Putin’s nuclear risk: The stability that characterized the Cold War stand-off may no longer exist
In the tsunami of condemnation, analysis, and commentary that has engulfed the world since Russia invaded Ukraine, the existential threat of nuclear war has received far too little attention. By putting his forces on high alert and making inflammatory statements, Putin has raised the nuclear threat level and alarmed the world.
If Russia succeeds in conquering Ukraine, continuing Western support for Ukrainian guerrillas could result in direct conflict between Russia and NATO. In such a conflict, the norm against using nuclear weapons tactically risks getting violated, particularly if it goes badly for Russia, as it probably would. Russia has an explicit doctrine of escalating to de-escalate, which translates into using nuclear weapons first if it is losing a war and feels the future of the Russian State is at stake.
The stability that characterized the very cautious nuclear stand-off between the West and the Soviet Union during the Cold War may no longer exist.
Now the decision to use nuclear weapons — and therefore the fate of the world — may rest in Putin’s hands. Much like the President of the United States, he controls Russia’s arsenal of over 4,500 nuclear warheads, and can order the launch of a significant portion of it without consulting Russia’s leadership.
The first central question is whether Putin would do so if he were cornered. That would come down to his personality and intentions, and what we know about them isn’t encouraging.
He tells the story of how as a boy, he chased rats in the stairwell of his drab Soviet-era apartment building (in itself a concerning clue to what motivates him). When he finally cornered a rat, it sprang out and wildly attacked him. Putin said he learned that day how dangerous a cornered rat can be. But if the Ukraine conflict doesn’t go his way, Putin could be in the rat’s position, and that’s a troubling analogy. If the invasion of Ukraine fails or gets bogged down, as it appears to be — or if his leadership of Russia (and possibly his life) were threatened — he might become even more dangerous than he is now.
The next question is whether Russian commanders would obey him if he ordered a nuclear weapons launch. It is unclear how automatic the Russian launch procedure is, and it’s unknown whether Russia’s military would act on a launch order.
But consider this: Russia has five Delta IV-class submarines and five Borei class submarines more modern than the Deltas. A single Borei submarine is armed with 16 RSM-56 Bulava MIRV (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle) nuclear missiles, with warheads in the 100-150 kiloton range (10 – 20 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb). If a commander of just one of those subs obeyed Putin’s launch order, it could destroy between 64 and 96 cities. How likely is it that the commanders of all 10 would disobey?
Assuming one or more of them obeyed, retaliation from U.S. submarines with weapons of similar destructive capacity would be certain. Regardless of which country launched them, it would take fewer than 150 warheads to release enough toxic soot into the stratosphere to fatally impair global agriculture, killing billions of people.
Even if the chances of Putin using nuclear weapons are less than 1 percent, it poses a grave existential threat to the future of mankind.
Nobody would board an airliner if it had a 1 percent chance of crashing and killing the passengers aboard. How should we weigh the odds of a nuclear exchange that might kill billions?
It doesn’t bear contemplating. That’s why the wisest minds from the world’s leading powers, including China, must quickly forge agreement on clear and effective actions to end the conflict in Ukraine. This may require very distasteful measures that allow the rat to escape. And the escape must be engineered in such a way that the rat is never again cornered and tempted to resort to nuclear weapons.
If we succeed in defusing the current crisis, the world should then give overriding priority to ridding itself, once and for all, of these dreadful weapons. If there is one thing the war in Ukraine has made clear, it’s the direct threat that nuclear weapons themselves pose to the security and sustainability of the human enterprise. They are simply too hazardous, the Doomsday clock is too close to midnight, and the odds of cataclysm are unacceptably high.
Nuclear weapons put us at existential risk even while they remain unused. They’re a kind of threat multiplier. Our future depends on intense cooperation to achieve human security in the face of climate change, global pandemics, and other serious threats. Yet nothing undermines cooperation more than the threat of nuclear weapons. We must build a future without them for humanity to have a future at all.
Ambassador David Steward is chairperson of the FW deKlerk Foundation, former Ambassador of South Africa to the United Nations, and former chief of staff to South African President FW deKlerk, the only president to dismantle a nuclear arsenal developed by his own nation.
Jonathan Granoff is president of the Global Security Institute and representative to the United Nations of the Permanent Secretariat of the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. He chairs the Task Force on Nuclear Nonproliferation of the International Law Section of the American Bar Association, and he is a fellow of the World Academy of Arts and Science. He has testified as an expert before the U.S. Congress, United Nations, Canadian Parliament and U.K. Parliament. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.