Putin’s Nuclear Option
Would Russia's president really be willing to start World War III?
Ever the one to administer bracing doses of Geopolitics 101 to his opponents, especially those inclined to underestimate his nerve, President Vladimir Putin, at a youth forum north of Moscow last week, reminded the world that "Russia is one of the most powerful nuclear nations. This is a reality, not just words." (Indeed it is.)
Fifteen days earlier, on Aug. 14, at a conference in Yalta, the Russian president had told the assembled factions of the State Duma that he soon planned to "surprise the West with our new developments in offensive nuclear weapons about which we do not talk yet." This came as Russian strategic nuclear bombers and fighter jets have been accused of violating the airspace of the United States and Western European countries with mounting frequency, while under the surface of the world’s seas Russian and U.S. nuclear submarines have been involved in confrontations recalling the worst days of the Cold War. As NATO leaders convene for their summit in Wales, Russia just announced that its strategic nuclear forces will hold exercises of unprecedented dimensions this month. And the Kremlin, for its part, just declared that it will amend its military doctrine to reflect Russia’s growing tensions with NATO. What this means exactly remains unclear, but in view of the rising tensions with the Western alliance, it cannot be good.
Russia has also been purportedly breaching the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which prohibits Russia (and the United States) from possessing the sort of missiles that could be used against targets in Europe. If Barack Obama entered the White House hoping to reduce atomic weapons stockpiles and make the world a safer place, it looks like he will leave it with a Russia boasting a more lethal arsenal of nuclear weapons than at any time since the Cold War.
But Putin would never actually use nuclear weapons, would he? The scientist and longtime Putin critic Andrei Piontkovsky, a former executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow and a political commentator for the BBC World Service, believes he might. In August, Piontkovsky published a troubling account of what he believes Putin might do to win the current standoff with the West — and, in one blow, destroy NATO as an organization and finish off what’s left of America’s credibility as the world’s guardian of peace.
In view of the Russian leader’s recent remarks and provocative actions, the scenario Piontkovsky lays out becomes terrifyingly relevant. Worse, if the trigger events described come to pass, it becomes logical, maybe even inevitable.
Piontkovsky explains the positions of the two camps presenting Putin with advice about how to resolve the Ukraine crisis. The first, the "Peace Party," as he calls it, composed of those occupying posts in influential think tanks, including, in this case, Sergey Karaganov, the head of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, urges Putin to declare victory in Ukraine now and thereby end the conflict. Having taken note of the lengths to which Moscow will go to prevent Ukraine from slipping out of its orbit, NATO will almost certainly never invite the former Soviet republic to join its ranks, the Peace Party argues. And Russia has already won tacit acceptance from the international community of its acquisition of Crimea.
Piontkovsky dismisses out of hand the possibility of Putin pursuing this solution. If Putin chose to go this route, he would look defeated, and looming before him would be the fate of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was deposed and forced into retirement following his failed, and nearly catastrophic, 1962 attempt to secure communism in Cuba by stationing nuclear missiles there.
The other camp putting pressure on Putin, the "War Party," however, gives the president two options. The first, writes Piontkovsky, is a "romantic and inspiring scenario: World War IV between the Orthodox Russian World, now risen from its knees, against the rotting and decadent Anglo-Saxon World." (World War III, in his view, has already happened: the Cold War.) This World War IV would be a conventional war with NATO — and it would not go well. Given NATO’s superior armed forces and Russia’s comparative economic, scientific, and technological weaknesses, a conventional campaign would, Piontkovsky concludes, end with Russia’s defeat.
That leaves Putin only one option: a nuclear attack. Not a massive launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles at the United States or Western Europe, which would bring about a suicidal atomic holocaust, but a small, tactical strike or two against a NATO member that few in the West would be willing to die to protect. Piontkovsky surmises that, in such a conflict, the nuclear-armed country with the "superior political will" to alter the geopolitical "status quo" and — most importantly — with the "greater indifference to values concerning human lives" would prevail. Any guesses which country that would be?
But what would trigger a Russian attack? According to Piontkovsky’s scenario, it could be something as simple as a plebiscite: the Estonian city of Narva, overwhelmingly ethnically Russian and adjacent to Russia, deciding to hold a referendum on joining the Motherland. To help them "freely express their will" at the polls, Russia could send in a brigade of "little green men armed to the teeth," much like it did in Crimea in March. Estonia would thereupon invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter — "an armed attack against one or more [NATO members] … shall be considered an attack against them all" — and demand that the alliance defend it. Speaking in the Estonian capital of Tallinn on the eve of NATO’s summit in Wales, this is just what Obama promised. "The defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London," he said.
Suddenly, the most terrifying nightmare becomes reality: NATO faces war with Russia.
How would Putin then react? Piontkovsky believes that NATO would balk at attacking Moscow over a small country remote from NATO’s heartland and the hearts of its citizens. Piontkovsky imagines the course of action open to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Obama as he contemplates unleashing a planetary holocaust over a "damned little city no one has even heard of" while the American public cries out, "We don’t want to die for fucking Narva, Mr. President!" Piontkovsky also cites a German public opinion poll asking what Berlin should do if Estonia enters an armed conflict with Russia: 70 percent would want their country to remain neutral.
Piontkovsky then tries to envision the situation in which Putin would find himself if NATO intervened to drive his little green men from Narva. Would Putin commit suicide by letting his missiles fly against the United States? No. Rather, he would respond with a limited nuclear strike against a couple of European capitals — not London or Paris, but smaller ones, presumably in Eastern European countries that have only recently joined NATO. Warsaw, against which Russia has already conducted a drill simulating a Russian nuclear attack, first comes to mind. Or, say, Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. The point is, Putin would bet on decision-makers in Washington, Berlin, London, and Paris not retaliating with nuclear weapons against Russia if it had "only" hit a city or two most Westerners have barely heard of — and certainly do not want to die for.
The outcome of Putin’s putative gambit is that NATO effectively capitulates. The alliance’s credibility as guarantor of security for its member states would be utterly destroyed, as would U.S. hegemony, which largely rests on the threat of using force. Putin would then be free to do what he wanted in Ukraine and anywhere else he perceived Russia’s interests to be threatened.
It might all sound a bit far-fetched. On the surface, there are obvious reasons that Putin would not want to be the first to fire nuclear weapons at anyone, even his die-hard adversaries in NATO. It would be, to put it mildly, risky, and would irremediably besmirch his place, and Russia’s, in history. The world would unite against him and could do more damage to the Russian economy, which is highly dependent on food imports and the export of hydrocarbons, than anyone now can imagine. And domestically, Russian anti-war sentiment is formidable. The Russian public has, throughout the crisis, adored Putin for standing up to the West and retaking Crimea, and it even supports Russia’s arming the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. But Russians have shown no appetite for direct military intervention, which is one reason the Kremlin repeatedly asserts that it has no troops or materiel on Ukrainian soil.
But it’s worth remembering that since 2000 Russian nuclear doctrine has foreseen the deployment of battlefield nuclear weapons to de-escalate a conflict with NATO, if Russian forces were about to suffer defeat in a conventional conflict — which shows that the Kremlin has already been betting that neither Obama nor the leaders of other nuclear powers would push the button if they could avoid it.
The Kremlin is probably right.