The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin threatens nuclear war. The West must deter disaster.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Moscow on Monday. (Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik/AP)

Twice recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin has raised the prospect of using nuclear weapons in the war he launched to destroy Ukraine. With Russian forces retreating in Ukraine’s Donbas region, Mr. Putin’s threats amount to desperate saber-rattling intended to frighten all. But his threats must not be brushed off completely, given Mr. Putin’s record of folly and recklessness.

What weapons are we talking about? Not the nuclear warheads carried by continent-spanning intercontinental ballistic missiles, capable of city-busting strikes with limited warning, which defined the Cold War. Rather, according to the authoritative Nuclear Notebook in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, by Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, Russia possesses 1,912 nonstrategic or tactical nuclear weapons, designed to be launched from ground-based missiles, airplanes or naval vessels. This total might include warheads that are retired or awaiting dismantlement, so the actual deployable force might be smaller. No treaty has ever limited these weapons, although in 1991, President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to voluntarily pull many of them back to warehouses.

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Opinion writers on the war in Ukraine
Post Opinions provides commentary on the war in Ukraine from columnists with expertise in foreign policy, voices on the ground in Ukraine and more.
Columnist David Ignatius covers foreign affairs. His columns have broken news on new developments around the war. He also answers questions from readers. Sign up to follow him.
Iuliia Mendel, a former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, writes guest opinions from inside Ukraine. She has written about trauma, Ukraine’s “women warriors” and what it’s like for her fiance to go off to war.
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The Russian warheads are kept in storage under the custody of the defense ministry’s 12th Main Directorate. If Mr. Putin were to deploy them, his order would be transmitted to units. Then the weapons would be released from storage onto transport by trucks or helicopters. Once deployed on delivery vehicles — say, missiles or airplanes — Mr. Putin would have to issue a direct order to use them. Each step might be detected and provide the United States and its allies time to react. Early warning would — and should — trigger intense diplomatic and other pressure on Mr. Putin to stop before setting off a nuclear catastrophe. Preparing to exploit this warning is the best defense against disaster. No doubt, Mr. Putin might want to play out such a deployment to ratchet up the pressure. But in so doing, he would escalate the risk of error or miscalculation. Nuclear gamesmanship toys with existential danger.

A nuclear blast in Ukraine, even low-yield, would kill civilians as well as soldiers and contaminate Russia, Ukraine and beyond. President Biden has properly warned of severe consequences, and Mr. Putin would be wise to listen. Former CIA director and retired Gen. David H. Petraeus suggested incautiously on Sunday that NATO should launch a massive conventional — that is, nonnuclear — military response, including sinking Russia’s Black Sea fleet, if the Kremlin used a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine. This appears to be a recipe for wider war with Russia. Far better to stop Mr. Putin before the cataclysm.

In 1962, the world stood at the brink when the Soviet Union deployed nuclear warheads on missiles in Cuba, then stood down and took them home. Mr. Putin is getting closer to the peril of those momentous days. He flirts with a dance of death. The only sane thing to do is stand down and end this needless war.

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