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Why Putin’s nuclear threat could be more than bluster

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The scariest site on the Internet isn’t lurking on the dark web, but hiding in plain sight at nuclearsecrecy.com. “Nukemap” lets you pick the size of a nuclear bomb, plunk it anywhere in the world and see the extent of the possible destruction. Drop a pin near Kyiv and you’ll see the plausibility of the Russian invasion of Ukraine going nuclear.

Not because of the vast devastation of such a device — but because of just how limited the damage could be in certain scenarios.

The advent of tactical nuclear weapons — a term generally applied to lower-yield devices designed for battlefield use, which can have a fraction of the strength of the Hiroshima bomb — reduced their lethality, limiting the extent of absolute destruction and deadly radiation fields. That’s also made their use less unthinkable, raising the specter that the Russians could opt to use a smaller device without leveling an entire city. Detonate a one kiloton weapon on one side of Kyiv’s Zhuliany airport, for instance, and Russian President Vladimir Putin sends a next-level message with a fireball, shock waves and deadly radiation. But the blast radius wouldn’t reach the end of the runway.

The Russians are thought to have roughly 2,000 such weapons — some so small as to be attached to torpedoes, depth charges, or even artillery shells and land mines. The world might reel in horror at nuclear deployment of any size. But, if boxed into the right kind of corner, some argue, Putin could use one in Ukraine without necessarily triggering World War III.

Putin has already raised the alert level of Moscow’s nuclear forces. Washington has downplayed the prospect of Russian nuclear deployment, suggesting it’s just Kremlin bluster. But on Monday, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres articulated a dangerous truth: “The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility,” he told reporters.

Plenty of observers believe Putin would not risk even a low-grade nuclear attack. Doing so could trigger deeper sanctions than the ones already crippling the Russian economy, increase war opposition at home, negatively impact his all-important alliance with the Chinese and change perceptions in nations still hedging their bets with Russia, including India, Brazil and South Africa.

Many in the West have questioned Putin’s state of mind. But a number of experts — including the director of the CIA — appear to have determined he remains more or less within the parameter of sanity. They estimate him, however, to be isolated and angry — conditions that could rapidly escalate as the Russian army makes far less progress than the Kremlin likely calculated.

Still, this might not be a question of sanity, but perspective. As Michael Gove, a senior British official, reasoned this week, Putin dwells in a “moral sphere the rest of us would find almost impossible to conceive of.”

Talk to Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and it only adds to the jitters of simulating nuclear strikes on the Nukemap site. He told me this week that he finds the highest risk of Putin deploying a low-yield nuclear device if the against-the-odds resistance in Ukraine shifts toward triumph, and Moscow is seen to be decisively losing the war.

“I find it hard to imagine Putin accepting a complete military defeat without him trying to use nuclear weapons first,” Kroenig said. “I think he sees limited nuclear use as more attractive than accepting defeat.”

He suggested if Putin went nuclear, he would almost certainly deploy a low-yield weapon with a narrow target. That would fit with what some experts view as a Russian military strategy of escalate to de-escalate — or bringing a crisis to dramatic climax to force a settlement with the West that leans toward Russian terms.

“They could nuke a ship in the Black Sea, they could nuke a Ukrainian airplane, they could nuke tanks on the ground,” he continued. “They could nuke a small city, although that is probably less likely, and it’s less escalatory to go after a military target than a civilian one.”

“But the message in the West would be, ‘Oh my God, he’s just used a nuclear weapon.’ I mean, at least that’s what Putin would be hoping for. That we’d say, ‘this has gone too far. We’ve got to sue for peace,’ ” he said.

The risk is higher than the West might think, some experts say. In the mind-set of Putin’s government, a nuclear option may not seem as taboo as it does to Western observers. During his 2018 state of the nation address, Putin, to loud applause, aired a concept video showing a storm of hypersonic, unlimited range nuclear missiles raining down on Florida.

The West might see nuclear deployment as unimaginable; that such weapons exist only for deterrent. But “I don’t think it’s so unimaginable for Putin and for the Russians,” Kroenig said. “I do think that there’s a big cultural difference here. The Russians often finish their major military exercises,” which serve as war simulations, “with nuclear strikes. … I think there is just, you know, a comfort with nuclear weapons as kind of big artillery shells, whereas we see them as categorically different weapons.”

Even if he holds fire now — Putin’s nuclear threat will loom beyond the Ukraine conflict, raising a ghost of destruction that many thought had finally dematerialized after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“We were fortunate not to really have great power competition for 25 years after the end of the Cold War,” Kroenig said. “But now, it’s back.”

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