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Putin and the Nuclear End Game

What America and NATO can do about nuclear blackmail.
March 5, 2022
Putin and the Nuclear End Game
(Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Despite, or rather because of, the heroic efforts of the Ukrainian people, we must face the possibility that Vladimir Putin will increase his threats both to Ukraine and to NATO. His war has gone badly, and he has less and less to lose by raising the stakes. Indeed, he may decide that escalation is his only way to win.

Sanctions against the oligarchs have already begun to impoverish him. The flow of weapons from NATO countries is continuing. A compromise would humiliate him. Exile is impossible. He is engaging in the deliberate bombing and shelling of civilian populations in Ukraine. Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Russia’s Chechnya region and an ally of President Putin has acknowledged that Chechen soldiers are in the military columns approaching Kiev. They are there presumably because they are willing to take actions against the people Ukraine that ethnic Russian soldiers are not. Putin has borrowed yet another page from the Hitlerian playbook, from the chapter entitled Schrecklichkeit.

We can and should supply weapons with which the Ukrainians can attack the massed columns of troops approaching Kiev. But the more successful those supply efforts are, the more Putin will be tempted to try to block them.

He has repeatedly threatened nuclear weapons use. It is not clear whether or not these threats are idle.

On CNN, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen warned that Putin might employ tactical nuclear weapons. This warning did not come out of the blue. The review of the extensive Russian doctrinal literature on nuclear weapons use done by Professor Dima Adamsky tells us that Russian nuclear doctrine is to use the presence of nuclear weapons on the battlefield to induce caution in the adversary. No American military officer wants to conduct an inadvertent attack on a unit with nuclear weapons. This caution gives the Russian units greater freedom of action.

This doctrine leads us to expect tacit or explicit threats of tactical nuclear weapons use on Ukrainian soil if NATO interferes with the Russian military in Ukraine. But what does “interference” mean? Defending humanitarian enclaves? Providing battlefield intelligence or material support to the Ukrainians?

If those threats are unsuccessful, the Russian doctrine is less clear, but the use of tactical nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory has been suggested. Which is a complication, since Putin has made it plain that for him, Ukraine is Russian territory.

Whichever way you take it, the point will be to confront NATO with a choice: stop helping Ukraine or risk the deployment of a nuclear weapon and all of the attendant loss of life—and instability—that would follow.

If the Russian military continues to be stymied in the north, it’s possible that Putin could explore a negotiated settlement in which the Ukrainian government surrenders the Donbass and offers some “guarantees” to Russia.

On the other hand, it is possible that Putin views a negotiated settlement as a risk to his domestic political position. In which case, Putin may escalate in an attempt to sever NATO’s material support of Ukraine in an attempt to crush the Ukrainian government.

In the case of an escalation, we would expect to see intelligence reports from the French or German government that Russia is arming its battlefield ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads and has activated the command circuits used for issuing authorization to employ nuclear weapons. Putin would most likely privately approach either German Prime Minister Olaf Scholz or French President Emmanuel Macron, who has thus far been his chosen interlocutor, and tell them that they have a last chance to avoid a nuclear strike by ending NATO military supplies to Ukraine through German air bases.

At which point, what would NATO do? And what could America do? These are questions we ought to be gaming out now, even if we hope such a moment does not come to pass.

Whatever our ultimate decision in such a showdown, there are a number of measures that could be taken by the West.

First and most urgently, President Biden should publicly call upon the Russian military not to obey orders to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine or NATO. Vladimir Putin may have nothing to lose, but the Russian people have everything to live for. Private military to military channels should reinforce that message.

Second, American missile defenses in Europe should be placed on higher levels of readiness. Small numbers of short and medium range ballistic missiles are the most likely Russian nuclear delivery systems, but these are vulnerable to AEGIS Ashore ballistic missile defense systems in Romania and in Poland. The former has been operating for five years. The latter was scheduled to be operational by the end of 2022. This should be accelerated.

The radars of those systems were deliberately not optimized for defense against Russian missiles. But this can be ameliorated by linking those systems to radars elsewhere.

The United States also has four ships with AEGIS systems that are dedicated to NATO missile defense based in Spain. They should be sent to the Baltic or the Black Sea—or wherever they will be most useful.

Other warning systems can be deployed or activated. The United States decided not to conduct a previously scheduled ICBM test flight so as to avoid risks of miscommunication or reading of American intent. This was wise. But this delay also may have convinced Putin that his threats are making the United States more cautious.

And we must be cautious. But we also must convince Putin that he cannot coerce NATO.

The measures proposed here are defensive, not offensive, and are designed to neutralize Putin’s ability to carry out threats.

But Putin could decide to go ahead anyway, in a game of nuclear chicken.

So third, the United States should prepare all means available to disrupt commands from Putin to his rocket forces.

And fourth, NATO should be ready to deal with radioactive fallout from a Russian strike and to provide medical and humanitarian assistance to the victims of such a strike. But preparations for offensive nuclear retaliatory strikes—or even precision non-nuclear strikes against Russian targets—at this point would pose unnecessary risks of escalation and are not advisable.

We have ignored Putin’s nuclear threats for too long. Now is the time to impede his ability to carry them out.

Stephen Peter Rosen

Stephen Peter Rosen is the Beton Michael Kaneb Professor of National Security and Military Affairs at Harvard University.