06 October 2022

Putin's nuclear saber-rattling

As the Ukrainian counter-offensives in the Kharkiv and Kherson areas have liberated substantial territory from Russian occupation, Putin's rhetoric has escalated.  In particular, there have been hints about possible use of tactical nuclear weapons.  How worried should we be about this?

First, it's possible that such threats are meant purely as intimidation, although it's not clear exactly what Putin thinks this will accomplish.  If he was hoping that Ukraine would be scared into halting its efforts to recover its territory, he's been disappointed.  (Nor was that aim served by the Russian "annexation" of occupied regions of Ukraine, which the Ukrainians have essentially ignored, proceeding with their military operations regardless.)  But Putin has a history of using threats even when it seems obvious they'll be counterproductive.  When Finland and Sweden started talking about joining NATO, he growled menacingly at them even though this merely exacerbated the fear of Russia that had pushed them into wanting to join in the first place.  As I've pointed out before, Russia has nothing positive to offer other countries, so threats are its only tool for influencing their behavior, and it uses them even when a neutral observer could predict they would backfire.

So the nuclear saber-rattling could be just an empty threat.  But what if it's meant seriously?

To dispose of one obvious point:  since March, Putin has said that he would use nuclear weapons in case of an "existential threat" to Russia.  But that's nothing new -- it's the standard which every nuclear-armed country applies.  The US would use nuclear weapons if needed to defeat a threat to its own existence.  So would the UK or France.  Since Israel developed its nuclear weapons, it has been understood that their full fury would be unleashed if Muslim states continued serious efforts to destroy Israel as an independent nation.  This is simply the unwritten rule everybody recognizes.  Once a country has an effective nuclear arsenal, any serious threat to that country's territory and population is off the table.  If another country invaded Russia or tried to destroy it, Russia would have every right to go nuclear in response, but no country is seriously considering such a course.

So the question is whether Putin is likely to go beyond the normal and legitimate brandishing of nuclear weapons as a deterrent, and use them to further what everybody knows is a war of aggression and expansion.  There are, I think, four reasons why he probably won't.

1) Western retaliation.  Biden has stated that if Putin used a tactical nuclear bomb in Ukraine, NATO would inflict a devastating response.  It's not clear what kind of response he has in mind, though there have been hints that this has been conveyed in detail to the Putin regime behind closed doors.  General Petraeus has suggested that it might include the total annihilation of all Russian military forces in Ukraine, which NATO is certainly capable of doing.  This would of course mean direct NATO-Russia conflict, a very dangerous situation; but if Putin goes nuclear, NATO leaders might well feel that it could no longer be avoided.  If radioactive fallout from a Russian bomb reached any of the NATO countries on Ukraine's western border, this might be taken as an attack on NATO in any case.

2) Ineffectiveness.  It's not clear that Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons would induce Ukraine to surrender or give up its efforts to recover occupied territory, especially since NATO might then enter the war on its side.  If used on the battlefield, the bombs might do more harm to Russian forces than to their opponents, and there would be serious risk of fallout reaching Russia, since the areas of fighting are close to the border.  If used on cities, they would enrage Ukraine, and the West, all the more.

3) Risk of embarrassment.  The war has revealed that Russia's military equipment has been shockingly ill-maintained, rendering much of it barely-functional junk when it actually needs to be used.  Is Russia's nuclear arsenal in equally-bad shape?  Probably no one, not even Putin, knows for sure.  If Putin deployed a nuclear bomb in Ukraine and it failed to detonate or otherwise malfunctioned, the last ragged remnant of Russia's pretense to great-power status would lose much credibility.  The same questions hover over Russia's strategic nuclear forces.  Even in the event of an all-out war with NATO, can Putin be sure most of his missiles would reach their targets and detonate?  Because he can be sure ours would.

4) Risk to the regime.  Cartoons notwithstanding, Putin does not have an actual red button on his desk that would directly launch a nuclear bomb.  He would have to give orders, which would be carried out by others.  Those others, and the Russian military leadership, would then face a choice:  obey, and risk an escalation to all-out war with NATO which would destroy Russia, or disobey and remove the megalomaniac whose increasingly crazed behavior had brought them to this pass?  You can be sure they have already been thinking hard about what to do if such a situation arises.  How confident can Putin be of which way they would jump?

From Putin's point of view, threatening to use nuclear weapons has some appeal, but actually using them offers huge risks and little gain.  I'd also note that Western governments, which have access to far better intelligence about what's really going on or likely to happen than the rest of us do, seem unimpressed by Putin's threats.  None have dialed back their support for Ukraine in response.  So while no one knows the future for certain, I'd judge a nuclear escalation to be unlikely.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The issue of course is that Putin is speaking with the assumption that everything from the Iron Curtain to the Bering Strait (and possibly Russian America?) is Russia. When speaking from an RT propaganda perspective, the phrase "existential threat" becomes much greater.

Of course, no one else seriously considers Putin's position as more than just classic imperialist irredentism.

I would be careful not to have too much faith in institutions. Autocrats take over institutions first, Very Serious People happily pleasing the new consensus.

06 October, 2022 06:24  
Anonymous NickM said...

I dunno. I was thinking about this in the shower before I read your piece and... Whilst your point about existential threats is very true about rational players of the game (I've played Sid Meier's Civ series a lot for more time than I like to recall) is Putin rational? This is His Crusade. This is the capstone of his regime. This is a Holy War for him. This is what happens when you're in power too long. This is why you guys over the Atlantic have term limits. Very Smart Move in my book. Even if you have a leader who starts out with the best of intentions, like milk, they go sour. Now if you start with an utter cunt (former KGB!) we wind-up with the current clusterfuck.

Let's go back to "existential". No. There is no rationally conceivable existential threat to Russia but whilst you see that non-existence, and I do, Pres Zelensky does... Does Putin? Losing this war (and if Ukrainian forces retake Crimea there is no way Putin can spin his way out of this being a spectacular defeat for Russia). My point is such a loss would be an existential threat to Putin (failed Russian leaders rarely go back to their dacha to write their memoirs) and perhaps also to Putin's frankly messianic view of Russia*. I could see him using nukes (and not tactically) either because he thinks NATO doesn't have the heart or stomach for the fight and nuking, I dunno, Birmingham being flattened, would cause us to give-up. Or, he just tries the full-on "Samson Option". As Tom Lehrer put it, "We'll all go together when we go". He's that much of an abysmal cunt that he might just wanna smash the global board because he can't win the game.

I think you may be right that it will come down to some generals handing Putin a bottle of Stolichnaya and a loaded Makarov... Though apparently Stoli want nothing to do with Putin - we have yet to hear from Makarov... That's if they ordered to fire the nukes in some ghastly Armageddon.

*My wife is English but has a degree in Russian and translates it into English for a living. She knows Russian culture rather well and there are aspects of Russian "exceptionalism" which make British or US bombast sound kinda muted... Russia is on a Mission From God (like the Blues Brothers though a lot less funny) to save the Entire World from Itself. Seriously. I know my country well and yours quite well but that astonished me. Not even the French can be that narcisistic - though they try, bless 'em.

PS. Apparently the Ukrainians have set-up a free phone number aimed at Russian conscripts giving details of how to surrender. It has proven quite popular. It's called "I want to live". I mean would you die for the lost cause of a deranged Pound-Shop Sauron with a comb-over?

06 October, 2022 10:53  
Blogger SickoRicko said...

I hope you're right.

06 October, 2022 10:53  
Anonymous NickM said...

Oh, and HMS Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant and Vengeance all carry "Letters of Last Resort and Retaliation". And we co-ordinate with the French and the USA.

06 October, 2022 11:20  
Blogger Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Off topic - is anyone having problems w Blogger? I can't seem to get it to take an image for a post (even old ones). Also some of teh controls on Goggle earth seemed frozen.

06 October, 2022 13:38  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Anon: Everyone, including Putin, knows where Russia's actual borders are. As I've pointed out before, nobody even takes the "annexation" of Crimea seriously. Not even Russia reacts to Ukrainian attacks there the way they would react to attacks on actual Russian territory.

NickM: It's hard to say to what extent Putin is actually irrational and to what extent he's trying to appear that way to keep his opponents nervous.

The "existential threat" paragraph is very peripheral to my main point. Its sole purpose is to remind everyone that that particular threat is nothing new, merely a restatement of an existing doctrine which everybody already knows and accepts.

I think a coup becomes steadily more likely as Putin's bluster and (apparent) irrationality escalate. The Russian leadership as a whole does not want to risk Russia being obliterated.

Ricko: Well, I stated my supporting reasoning.

Pliny: I have not noticed any problems with image loading, but the most recent time I tried was this morning (with this post). There have definitely been some problems with comments, so maybe there's a broader system problem.

I prefer that people not use my comment threads for off-topic issues. Thanks.

06 October, 2022 17:24  
Anonymous Reaganite Independent said...

There is indeed doubt whether Russian generals and admirals would carry out a nuclear order. They’re not in the same situation personally as Putin is, and are likely thinking a bit more rationally/long-term.

Last week Garry Kasparov said that in his opinion commanders would NOT obey such an order— cuz “they know the Tomahawks would arrive in a few minutes” if they did

And the condition of ALL their equipment is suspect, maintenance is skipped, funds stolen. I’m sure that’s why we’re not seeing their Air Force, the planes don’t fly. I remember reading about 10 years ago that none of their MiG 29s were airworthy, they’d been sitting there gathering dust since the Soviet Union collapsed

And most people in Russia expected the nukes NEVER to be utilized… so you can almost guarantee they’re not well-maintained, especially the battlefield variety

10 October, 2022 02:53  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

It makes sense that there would be a lot of resistance to carrying out a nuclear order. They know that would be the big one. The very survival of Russia might depend on their refusing.

Russia just seems too backward and decrepit to be a real superpower any more. The corruption and corner-cutting endemic to dictatorships is exactly what I had in mind. Even the regime has no way of knowing how much maintenance is actually being done on anything.

10 October, 2022 19:55  
Anonymous Reaganite Independent said...

Agreed on all points. Although if anybody would fire a nuke for Putin, I guess that would be this Surovikin- sounds reckless and unprincipled to the extreme

11 October, 2022 01:41  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, Putin may understand the borders, but he needs the propaganda...because even as despots go he's third-rate and really needs a W to keep his head out of the noose.

11 October, 2022 05:32  

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