The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin tears at the fabric of nuclear restraint. Words are dangerous, too.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Friday. (Gavriil Grigorov/AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin will probably not drop an atomic bomb on Ukraine, if only because doing so would prove exceptionally costly for Russia and the world. But his words have consequences, and in threatening to use nuclear weapons, reaching for shock effect, Mr. Putin is venturing into extreme recklessness.

Russia possesses up to 2,000 nonstrategic or tactical nuclear weapons, mostly designed for relatively short-range use on a battlefield or for defensive systems. Bombs to be dropped from planes and warheads for missiles are held in reserve, in central storage depots, on which the United States presumably keeps close watch. These tactical nuclear weapons have never been limited by treaty. As for longer-range weapons, the New START accord between Russia and the United States limits each to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads.

Without any doubt, the use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine would create a humanitarian cataclysm. As Paul Craig and John Jungerman noted in a history of the arms race, “The overwhelming fact of the nuclear fire is that it is more powerful by a factor of 10 million to 100 million than chemical fires,” such as those in conventional weapons. The blast, heat and radiation from a nuclear bomb could easily spread beyond Ukraine to endanger lives in Russia and elsewhere. This grim prospect of blowback might restrain Mr. Putin, if he is thinking rationally. Also, Mr. Putin cannot simply launch nuclear weapons with the push of a button; there are other people, including the defense leadership, involved in the process. There are no military gains to be had from a nuclear attack that indiscriminately incinerates everything in its path and leaves the land uninhabitable. At the same time, Russia’s military and security forces have so far apparently not slowed Mr. Putin’s disastrous war adventure.

Even if Russia is not likely to use a nuclear weapon, Mr. Putin’s threats are disquieting and irresponsible. An atomic bomb has not been used in combat since 1945. One reason: deterrence, the “cocked pistols” confrontation of the superpowers. These mountains of nuclear warheads were eventually reduced as the Cold War ended, but historian Nina Tannenwald has shown that beyond deterrence, the utter destructive nature of nuclear weapons reinforced a powerful taboo — a revulsion — against actual military use. The frightening experience of the Cuban missile crisis and periodic false alarms throughout the nuclear age no doubt deepened the taboo. Russia’s latest nuclear deterrence principles, approved by Mr. Putin in 2020, say cautiously that a nuclear weapon can be used only if the country is under nuclear attack or “the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” Mr. Putin now jumps beyond this, threatening to use nuclear weapons “in the event of a threat to the territorial integrity” of the nation while attempting to draw new borders by force.

Mr. Putin is straining the fabric of the nuclear taboo. Bluff or not, he escalates danger for all. The Biden administration is right to deliver private warnings to Mr. Putin of grave consequences for nuclear use. Mr. Putin should remember the wise words of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Associate Editor Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).