We must assume that a man like Vladimir Putin is capable of anything, even the use of nuclear weapons. The Russian President has made abundantly clear that human life is worth nothing to him unless it’s his own. And there are scenarios in which he might diabolically calculate that launching one or more nukes could keep him in power and save his skin from him.
That’s because we’ve entered a world that, in strategic terms, resembles Europe in the volatile early years of the Cold War more than during its relatively stable later stages. The effect is to scrap old notions of deterrence and raise the risk of accidental nuclear Armageddon.
In the years following World War II, the US knew that its forces in western Europe were inferior to the Soviet Union’s and probably wouldn’t withstand its onslaught. To compensate, the Americans stationed comparatively low-yield (but of course still unimaginably devastating) nuclear warheads on the soil of European allies. The message was that, in case of a Soviet attack, NATO might drop a few of these on the battlefield to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
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But as the nuclear arms race progressed, the Soviet Union caught up and “strategic” weapons became more prominent. These are larger bombs that can be launched, for example, on intercontinental missiles from the homeland of one side against that of the other. They would take out entire cities at a time.
Apocalyptic as it sounds, this balance of terror has so far saved us from nuclear war. In one metaphor, West and East were personified by two people standing in the same room, up to their waists in gasoline. Each had some number of matches. But neither lit up, because both would go up in flames. Appropriately, this stalemate was called Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).
In the two decades during which Putin has ruled Russia, however, the strategic big picture has changed yet again. In a sense, it has reverted to the situation just after World War II, but with the roles reversed.
Now it is Russia that suspects its army is inferior to NATO’s in a conventional war. Therefore, it is Putin who’s compensating for that weakness by threatening the use of tactical nukes to win battles or wars that initially aren’t going well for him. Rather oxymoronically, this approach is called “escalate to de-escalate.”
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For that purpose, Russia — which is roughly even with the US in strategic nukes — has gained an edge of 10:1 in tactical weapons. It has roughly 2,000; America has only about 200, half of which are stationed in Europe.
Putin has already hinted several times that he might dip into his prodigious arsenal if NATO were to cross his red lines. And because he confuses his own fate with his country’s, he’s apt to interpret any threat of personal humiliation or regime change in Moscow as such a line.
Say the Ukrainians — who are fighting heroically against the surprisingly incompetent Russian invaders — come close to winning. Or that a hypersonic Russian missile strays into Poland, a NATO member. Or that the West delivers weapons to Ukraine that could tilt the war. Any of these twists could make Putin fear his imminent demise — and escalate.
His first strike would demonstrate intent. He could drop a low-yield bomb on an empty forest or the open sea, just to show he means business. As a next step, he could nuke a specific enemy weapons depot, army base or battalion — in any case, not yet an entire city. The variable yields of tactical warheads make such fine-tuning possible — you can play with scenarios on this Nukemap.
Putin would thereby signal his determination to go all the way, gambling that the US and its allies will not retaliate in kind. In his mind, he’d be calling the West’s bluff. Cold War leaders on both sides knew they couldn’t win a nuclear war. If Putin ever launches, it’s because he reckons he can.
But would he? NATO, and especially the US, must now prepare for harrowing decisions after a Russian first strike. Should the West detonate its own low-yield nuke, to show resolve? Where would both sides go from there?
Once these weapons — the deadliest in all of human history no matter their yield — start going off, the risk of misunderstandings, errors, and accidents soars. A “limited” strike by one side will still feel cataclysmic to the other. And the missiles fly so fast, the other side would have only minutes to respond. The temptation to “use it or lose it” would rise.
Long before the nuclear age, a bookish Prussian officer who’d witnessed the Napoleonic battles opined “On War.” Carl von Clausewitz grasped the inherent tension between generals trying to keep war limited and war wanting to become absolute, ending in the total destruction of one or all parties.
The imperative, Clausewitz concluded, is to always align tactics and strategy. “War is nothing but the continuation of politics with other means,” he wrote in his most famous (and often misunderstood) phrase about him. He meant you must only fight the kind of war that makes the ensuing peace tolerable. Let’s pray there are people left in Moscow who understand that.