Is Putin Resurrecting the Balance of Terror?

His talk of nuclear “combat” is terrifying—but it could also reawaken the world to much-needed arms control.

hirsh-michael-foreign-policy-columnist
hirsh-michael-foreign-policy-columnist
Michael Hirsh
By , a columnist for Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on during the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing on Feb. 4. WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images

When Vladimir Putin declared earlier this week he was preparing his huge nuclear arsenal for “combat duty,” it was only the latest evidence that the Russian president views nuclear weapons as usable in a conventional war—including, possibly, the one he’s started in Ukraine.

Putin’s words were a terrifying wake-up call for a generation of Americans and Europeans who thought nuclear brinkmanship was a relic of the early Cold War. To many nuclear arms experts, they were also an urgent call to action. “There’s been a lot of complacency about nuclear weapons in recent decades,” said Lynn Rusten of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. “Maybe this will give a jolt to new arms control thinking.”

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has been deliberately restrained in response to Putin’s nuclear threats, seeking not to raise the temperature, according to U.S. officials. But others have not been. Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, is openly questioning Putin’s mental stability and tweeted Sunday, “This is the most dangerous moment in 60 years.” Rubio was referring to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when for two weeks the possibility of nuclear Armageddon was immediate.

When Vladimir Putin declared earlier this week he was preparing his huge nuclear arsenal for “combat duty,” it was only the latest evidence that the Russian president views nuclear weapons as usable in a conventional war—including, possibly, the one he’s started in Ukraine.

Putin’s words were a terrifying wake-up call for a generation of Americans and Europeans who thought nuclear brinkmanship was a relic of the early Cold War. To many nuclear arms experts, they were also an urgent call to action. “There’s been a lot of complacency about nuclear weapons in recent decades,” said Lynn Rusten of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. “Maybe this will give a jolt to new arms control thinking.”

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has been deliberately restrained in response to Putin’s nuclear threats, seeking not to raise the temperature, according to U.S. officials. But others have not been. Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, is openly questioning Putin’s mental stability and tweeted Sunday, “This is the most dangerous moment in 60 years.” Rubio was referring to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when for two weeks the possibility of nuclear Armageddon was immediate.

Rubio was giving voice to fears that many nuclear experts have been expressing since long before the Ukraine war: that under Putin’s belligerent autocracy the Kremlin has gradually reintroduced the nuclear threat into the conventional war equation. This trend culminated last week in his warning that any Western attempt to thwart his aggression in Ukraine would mean “consequences you have never seen.” And now, with Russian armed forces struggling in Ukraine, and Russia facing near-total international isolation and possible economic collapse, many experts fear Putin could be tempted to do the unthinkable out of anger and frustration.

“I was struck that a great power leader (who wasn’t Donald Trump) was making reference to his country’s nuclear arsenal and sort of cocking his single action pistol like a cowboy in a Western,” longtime nuclear arms negotiator Robert Gallucci said in an email. A former special envoy for the U.S. State Department on nonproliferation, Gallucci has warned for years that Putin has “re-embraced” nuclear weapons with an aggressive development program for nuclear-powered cruise missiles, hypersonic glide vehicles, transoceanic nuclear-armed torpedoes, and more low-yield nuclear weapons, all of which could be used as so-called tactical forces on the European continent.

Gallucci was also critical of former U.S. President Donald Trump for seeking to counter the Russian threat with the United States’ own new, low-yield nuclear weapons during his time in office, and for directing nuclear threats against North Korea and Iran. “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE,” Trump tweeted in July 2018, using capital letters, in response to then-Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Trump also pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which Putin has cited as a reason for fearing the Ukraine could be arming against Russia.

The Biden administration has sought to de-escalate, reauthorizing the New START agreement with Russia, which limits the number of strategic nuclear missiles. Only last June, at their summit in Geneva, Biden and Putin released a joint statement saying, “Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

But since Russia invaded Ukraine last week, all new U.S.-Russia talks have been suspended. Moreover, even in the best of times, the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe—the gravest danger at the moment—has never been covered by an arms control agreement. “Nuclear saber-rattling at the presidential level was, until Donald Trump and Putin, something we hadn’t seen since Nikita Khrushchev,” the Soviet leader leading up to and during the Cuban Missile Crisis, said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear arms expert at Harvard University.

It remains unclear how much Putin’s nuclear brinkmanship is, for the moment, rhetorical. U.S. Defense Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday that American officials have detected no change in posture. But after Putin’s announcement, the Russian defense ministry said its nuclear missile forces and Northern and Pacific fleets had been placed on enhanced combat duty with “reinforced personnel,” the Interfax news agency reported. And in his speeches and remarks in recent years, Putin has made clear that the rest of the world ought to view the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal as an ongoing threat and part of Russia’s enduring strategic might.

“Even after the dissolution of the USSR and losing a considerable part of its capabilities, today’s Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states,” Putin said last week.

The week before his invasion of Ukraine, Putin personally oversaw exercises that involved practice launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, his defense ministry announced. In a 2018 documentary, Putin also suggested that he wouldn’t hesitate to launch all-out nuclear war “if someone decides to destroy Russia.” He added: “Yes, it will be a catastrophe for humanity and for the world. But I’m a citizen of Russia and its head of state. Why do we need a world without Russia in it?”

One pressing question is whether Putin now views the coordinated efforts by Washington and Western nations to arm the Ukrainian military and cut off Russia financially as a casus belli. The ruble has crashed, and Russia’s stock market has remained closed in the face of U.S. and Western moves to block Russia’s central bank and some other Russian banks from participating in the international payments system.

Earlier Tuesday, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told France Info radio that “we are going to deliver a total economic and financial war against Russia” to counter its Ukraine invasion. In response, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who is currently the Kremlin’s senior security official, tweeted: “Watch your tongue, gentlemen! And don’t forget that in human history, economic wars quite often turned into real ones.” On Sunday, justifying his decision to place his forces on nuclear alert, Putin cited “aggressive statements” by NATO and tough financial sanctions. Though Biden and key NATO countries have said clearly they will not send troops in to fight for Ukraine, there are still other ways the alliance could still become directly engaged in the conflict: The Kremlin, for example, is upset that Turkey, a NATO member, plans to close off the Turkish Straits to Russian warships.

Perhaps the biggest worry now is that a cornered Putin—finding his nation bogged down in Ukraine and impoverished by sanctions—might feel he has no choice but to escalate with low-yield tactical nuclear arms “to break the unity of the West, and to test the resolve of some NATO countries,” Francesca Giovannini wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “It would also signal once and for all his willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve his political and strategic goals.”

There is, as yet, no indication that the Russian leader intends to do this. Experts note that he is still massing more conventional forces inside Ukraine and tightening the noose around Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, even while engaging in negotiations with the Ukrainian government. “Pretty much all the military targets in Ukraine that you could hit with nuclear weapons you could with conventional airpower. So from a military point of view he doesn’t really need to use nuclear weapons,” said Bunn, who along with other experts believes that Putin would resort to heavy munitions and cyberattacks first.

Even so, Bunn added, “I think this is going to result in a deep freeze in relations between Russia and the West that’s going to last and increase the risk of conflict and escalation to nuclear use. And it will be much more difficult to get the support needed to negotiate risk reduction and arms control.” Some U.S. officials familiar with the latest intelligence, including Rubio, believe Putin will likely succeed in installing a puppet government in Ukraine and that the West should be prepared to recognize a Ukrainian government in exile.

But some arms control experts such as Gallucci and Rusten say that if the ongoing Ukraine conflict is ultimately resolved through negotiation, it could provide new impetus to stalled arms control efforts. That is what happened 60 years ago. Until the Cuban missile crisis, Moscow and Washington were regularly engaged in mutual nuclear threats, and arms control was off the table. But after a tense 13-day period in which the United States revealed that Soviet medium-range nuclear missiles were being placed in Cuba and U.S. President John F. Kennedy threatened war, causing widespread public panic, the mood changed dramatically.

Less than a year later, Kennedy negotiated a partial test-ban treaty with Moscow. That was followed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968, détente, and various strategic arms limitation pacts. Hard-liners such as Kennedy’s successors Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon also changed their views and supported de-escalation, as did Soviet leaders. Similarly, Gallucci said, today’s brinkmanship over Ukraine should awaken responsible officials in both Washington and Moscow to the dangers of accidental or even unauthorized nuclear launches. This has become a much greater risk today than during the Cold War because the world’s nuclear powers, which now include China, India, and Pakistan, are increasingly handing over launch authority to artificial intelligence-run systems so as to preserve a launch-on-warning at much greater speed.

“Right now we, and we think the Russians, are so taken by the need to be in a launch-on-warning posture that we still insist on the presidents having a ‘football’ nearby so that they can launch a nuclear strike that could destroy life on our planet—literally—without reference to their military commanders or any other person in authority in the government,” Gallucci said. He and other veterans of the Cold War, such as former Defense Secretary William Perry, argue that this is no longer acceptable.

For Biden and other Western leaders, the question will be how to give Putin a face-saving way out. Before the invasion, the Biden administration sought to do that by expressing a willingness to negotiate over the deployment of missiles and conventional forces in Europe, including possibly scaling back the number of U.S. troops stationed in the Baltic states and Poland.

“I think this is really going to focus all our minds on the nuclear threat,” Rusten said.

Michael Hirsh is a columnist for Foreign Policy. He is the author of two books: Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future Over to Wall Street and At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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