A Boy and His Toys

Yep, Putin just threatened to use his nukes. Now it’s time for Washington to decide on a time-out for the Russian president.


I think the critics have it all wrong: The big reset button that Hillary Clinton handed to Sergei Lavrov in 2008 worked perfectly — it’s just that some joker set it to 1968. And there is no better sign of the deepening cold war between Moscow and the West than the fact that Putin just threatened to nuke us in front of a bunch of schoolteachers.

Putin was holding court at the Seliger 2014 National Youth Forum, which attracted some 800 of the country’s young teachers and postgrads, when an attendee asked the Russian president about the role of “historical memory” in Russian foreign policy. Putin decided to point out that Russia’s enemies should be careful, and then he got to the good part: “Let me remind you that Russia is one of the world’s biggest nuclear powers. These are not just words — this is the reality. What’s more, we are strengthening our nuclear deterrent capability and developing our armed forces.”

Hey, the more you know, right?

Earlier in the month, Putin had already promised to surprise the West with new nuclear weapons systems. “Some things have already been disclosed; say in the area of strategic offensive arms, I mean nuclear deterrence forces,” Putin explained. “Some information remains secret, but we will disclose it when the time comes. We are working hard, and our engineers, researchers and workers are putting a lot of effort into it.”

So, yeah, Vladimir Putin just threatened to rain death and destruction down on us. Now calm down.

The comments in Crimea were largely unnoticed beyond an article in Salon. But Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling is now getting a bit of attention thanks to an op-ed by the Washington Post‘s Anne Applebaum.

Reflecting on photos from the summer of 1939 in Poland, Applebaum tried in vain to find any hint of the miseries that were to come. And in her article she goes on to wonder if we are just as naive about the gathering storm as the people in those pictures. Now, Ms. Applebaum is a resident of Warsaw. And Mr. Applebaum is the Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski — he of the leaked commentary on how NATO membership is like unreciprocated oral sex. (Just click on the link.) Whether you think Applebaum is too near the site of Soviet wrongs to see today’s Russia clearly, or just near enough to see the bear’s claws still glinting in the autumn light, is a matter of opinion. But she’s right: War seems impossible to imagine until it isn’t.

In her article, Applebaum quotes Russian dissident Andrei Piontkovsky, who has argued that while mutual deterrence may hold between the United States and Russia, some Russian leaders might see limited nuclear war possible under this threshold. She goes a bit further than Piontkovsky and considers a limited Russia nuclear strike on a Polish city just to humiliate the West.

But as “one of the world’s biggest nuclear powers,” what exactly does Putin feel entitled to take, secure that the West would hardly risk a nuclear war by striking targets inside Russia? This is, in fact, the mindset that I worry about most when it comes to the spread of nuclear weapons — whether we are talking about Putin, Kim Jong Un, or any other would-be well-armed tyrant.

I don’t think that any nuclear-armed power, out of the blue, would launch a nuclear attack against the United States or even an allied capital. But the same applies to the United States: Washington would never initiate a nuclear war with Russia. Some leaders, like Mr. Putin, may take this caution to be an invitation to launch conventional attacks or — although I think this is far less likely — use a small number of tactical nuclear weapons on a battlefield.

This raises the question: Does a nuclear balance make the world safe for conventional war? That is to say, if two states have nuclear weapons, might they feel safe enough to fight low-level conflicts more often? This is the classic stability-instability paradox. In 1965, political scientist Glenn Snyder called it a “paradox” because, if there were a risk of a conventional conflict going nuclear, he could see the nuclear powers’ logic both ways: They would either feel restrained, or they would feel so secure that no state would be mad enough to use nuclear weapons, and they would opt, instead, to slug it out below the nuclear threshold. Our modern understanding of the paradox owes largely to Columbia University’s Robert Jervis who observed “To the extent that the military balance is stable at the level of all-out nuclear war, it will become less stable at lower levels of violence.”

Much of the history of U.S. nuclear strategy during the Cold War is, I would argue, about the challenge of responding to this problem — a task Jervis found to be a fool’s errand. During the Eisenhower administration, the United States began the process of putting nuclear weapons near the front-line of potential conflicts, while pre-delegating the authority to use those weapons in certain circumstances. If you couldn’t credibly threaten to start a nuclear war, perhaps you could run the risk of starting one by accident. Theorist Thomas Schelling called this “the threat that leaves something to chance.”

Over the years, a number of U.S. presidents have looked at the country’s nuclear options and recoiled at the scale of the destruction. You can make a decent argument that many of the strategic and technical developments — improvements in accuracy and fancy weapons effects like enhanced radiation — in the U.S. nuclear arsenal resulted from a futile search for an escape from the reality of mutual deterrence. The search for limited nuclear options, short of all-out nuclear war, began in earnest during the Nixon administration, continuing through the Carter and Reagan administrations.

Unfortunately, the escape from mutual deterrence is nothing but a fantasy.

Regardless of what sort of nuclear weapons or strategic concepts Washington develops, U.S. policymakers will always worry that Moscow or other nuclear powers might be willing to take risks that the United States simply will not. In this way, Washington falls victim to its own self-doubt. The rub is that different nuclear weapons won’t solve what is essentially a lack of courage or resolve. The president probably would be just as well off with a stiff drink or two than some new nuclear weapon. Well, not too many stiff drinks.

Fortunately, Putin is not quite so bold as we might worry. I doubt Putin’s enthusiasm for aggression extends to initiating the limited use of nuclear weapons — at least not in scenarios short of a NATO invasion of Russia. Piontkovsky notes (in Russian, sorry) that Putin’s motives are more “modest” than the destruction of the United States — “the maximum expansion of the Russian World, the collapse of NATO, [and to] discredit and humiliat[e] the United States as the guarantor of the security of the West.” If Piontkovsky is right, then Putin needs a neutral Germany.

As I’ve argued before, the centerpiece to Putin’s strategy is a de facto neutral Germany that prevents NATO from offering a robust defense of its easternmost members. (It’s worth remembering that the Soviet Union desperately tried to keep a unified Germany out of NATO.) That’s why Putin does things like show up at former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s birthday party and avoids mentioning that he would have sent in the tanks in 1989.

Using nuclear weapons is, at a basic level, contrary to this strategy. That is to say, Putin’s maintenance of the increasingly flimsy fiction that Russia has not invaded Ukraine is largely about trying to avoid inflaming German opinion to the point where NATO stands up to the aggression; Putin wants to take Ukraine, but he needs to do so in small pieces. Nuking Warsaw, of course, throws that strategy out the window.

America’s own policy needs to focus on keeping Germany firmly inside the North Atlantic alliance. Nuclear weapons complicate this job because of all our allies, Germany has been the most skeptical of nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, many people in West Germany believed that the United States was committed to defend Europe “down to the last German,” a grim reference to the prospect of nuclear war between the superpowers over a divided Germany. In the 1990s, the German coalition government, at the urging of the Green Party, insisted that NATO adopt a no-first use of nuclear weapons pledge. The current German government, at the urging of the Free Democrats, has been ambivalent about the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons forward deployed in Europe. Washington’s nuclear weapons may serve to reassure Poland and the Baltic states, but they also complicate the delicate task of encouraging Germany to stand up to Moscow.

Moreover, as much as we might dislike Putin’s motives and actions, he’s right: With thousands of nukes, Russia is one of the world’s biggest nuclear powers. We really don’t want to start a nuclear war with the man, much as we might wish him a plate of poisoned sushi or perhaps a cup of polonium tea. At the end of the day, Moscow does have a measure of deterrence that allows it to get away with murder and worse.

We are left, then, with another vintage Cold War paradox. As British historian Michael Howard then observed, the United States faced two challenges when confronting the Soviet Union: doing enough to deter Moscow without frightening its allies into appeasing Moscow. He describes those impulses as deterrence and reassurance. His advice, while about as exciting as “eat your vegetables,” is as valid today as it was in 1982.

“Above all we must stop being frightened, and trying to frighten each other, with specters either of Soviet ‘windows of opportunity’ or of the prospect of inevitable, self-generating nuclear,” Howard wrote. “Defense will continue to be a necessity in a world of sovereign states. Nuclear war is a terrible possibility that nothing can now eradicate, but of whose horrors we must never lose sight. To deal with the dilemma arising form these twin evils we need clear heads, moral courage, human compassion, and, above all, a sense of proportion. The main condition for consensus … is in fact that we should all grow up.”

At the moment, maturity is in short supply as the West swings between excusing Russia’s behavior and turning Putin into Hitler (“Putler”). Washington doesn’t need reset buttons, escapist fantasies about missile defenses, or silly names for Putin. The United States needs to understand Putin’s basic strategy and obstruct it — and you can bet that if Washington succeeds in doing this, the Russian president will certainly threaten to nuke us again. It’s a temper tantrum, backed up with real firepower. But it’s time to remember that we’re the ones wearing the big-boy pants.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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