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How to stop Putin from popping a nuke

Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. The threat was just reiterated by Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov. Despite the catastrophic risks, would he? Suppose the latest Russian offensive in the east fails. What are Putin’s options? And what are ours?

If Putin used nuclear weapons, what would be his rationale, objectives and targets? Would a demonstration shot suffice to compel a Ukrainian surrender? Or would only destruction of a major city such as Kyiv impose enough shock and awe to force Ukraine’s capitulation?

These questions are no longer purely academic or hypothetical. Last week, when asked about Putin using nuclear weapons, CIA Director and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia William Burns’s answer was not to dismiss that possibility — a clear warning. What then would lead Putin to make this cataclysmic decision?

Assume Putin concluded that on the current trajectory, the war in Ukraine was unwinnable and a massive military mobilization was beyond Russia’s capability. Would he resort to using nuclear weapons in anger rather than in a threatening demonstration? And would he also reason that chemical weapons would not have sufficient psychological impact and could invite outside retaliation that would not risk nuclear escalation?

If he chose the nuclear option, Putin must believe that it would succeed in two ways. It would force Ukraine to surrender. And it would paralyze any response, presenting NATO with a fait accompli to which it had no acceptable alternative given the escalatory and existential risks of thermonuclear war. That would render the alliance impotent provided it was not directly attacked. And Putin must assume Russia could manage the aftermath of any nuclear attacks. 

A nuclear strike on Kyiv almost certainly would kill Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and any visiting dignitaries. Speculation was that the U.S. might send a high-level representative to Kyiv, possibly President Biden. Would that tempt Putin to retaliate against someone who condemned him as a war criminal? And would Putin be limited to using only a single nuclear weapon?

Three of NATO’s 30 members nations – the U.S., United Kingdom and France – possess nuclear weapons. Russia has a numerical advantage in non-strategic nuclear weapons of five or six to one over NATO. About 200-300 U.S.  Cold War-vintage B-61 gravity nuclear bombs are deployed in Europe. These are called “tactical,” and some argue that their use would not trigger an exchange of “strategic” nuclear weapons. That may not be a sound assumption.  

Hence, a desperate Putin could rationalize that nuclear strikes against Kyiv or a major Ukrainian city were the only means to extricate Russia from this Ukrainian quagmire. Killing a senior American could be a bonus and revenge for U.S. anti-Russian policies, although it could provoke an existential conflict. 

If Putin were familiar with history, he would understand the shock and awe value of nuclear weapons. By the summer of 1945, Japan had lost World War II. But it refused to surrender. Japan’s army practiced suicidal resistance, as did many Japanese civilians living on islands invaded by the U.S. and its allies.  

To avert millions of American and Japanese casualties if the home islands were invaded, President Truman authorized the atomic bombing of Japan. On Aug. 6, 1945, 80,000 Japanese were eviscerated in Hiroshima. Japan’s war cabinet unanimously voted to continue the war. Three days later, a second bomb destroyed Nagasaki, convincing the emperor that Japan must surrender.

As nuclear weapons ended Japan’s resistance, would a leaderless Ukraine produce the same outcome? Yet, such an outrage would be intolerable for the West. Risking Armageddon may be the only means to deter Putin from considering the use of nuclear weapons.  

In that case, NATO’s retaliation must be swift and automatic. The response should be confined to Ukraine’s borders with conventional air and missile strikes to destroy Russia’s supply lines and the Kerch Bridge across the Sea of Azov, and its deployed military forces, including those stationed in Crimea, crippling any capacity to wage war. NATO has the wherewithal to accomplish that mission.

What would happen next is unknowable. But for the first time since October 1973, when President Nixon set Defense Condition Three as a warning to prevent Soviet intervention in the Arab-Israeli War, a potentially more disastrous nuclear crisis looms. 

Make no mistake: This scenario is no longer limited to fiction, war games and movies. As provocative as it may seem just to raise the issue of Putin’s first use of nuclear weapons, NATO has no alternative. Denial is not an option. NATO needs to have a response ready now.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the primary author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and that World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

Tags NATO nuclear war Nuclear weapons Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Russia-Ukraine war Sergei Lavrov Ukraine Vladimir Putin William Burns William Burns

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