (often referred to as “pull and trot”). Putin would have to order many nuclear attacks for such a tactic to be effective. And he would be unable to prevent Radioactive fallout to potentially blow on “liberated” parts of Donbass under Russian control, not to mention Western Russia itself.
Another possibility is a high altitude detonation over a city, doing no damage but causing a massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP). A EMP attack would fry electrical and electronic systems, immobilizing critical infrastructure. But again, it would be difficult to limit the EMP-busting effects to just Ukraine, and that would leave Moscow with very little usable industry left.
Finally, the Kremlin could seek a demonstration effect by detonating a nuclear device far from populated areas, even over the Black Sea. It would certainly attract attention, but would ultimately have psychological value, with no practical use on the battlefield. And Russia would join the United States as the only country to have used such weapons in anger.
Is Russia rational?
In all of this, there is of course a big caveat: the assumption that the Russian regime is rational.
Having amassed vast personal fortunes and a taste for luxury, Russia’s rulers are probably in no rush to commit suicide in a major nuclear stunt.
However, since there is no way to be sure, the West must continue to take Russia’s nuclear posture seriously – but also with healthy skepticism. Indeed, if the West capitulates to Russian demands because of fears of nuclear war, it will further embolden Putin and show other nations that nuclear strategy is attractive.
But Russia arguably faces the greatest risk here. If Putin uses nuclear weapons against Ukraine or a NATO member, it would also be very difficult for states that have quietly supported him (like China) or sought to benefit from his pariah status through the trade (like India) to continue to do so. It would also likely spawn a larger war that he has been working to avoid.
Let us continue to hope that Moscow, although often misguided, remains rational.
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