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Putin’s Nuclear Threat

Posted on Tuesday, March 8, 2022
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by AMAC, Robert B. Charles
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12 Comments
Ukraine

Last week, Russia’s President Putin “dramatically escalated East-West tensions by ordering Russian nuclear forces … on high alert,” while conducting “peace talks.” The nuclear alert was announced on the pretense that NATO made “aggressive statements.” So, what is really happening? Putin is running out of options, but nuclear weapons are a lose-lose he will not choose. See, e.g., Putin puts nuclear forces on high alert, escalating tension.

On one hand, announcing possible use of tactical nuclear weapons is a frightening prospect, especially since a nuclear weapon has not been used since WWII, and even then, it was devastating. All prevailing norms are against it.  Intentionally or accidentally using one would change everything.

Many think Putin is reacting to unexpected operational failure, his inability to take Ukraine in hours, or a day or two.  The idea is that, to his chagrin, either his intelligence was wrong about the Ukrainian resistance, or Army moral, equipment, supply lines, or leadership are flawed.

This has led the world to unify, condemning violations of international law, human rights, and basic decency. He has been killing more innocents, destroying epic cities, and creating a wave of refugees. All this erodes his credibility, brings double condemnation on Russia’s military.

Sudden reference to nuclear weapons is, according to some analysts, meant to shake the ground on which civilized people stand.  The idea is to utter the unutterable, in this way cause all to pause, allowing him and his underperforming Army to walk in, turning off the insurgency.

That could be his plan, or not. If there is logic to the invasion, it is Putin’s logic – not the standard variety of rational reasoning. Putin’s logic is infected by historic fear of peripheral threats, nostalgia for the Soviet Union, time in the KGB, and maybe a sense that “only he” can retrieve for Greater Russia lost lands.

His logic may extend elsewhere. The Soviets had a doctrine roughly described as “escalate to de-escalate,” roughly controlled escalation, in effect pushing risks on an adversary, causing the adversary to pull back.

So, in the 2015 and 2016 timeframe, Russia put S-400 and S-500 anti-air missiles in Syria. Why?  Terrorists did not have planes. The idea was to raise risk for America, also flying missions – force Obama to imagine a shootdown of an American plane by Russia, big incident.

Putin knew the Western tolerance for risk under Obama was low. He calculated the concept of a potential head-to-head conflict with Russia, especially as America faced costs in Iraq and Afghanistan, would be high – too high, in a cost-benefit assessment, to keep flying.

He was right. He escalated perceived risk and the West – led by Obama – backed down.  Likely he looks at Obama’s cognitively challenged vice president as weaker still. So, he decides to raise the risk for the West.

How do you do that, when you have thrown your conventional force at Ukraine, and stumbled?  You threaten use of tactical nuclear weapons, a threat repeated until the West is convinced Putin is either serious or a madman, or both.

In game theory, Putin is just applying what he has learned. He has learned that the West today -unlike the past – quivers at high-cost conflicts, international incidents, real war.  A credible threat might be all he needs to win.

Problem is he may have miscalculated again, in this post-Ukraine invasion moment.  NATO and the West are unified, determined to turn back this aggression, and Putin loses credibility every day.  Even the threat of nuclear weapons on a battlefield, is hard to sustain against a united West.

Is Putin likely bluffing? Yes, probably. Could he be trying to use “escalate to deescalate,” raising perceived risk until the West pulls back?  Yes, but Ukrainians and others may not stand down.

Could Putin be aiming for something else, a misperceived show of strength that he thinks comes with daring to subvert the established order, becoming only the second country ever to use nuclear weapons – perhaps a small show, to assert willingness? Maybe, but downsides are huge.

If he did that, he loses all international credibility – no moral ground left to stand on. Every country in the world, perhaps minus Iran and North Korea might back away.  Even China might find that step too far, pull back from fear of Western reprisals for aligning with the newly intolerable Russian rogue.

And the effect on Russia’s economy would be catastrophic, his hold on power made tenuous by questions of him by both the population and his own military, perhaps even his inner circle.

No one benefits from use of a nuclear weapon, even “small,” even battlefield, even one in number, even with minimal human carnage.  So, bottom line:  Putin is struggling to show his nation has status, the ability to operate effectively in a battlespace close at hand, a land once part of Russia.

He is stumbling. He may repeat big threats, trying to create fear and risk intolerable to the West, but the bigger likelihood is that the West is not going to be walked back from support for Ukraine, that his own military is not interested in nuclear weapons on the battlefield, he is not interested in opening that can of worms, and he will never resort to such a move.

The big problem for Putin is that, like his Ukraine-based Army’s faltering morale, equipment, training, supply lines, intelligence, and battlefield gains, his doctrine is outdated, and lacks traction.  At the same time, he knows: Putin is running out of options for victory, but nuclear weapons are a lose-lose he will not choose.

Could Putin be a madman, willing to risk all for a few more miles of ground, satisfaction of ego, some messianic inner ticker that says, “take it all, risk it all?”  Possibly, but not likely.  His next act is inclined to be power consolidation, declaring victory upon securing a few Ukrainian cities, then a diplomatic out.

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PaulE
PaulE
2 years ago

Putin will NOT use tactical, battlefield nuclear weapons in Ukraine, because it would defeat the purpose he is trying to achieve of reassembling the old countries that formed the Soviet Union. He wants the country basically functional, although completely under his control, to add to his wealth and power. A heavily contaminated Ukraine would provide neither. It is a bluff to hold off the other former Soviet states from providing more direct in-country support to Ukraine.

Right now, the strategy Putin seems to be pursuing is one of attrition against the Ukrainian people. He seems to be betting that he can wear down the Ukrainian people, via starving them and having them exhaust their supplies of the weapons, into coming to the table and surrendering on his terms. It may take weeks or even months, but that seems to be the current strategy. Looking at the latest outline of what Putin demands for a supposed halt in fighting. It is essentially a unilateral surrender proposal for the Ukrainians, which is a non-starter.

Charles Nolan
Charles Nolan
2 years ago

Putin has proven that he is a sociopath with no human feelings. As Putin sees his legacy crumbling around him, will he act like a bank robber surrounded by police? Will Vlad the Terrible, Putin, commit nuclear suicide, taking many of his enemies with him? Will the Russian general staff carry an order to use nuclear weapons, knowing that it will end Russia as a nation?

Richard Minetti
Richard Minetti
2 years ago

That SOB Putin better understand that our nukes are programmed to automatically retaliate in the event Putin uses any!! Or anyone else for that matter!!!

PaulE
PaulE
2 years ago

Putin will NOT use tactical, battlefield nuclear weapons in Ukraine, because it would defeat the purpose he is trying to achieve of reassembling the old countries that formed the Soviet Union. He wants the country basically functional, although completely under his control, to add to his wealth and power. A heavily contaminated Ukraine would provide neither. It is a bluff to hold off the other former Soviet states from providing more direct in-country support to Ukraine.

Right now, the strategy Putin seems to be pursuing is one of attrition against the Ukrainian people. He seems to be betting that he can wear down the Ukrainian people, via starving them and having them exhaust their supplies of the weapons, into coming to the table and surrendering on his terms. It may take weeks or even months, but that seems to be the current strategy. Looking at the latest outline of what Putin demands for a supposed halt in fighting. It is essentially a unilateral surrender proposal for the Ukrainians, which is a non-starter.

Charles Nolan
Charles Nolan
2 years ago

Putin has proven that he is a sociopath with no human feelings. As Putin sees his legacy crumbling around him, will he act like a bank robber surrounded by police? Will Vlad the Terrible, Putin, commit nuclear suicide, taking many of his enemies with him? Will the Russian general staff carry an order to use nuclear weapons, knowing that it will end Russia as a nation?

Richard Minetti
Richard Minetti
2 years ago

That SOB Putin better understand that our nukes are programmed to automatically retaliate in the event Putin uses any!! Or anyone else for that matter!!!

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