I’ve been asked to weigh in on whether Putin might resort to nuclear weapons against Ukraine, and if so, what happens then?
First let me restate that my record of predictions regarding Putin’s behavior is abysmal. I thought he was bluffing right up to the day of the Ukraine invasion, and he has since crossed every line I was sure he’d never cross.
I was right, however, that he had nothing to gain from any of it. This has been abundantly demonstrated, beyond my — or anyone’s — imagination. He has committed blunders of Shakespearean proportions.
Which is why his petulant nuke-rattling is so unnerving to any rational human, especially those of us who remember the “air-raid drills” of our youth. It was in the fifties and sixties, at the height of the Cold War. We’d hear the famous siren, the cue for our whole class to walk, not run, down to the school basement, where we’d face the wall and throw spitballs while awaiting nuclear annihilation. Which, I’m pleased to say, never came.
But at the time, this nuclear threat was the background hum of American society. It pervaded the culture — all kinds of doomsday scenarios played out in our movies, TV shows, magazines, books, and nightmares. We absorbed words like ‘megaton,’ ‘mushroom cloud,’ and ‘brinkmanship,’ and we all grew comfortable with the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD), the idea that any nuclear strike would trigger instant retaliation in kind — which wouldn’t work out well for anyone.
Nukes have since slipped out of the cultural conversation, though certainly not the military one. The threat has never gone away, and the MAD doctrine grew less comforting as the threat became less about nuked-up superpowers and more about rogue states and terrorist cells.
But now the threat is all-in-one — the rogue state happens to also be a nuked-up superpower with a long record of terrorism, both foreign and domestic.
And Putin, its absolute dictator, is a cornered rat, scared and vicious. He’s already lining up his options for the next phase of his meltdown, which seems increasingly improvisational. His propaganda machine is working 24/7 to keep up with his mood swings, and it’s not going well.
His wildly bogus referendum and annexation of the four Donbas regions has already failed militarily, in spectacular fashion. He has declared that the people of the Donbas have “voted” to become Russian citizens, and therefore any attack on the Donbas is now an attack on Russia. This twisted logic justifies any sort of retaliation he might be in the mood for. Including tactical nukes.
A quick refresher on strategic versus tactical nukes.
Strategic nuclear weapons are the big boys. Some of them can vaporize Manhattan in the first ten seconds, then spread the carnage outward over much of the Northeast. While an exchange of strategic nukes — say Moscow for London — can’t be ruled out, it seems the least likely scenario. MAD will presumably continue to hold sway, at least for now.
It’s tactical nukes that are the problem. They’re the babies, packing a mere fraction of their big brothers’ wallop. They’re not about leveling cities. They’re about obliterating battlefields, taking out fortifications, destroying infrastructure, and killing thousands of troops at once. Of course, these same “limited yield” weapons also emit radiation that poisons the land forever, while their fallout — both radioactive and political — would probably blow back on Russia with the easterly winds.
There is nothing “limited” about tactical nukes. They are devastating carriers of death and destruction, and it’s not for nothing that nobody has ever fired one in anger.
I don’t believe Putin will be the first. Not because I don’t think he has it in him — I’m quite sure he does. I’m just thinking he’ll see the risks as too high, even for him.
Those risks, to be sure, are many and massive:
There’s the risk of retaliation. That NATO will respond, possibly in kind, but more likely with non-nuclear options that will be just as effective, but without the political and moral fallout. This is being gamed out as we speak, in war rooms all over the West, and Putin has been privately warned that there will be real hell to pay if he goes there. Is he getting the message? Are his people telling him what he needs to hear? We don’t know.
There’s the risk he will lose all support from China and India, his go-to customers for the gas he can’t sell to Europe. If they stop buying, how will he keep paying for his war, which is none too solvent to begin with? We don’t know.
There’s the risk that the global financial system will sever all remaining ties with Russia — and yes, there still are some. With his trading partners dwindling, his revenue sources drying up, and his access to hard currency cut off, Putin will have to rely on any barter deals he can make with countries willing to overlook his use of a nuclear weapon. Which is not a long list.
There’s the risk that his own institutions will turn on him. His personal world is narrowing, he can’t trust anyone, and his paranoia level has got to be off the charts. And the greater the paranoia, the greater the likelihood that people actually will be out to get him. He’ll be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life. Does this make him more or less likely to order a nuclear attack? Will the order be obeyed? We don’t know.
Then there’s the risk that the Russian people will finally snap. Probably not — their tolerance for authoritarian abuse is prodigious. But it did happen once before, just a century ago, and the world hasn’t been the same since.
Russians have always been totally comfortable with autocracy, as long as there was something in it for them. But by 1917, after three years of brutal war and privation, there was nothing in it for anyone, and the pressure on everyday life reached a breaking point. The rest is history.
This could be happening again. In just seven short months, the prospects for everyday Russians have shrunk significantly. They’re already looking at decades of pariah status, unable to participate in the modern world. And now, with the forced mobilization of a million people, virtually every Russian family now has skin in the game, literally. Tens of thousands of coffins are arriving home —with untold numbers still to come — which makes Putin’s propaganda illusions harder to maintain. Could a nuclear strike trigger a second Russian Revolution? We don't know.
But even with all those huge risks, the biggest risk of all is that it won’t work. Ukraine will not capitulate. Not even if he’s crazy enough to level Kyiv.
But any nuclear launch will guarantee that the gloves will come off. Ukrainians will get all the advanced weaponry they can use. The prohibitions on attacking Russian territory will be rescinded. Long-range missiles capable of taking out critical Moscow infrastructure will be made available. Ukraine is now on a total war footing and they’re getting better at it, even as Russia gets noticeably worse. For Putin to throw nukes into that mix would be, well, nuts.
But nuts is exactly why it’s so hard to second-guess the conduct of Ukraine, of NATO, or of the United States. They are all in an impossible, nutso situation, yet they seem to be making sound moves to deter and de-escalate, even as they’re clearly planning for ugly scenarios. They’re also making sure Putin feels as much pain as possible.
So they’re playing a strong hand, but what does that matter when the guy across the table has nukes? The good guys have no choice but to keep doing what they’re doing and hope for the best.
Hope, as we know, is not a strategy. But in the absence of any other options, it’s all we have to fall back on.