Nuclear Threats in a Criminal War
Scott L. Montgomery argues that dangers can transpire when myths and lies evolve into abiding truths.
Vladimir Putin’s war, it seems clear, is not waged against Ukraine, but against Ukrainians, history, and Russia itself. It is about replacing established fact with tortured myth, breaking minds and killing people, ravaging cities and terrorizing millions. It is the war of the despot who hears voices and murders in their name. Whether we call this “genocide,” as many have done (including a U.S. president), makes a serious difference both to the present and the future. It is an important issue, and though not the focus of this essay, the fact that it has emerged indicates how monsters of the new century, in Europe and elsewhere, are the progeny of their 20th century predecessors. Putin, that is, seems bent on becoming a Stalin in lower case.
The war, however, will not end well for Russia. For centuries, its people have suffered from pitiless leadership, and they will now suffer again. Putin, meanwhile, has badly miscalculated on several fronts. He was not wrong to have viewed a kind of opportunity, with the U.S. enfeebled by domestic divisions and the EU fractured by far-right politics, with Germany missing the steady hand of Angela Merkel. Yet his invasion of Ukraine has itself been the cause for all these (and other) disadvantages to be quickly overcome.
War has re-unified NATO, including its newer members from the former Warsaw Pact, and will expand its membership along Russia’s own border, as both Finland and Sweden now seem certain to join. Putin has effectively dared the U.S. and EU to bring down a heavy hammer of sanctions on the Russian economy, forcing a new era of GDP loss and decline that has only begun. Beyond NATO, the conflict has brought a host of nations to condemn Russia, while sending aid, weapons, food, and praise to the Ukrainians.
No less, the war has forced Europe to face its decades of ever-growing over-reliance on Russian energy exports. That its ambition to undo this as quickly as possible is bringing complexities and problems of its own will not prevent the goal from being achieved. Russia will lose its most valuable source of revenue and will find it difficult, at best, to replace by a quick “pivot” to Asia (I will discuss this in detail in a later column).
The Nuclear Card: Not New but Real
Worse from the Kremlin’s viewpoint is the reputational damage to the country and its military. Despite some key states (India and China) abstaining from the UN condemnation of Russia’s invasion, every one of the world’s advanced nations, representing a majority of global wealth, voted in favor, as did emerging economies such as Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Brazil, and Nigeria. There’s no exaggeration in calling Russia a new pariah state on the global stage. Its military, meanwhile, formerly thought among the world’s most formidable, has performed far worse than expected.
Experts, in fact, have been shocked at persistent evidence of poor planning, bad logistics, and wavering morale. Putin’s apparent belief that Ukrainian resistance would simply crumble like dry leaves with Russian troops welcomed as liberators reveals a profound disconnection from realities on the ground. Considerable superiority in materiel utterly failed to overwhelm. Abundant use of missiles, rockets, artillery, targeted executions, and more has not prevented masses of Russian casualties. In response, the Kremlin has reverted to the tactic of levelling towns and cities (Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol are examples), bombing hospitals and apartment buildings, an approach it applied to Grozny and Aleppo. Though a strategy far from new—if we recall the fate of Nineveh, Carthage, and, under the Mongol hand, Kyiv itself—it was modernized during two world wars of the past century. The historical meaning of Mariupol’s destruction should not be overlooked.
The greatest danger, however, may lie ahead. Putin has repeatedly played the nuclear card as an open threat and has encouraged others in favor of the war to do the same. Some observers have paid little attention to this, assuming an empty threat. Others, though, have claimed that it crosses a line, setting a fearful new precedent. This is not quite true: talk of using nuclear weapons in war was not rare for U.S. officials in the early days of the Cold War, for example to stop the flow of Chinese soldiers into the Korean conflict or to aid the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Eisenhowever and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, even discussed the possibility of re-designating nuclear weapons as “conventional,” implying they might be employed in any major conflict the U.S. faced.
But it was never done. And with time, such ideas came to be considered beyond the reach of sanity, as realization of what a nuclear exchange would actually mean sunk in, and concepts like deterrence, MAD (mutually assured destruction), and the historical weight of nuclear taboo came to bear. Not to be overlooked as well are six decades of diplomacy on testing, arms control, and non-proliferation.
Putin appears ready to upend all of this. His threats, coming in the immediate wake of military invasion and the purposeful ruin of entire cities, carry a potent difference in today’s world. The intentional first use of a nuclear weapon by the aggressor in an unprovoked conflict would do more than shatter mountains—it would mark a new darker turn in human history. Something that all strategists and nonproliferation experts agree on is that any first use, of whatever yield (kiloton size), whether against a military target or not, would create a horrific precedent, rendering future use almost certain.
Such considerations do not seem to concern Mr. Putin. In his recent speech on Victory Day (May 9), he may have left out braggadocio about inevitable triumph in Ukraine and beyond, but he remained firm in the themes of Russia as the victim of the West’s aggression and its soldiers in Donbas “fighting for the future of…the motherland” as did those countrymen who defeated the Nazis. There was also the repeated accusation: “In Kiev, there was talk of nuclear weapons, and…little by little an unacceptable threat made its way closer to our borders…the threat was growing every day.”
Could the Mad King be Mad After All?
It would be a mistake, in other words, possibly a fatal one, to dismiss the risk of a Russian nuclear launch.
On the evidence of his actions, as well as claims and statements, more than a few experts point to the probability that Putin is largely disconnected from the full reality of what has happened. His speeches, pronouncements, and accusations in recent years suggest he has come to inhabit an aggrieved mental realm where Russia is the constant whipping boy of the West, the object of bullying, disregard, and repression since the fall of the Soviet Union. If a sense of persecution by the West has been a traditional trope of Russian thought and feeling, Putin has taken it to a new paranoid extreme not seen since the days of Stalin. He has an obsession centered on Ukraine and its desire to turn from Russia and join with Europe.
The strongest testimony to Putin having descended into a separate world of dark and violent imagining is the war itself. Ukraine, he says over and again, is “of Russia” and “inseparable from it” yet must be destroyed in order to be saved. Atrocities become acts of purification—ridding the country of mythical Nazis, for example—in this Putinic world. Russia, meanwhile, is the true victim in all that has happened, driven to act by unrelenting efforts of the U.S. and NATO over decades to enfeeble and fracture Russian “civilization” itself.
There is value in listening to what long-time, Russian-speaking observers have to say about Putin’s thinking. One of these, Michael McFaul, a former ambassador to Russia, comments that Putin is swayed by his own propaganda and has become increasingly “unhinged” over time. Another previous ambassador, William Burns, the current CIA Director, offers the following in a recent Financial Times interview:
I had dealt with and watched President Putin for many years and what I’ve seen, especially over the past decade, is him…stewing in a very combustible combination of grievance and ambition and insecurity…His risk appetite has grown over the years as his grip on power has tightened and also as his circle of advisers has narrowed.
Burns is convinced that Putin has no intention of altering his original goals. After consolidating victory in the east of Ukraine, he will return to Kyiv and “double down” on taking it.
None of this is the final word, to be sure. Yet it is telling nonetheless. Believing Putin to be putting on the clothes and playing the role of the “mad king” may be too comforting. Again, if history be any guide, a leadership steeped in enraged victimhood, leavened by ambition, has very often sought an apotheosis, becoming a key protagonist of unconditional destruction over the past century. Those who still think that all of this is in the past, or that Putin believes little of it and operates on the basis of cynical calculation, might need to reconsider.
The circumstances to which the Kremlin might well respond with a low-yield nuclear weapon are not few. Moscow’s most recent statements about its nuclear posture, released in 2020, include use of such weapons in any case where Russian sovereignty is perceived to be threatened. As we’ve already seen, Putin has repeatedly spoken of “unacceptable threats” to the Russian homeland. Though these have been couched by mention of Moscow’s decision to conduct its “special military operation” to eliminate such threats, they have not been reduced in talk of the Russia’s “heroic” actions. Propaganda has already convinced large portions of the Russian people, including, no doubt, Putin’s inner circle, that the Kremlin is fighting a purely defensive war for the very survival of the Russian state.
A situation in which Russian troops are stopped and driven back to the Ukraine-Russian border and then beyond could qualify as a reason for a nuclear strike. So could a sustained series of attacks against Russian cities such as Belgorod, Kurst, and Taganrog. Borders aside, a large-scale defeat of Kremlin forces by NATO-supplied weapons, or a series of defeats of increasingly importance, crushing morale and heaping disgrace on the Russian military, could possibly invoke an endgame perception as well. It pays to keep in mind that what matters first and foremost is the Kremlin’s reading of a situation, which might vary no small measure from realistic assessment. There is also the possibility (as expressed to me by former US national security personnel), in a dragged out conflict, with his back against the wall and NATO troops having entered the conflict that Putin would choose to test NATO’s response by launching a weapon at a military target in Ukraine or an unpopulated area along the Ukraine-Russian border.
One concern that remains as a backdrop to any of these (and other) situations is a part of Russia’s nuclear posture that remains unclarified. This is the so-called “escalate to de-escalate” policy, which is neither explicitly included nor denied in published documents. The concept prescribes that a low-yield nuclear weapon could be used to halt a major defeat and to intimidate the other side to back down and not respond in kind for fear of starting a full-scale nuclear cataclysm. The idea has been invoked elsewhere, regarding the India-Pakistan rivalry, for instance, and for North Korea. It remains a serious unknown that no final statement about of this policy has appeared from any official source.
Final Interim Thoughts
We are thus left in the wilderness about the nuclear threat in the Ukraine war. Perhaps the only certainty to be derived at this point is that it would be dangerously naïve to think Putin is either too smart or too rational to ever seriously consider such a move. On the contrary, his is a mind warped enough to legitimize the indiscriminate use of advanced weapons, including cruise, ballistic, and even hypersonic missiles against apartment buildings, schools, health care facilities, and thus families, children, the ill and infirm. Assuming a leader capable of such barbarity will obey, even in the most desperate situation, the unwritten taboo against going nuclear would appear wishful at best.
There is really no telling what Putin may do should he believe he has run out of options. This could happen soon, due to major military setbacks—British military intelligence has recently estimated that Russian casualties (dead and wounded) may be as a high as a third of all combat forces. Alternately, it could occur after the war has gone on a while, progressively weakening the Russian forces while economic devastation takes a deepening toll on the nation, causing growing dissent and protest. That the U.S. and NATO have become ever more embedded in this war, providing weapons, intelligence, training, cyber-defense, and supportive rhetoric strongly supports this kind of progressive decay into desperation. Both President Biden and Secretary of Defense Austin have not been shy about stating that their own goal is to weaken Russia’s military “to a degree that it can’t do the kinds of things it has done in invading Ukraine.” This kind of statement calls up the specter of the “Pearl Harbor effect,” as some have called it—providing reasons for Russia to escalate.
In short, there is no lack of scenarios where the Kremlin might feel driven to go nuclear. At what point, we might ask, does the role of the mad king descend into true madness? From the last century and its horrors, we can say that it happens when certain myths and lies evolve into abiding truths. In this war, myth and madness have been in the air since the start.
Scott L. Montgomery is an author, geoscientist, and affiliate faculty member in the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, Seattle. He has 25 years' experience in the energy industry, where he worked on projects in many parts of the world. His many technical publications include papers, monographs, articles, and textbooks, mainly focused on cutting edge hydrocarbon plays, technologies, related impacts and issues.
Photo by George Becker