National Opinions

OPINION: Take Putin’s nuclear threat seriously, but not too seriously

Russian President Vladimir Putin has raised anew the possibility he might use nuclear weapons against Ukraine to prevail in a conflict going sideways. The smart money says he won’t, because doing so — or otherwise expanding the conflict drastically — wouldn’t make a bad situation any better.

Yet the smart money might not have predicted the choices that set Putin down this path in the first place.

Much of Putin’s televised speech Tuesday was a repetition of the familiar. He again blamed the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Ukraine for the current conflict. He restated the goal of “liberating” the Donbas region. Yet Putin did say something new: That Russia is mobilizing, albeit partially, for a long war by increasing arms production and calling up 300,000 additional troops, mostly reservists. He pledged to support referendums this week that could lead to annexation of parts of eastern Ukraine.

He also accused the West of making nuclear threats against Russia and warned that “those who are using nuclear blackmail against us should know that the wind … can turn around.”

Putin finally seems to realize how badly the war is going — which his own biases and the sycophancy of his subordinates may previously have obscured. By opting for partial mobilization, he is trying to appease hard-liners who have called for all-out war without enraging a public that is mostly apathetic. His goal, presumably, is to stem the erosion of Russia’s military position, and then use the threat of escalation to impose a diplomatic solution.

Whether this would work is another matter. Throwing poorly trained, equipped and motivated troops into the meat grinder won’t likely change the military equation. Russia doesn’t even fully control the parts of Ukraine it is threatening to annex. What it will do is raise the human costs of war for Russian society — and thus raise the political costs Putin would pay if he loses.

Using nuclear weapons to avert such a defeat has always been a possibility. Russian doctrine encompasses a willingness to use nuclear escalation to end a conventional conflict on acceptable terms. In his speech, Putin declared that Russia would use “all weapon systems available to us” if the war endangered the “territorial integrity of our country.”

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In other words, Ukraine and the U.S. must accept the loss of Crimea, which Russia already claims as its sovereign territory, and any lands Moscow annexes in Donbas, or risk nuclear conflict.

Would Putin carry through on the threat? In Washington and other Western capitals, there are two schools of thought.

Optimists believe Putin won’t use nuclear weapons because doing so wouldn’t really help him. So-called battlefield nuclear weapons work best against large masses of troops or tanks, but the fighting in Ukraine is fairly dispersed. Holding territory or cities that have just been hit with nuclear weapons isn’t an attractive proposition; the prospect that fallout might blow back into Russia makes nuclear use less alluring still.

Putin might still use nuclear weapons to reset the conflict psychologically — to shock Kyiv and Washington into de-escalation. Yet that could simply cause the U.S. and its allies to double down in Ukraine, perhaps directly entering the conflict themselves, because doing otherwise would create a horrendous precedent that revisionist powers can simply nuke their way out of failed wars.

Pessimists aren’t so sure Putin is bluffing, because using nuclear weapons might not actually backfire. Some unknown portion of the international community would become desperate to end the fighting immediately, even at the cost of making concessions to Moscow. The U.S. and its allies would have few attractive options in response.

Retaliating with limited nuclear strikes against Russian forces would risk an escalatory spiral. Entering the war with NATO conventional forces might invite additional nuclear strikes by Moscow. Non-kinetic reprisals, such as cyberattacks or more economic sanctions, would appear pathetically weak compared to the Russian offense.

Yes, using nuclear weapons would be an existential gamble for Putin. But if he was headed for a defeat that threatened his hold on power, and perhaps his life, then why not gamble big rather than end up like Moammar Gadhafi? And if Putin landed himself in his current position through a series of disastrous miscalculations, why should we expect his judgment to improve as he becomes more isolated and frightened?

It is sobering to realize that we are now in the gravest great-power nuclear crisis in a half-century. It is more sobering still to think that avoiding nuclear escalation may require Putin to show more prudence and caution in ending this war than he did in starting it.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. The Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, he is co-author, most recently, of “Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China” and a member of the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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