Can Russia’s use of a nuclear weapon in the Ukraine war be prevented?
by Mel Gurtov
President Biden surprised his top advisers along with everyone else when, at a fundraising event, he referred to “Armageddon” in the Ukraine war: Russia’s possible use of a nuclear weapon. Though US officials were quick to stress that they knew of no imminent threat by Russia, Biden’s remark underscored recent reports suggesting deepening US concern about what Putin might do as Russian forces retreat in eastern and southern Ukraine.
The remark also was in response to Putin’s increasingly frequent allusions to nuclear weapons, such as on September 21 when he said: “If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will without doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff.”
Biden said: “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis. I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”
Putin may not agree, however.
Nuclear weapons experts point to any number of “limited” nuclear-weapon use available to Putin—for example, a “nuclear display,” such as a strike on a nuclear power plant or a high-altitude detonation; or a targeted attack, such as on a Ukrainian military base or a single city.
CNN reports that in direct communications between Washington and Moscow in the last several weeks, Putin has been told about “the scale of the US response” should he use a nuclear weapon in the war. Other sources indicate that the “scale” would be within the range of conventional weapons, presumably in order to reduce the chance of escalation to the nuclear level. How Putin would react to a NATO counterattack with conventional weapons is anybody’s guess, since conventional weapons these days can be as destructive as some nuclear devices.
The Elusive Off-Ramp
The threat to use a tactical nuclear weapon is just one of the ways this crisis differs from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis—and makes this one even more difficult to negotiate a way out. The earlier crisis occurred because the Russians deployed long-range missiles in Cuba to correct the huge imbalance in US-Soviet strategic nuclear forces—the infamous “missile gap” that actually favored the US.
Kennedy and Khrushchev were able to craft a deal for the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba because a face-saving trade was available—US missiles removed from Turkey in exchange. The equivalent trade that might take place today—involving occupied territory—is rejected by Putin and (with US support) Zelensky.
Moreover, in 1962 Moscow and Washington were equally determined not to escalate to a nuclear showdown. They looked for a diplomatic off-ramp, and found one. Vladimir Putin isn’t looking; he’s convinced that Ukraine must be expunged or at least greatly diminished, and he evidently sees that as a way to weaken the West.
Two questions arise here: First, are there any sanctions and use of force that would persuade Putin to back down; second, what alternative to war is being put before him? Biden’s comments about an inability to identify an off-ramp–“We are trying to figure out, what is Putin’s off-ramp? Where does he find a way out? Where does he find himself where he does not only lose face but significant power?”—particularly as Putin’s military assault flails—suggest no exit.
So we have a real conundrum for policy makers: Putin’s determination to wipe out Ukraine and avoid defeat might lead him to use a nuclear weapon, the West wants to avoid a nuclear response if he does, and no diplomatic off-ramp has yet to be discovered. What, then, can deter Putin?
Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, has laid out five courses of action that might stop Putin from using a nuclear weapon. They are making regime change in Moscow the war aim, strengthening Western resolve (including bringing Ukraine into NATO), mobilizing public opinion to win the war, gaining India’s and China’s support or cutting their ties to the West if they refuse, and taking “active and visible preparations for credible conventional strikes against important Russian assets.”
Let’s briefly evaluate these ideas.
Regime change seems far more likely to provoke Putin than deter him, since it threatens his and his inner circle’s survival.
Offering Ukraine membership in NATO only strengthens Putin’s resolve to keep fighting. Public opinion is always iffy, and may not be something to count on if all-out war is a possibility.
Little can be expected of China and India, considering their weak, rather pathetic expressions of “concern” about Putin’s war.
Finally, and most critically, striking Russian bases, troops, or war industries means accepting the possibility that Putin, far from being deterred, will strike back at targets in the heart of Europe, bringing Russia and NATO into direct conflict.
None of these steps, moreover, offers Putin an off-ramp. Far from containing a diplomatic option, they amount to a game of chicken—the sort of game played several times during the Cold War. We survived those games, more by sheer luck than cleverness.
If Mr. Bildt’s idea represents the best thinking in Western elite circles, I suggest it is a recipe for World War III.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.