It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Can Vague U.S. Threats Deter Russia From Using Nukes?

Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Ukrainian territories raises the risk of nuclear confrontation, but it’s unclear whether Washington’s rhetoric will stop him.

By , a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
A picture taken on March 18, 2008 shows Russian Topol missiles during a rehearsal for the nation's annual May 9 Victory Day parade, in Yushkovo, Russia.
A picture taken on March 18, 2008 shows Russian Topol missiles during a rehearsal for the nation's annual May 9 Victory Day parade, in Yushkovo, Russia.
A picture taken on March 18, 2008 shows Russian Topol missiles during a rehearsal for the nation's annual May 9 Victory Day parade, in Yushkovo, Russia. DIMA KOROTAYEV/AFP via Getty Images
It's Debatable

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt! So our readers elsewhere might not know that it’s been raining in Washington for an entire week. I’m certainly a bit grumpy as a result. How about you?

Matthew Kroenig: Yes, we are getting hit with the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, but I can’t complain. We are not suffering nearly as much as those directly affected in Florida, the Carolinas, and Puerto Rico.

I am also unsettled by everything going on in the world this week, from continued nuclear threats to a worsening global economic outlook. Where should we start?

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt! So our readers elsewhere might not know that it’s been raining in Washington for an entire week. I’m certainly a bit grumpy as a result. How about you?

Matthew Kroenig: Yes, we are getting hit with the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, but I can’t complain. We are not suffering nearly as much as those directly affected in Florida, the Carolinas, and Puerto Rico.

I am also unsettled by everything going on in the world this week, from continued nuclear threats to a worsening global economic outlook. Where should we start?

EA: It’s not been a good few weeks—here or abroad. We ended our last debate with the nuclear question: Would Russian President Vladimir Putin consider using nuclear weapons in Ukraine? But I think we have to revisit it today in light of Russia’s actions in recent days.

The most problematic of these is the Kremlin’s announcement that Russia was illegally annexing four regions of Ukraine into Russia. This contrasts with Russia’s approach over the last eight years, which instead tried to preserve a fig leaf of deniability by accepting Ukraine’s breakaway regions as “people’s republics.”

The annexations—by claiming sovereignty over another nation’s internationally recognized territory—are a significant escalation from Russia: They make it harder for Putin to back down. After all, Russia doesn’t even control all of the territory in these regions, and it has lost some of it to Ukrainian advances since the announcement of the annexation! All of this creates an increasingly fuzzy line on when Russia might consider the use of nuclear weapons justified to defend its newly proclaimed “sovereign territory.”

Putin is perfectly willing to sacrifice Russian lives to achieve his goal of reestablishing the empire.

MK: I agree it is an escalation of the conflict, and it does give Putin an additional pretext to employ nuclear weapons in Ukraine. I have been worried about the possibility of nuclear use since the invasion started in February, and this only raises the risk.

Fortunately, the Biden administration is strengthening its deterrence policy. At one point, White House spokesperson John Kirby was saying, for example, that Putin shouldn’t use nuclear weapons because the radiation might blow back into Russia. But Putin doesn’t care about that. He is perfectly willing to sacrifice Russian lives to achieve his goal of reestablishing the empire.

But U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had a much tougher message for Putin on the Sunday talk shows last week, warning that Russian nuclear use would lead America and its allies to act “decisively” and that it threatened “catastrophic consequences” for Russia. That is the right message. Retired Gen. David Petraeus reinforced that message by predicting that the U.S. Defense Department would respond to Russian nuclear use by destroying the entire Russian army in Ukraine and the Black Sea Fleet. I doubt U.S. President Joe Biden would go that far, but someone of Petraeus’s stature making this claim should contribute to deterrence.

EA: You’re right that Putin undoubtedly doesn’t care about radiation fallout. But it is a point worth noting: Any nuclear use in or near Ukraine could involve fallout that could spread more widely across Europe. These things are heavily dependent on wind direction and speed, so it wouldn’t necessarily stay contained.

I’m not sure that praising the so-called tough message the Biden administration sent to Putin is sufficient though. That really glosses over the difficult questions here. No one knows exactly what they’re trying to deter or what Putin’s red lines might be. Indeed, the annexation announcement just makes that harder to assess. Clearly, Russian threats to defend all of these territories with nuclear weapons isn’t credible. They don’t even control them at the moment. But Western leaders should be very wary of assuming that these threats have no credibility at all. Maybe the line for Russia is Crimea. Maybe it’s the pre-Feb. 24 conflict lines. Maybe it’s something else entirely. Policymakers are playing with fire here.

And it’s also somewhat problematic to threaten “catastrophic consequences” in the case of nuclear use. I understand why Sullivan wants to be vague here; the administration doesn’t want to commit itself to an unwise course of action. But that means that the U.S. threat to respond is also less credible to Russia. I worry that the world may see a situation exactly like at the start of the war: vague threats to respond in the event of an invasion followed by a massive sanctions response that I think surprised even the White House and ended up causing chaos in global food and energy markets.

There are folks in Washington already making the case for an escalation to general war, like Petraeus, who is doing the media rounds arguing that the United States should respond to Russian nuclear use by attacking the Russian army and sinking the Russian Black Sea Fleet!

Biden should shape Putin’s red lines by convincing him that using nuclear weapons in any conceivable circumstance will be too costly for him.

MK: I agree that the world should take Putin’s nuclear threats seriously. And I think Biden knows what he is trying to deter: a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine.

But why are you trying to guess Putin’s red lines for nuclear use? So Washington can avoid crossing them? That would be a mistake. Biden should continue to pursue the goal of helping Ukraine take back its territory while, in effect, shaping Putin’s red lines by convincing him that using nuclear weapons in any conceivable circumstance will be too costly for him.

EA: That isn’t possible. There are always going to be situations in which states with nuclear weapons might feel compelled to use them. Russia’s own nuclear doctrine says it will use them if “the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.” Does that mean regime stability? Governance? The inviolability of Russian borders—even the new ones drawn this week, which the Kremlin says are still in the process of determining? Like all nuclear doctrines, it’s pretty vague.

I don’t think the West should stop arming Ukraine, but the White House does need to be cognizant that the issues under discussion here start to bump up against that question of borders and Russian sovereignty. The United States and its allies should be looking for ways to help Ukraine while avoiding nuclear use, not gunning the throttle and daring Putin to stand down.

MK: I disagree. The quickest path to peace is to help Ukraine win the war. Easing up on the throttle is a recipe for a grinding war and more dead Ukrainians.

EA: Do you think the White House should issue more specific threats then?

MK: I liked the vague threats. Washington shouldn’t provide Putin a detailed menu to choose from of “if you do X, we will do Y.” I want Putin to fear the worst. And in his mind, I think his biggest fear is that this could turn into a major war with the United States and NATO that he would lose. So I liked that Sullivan went beyond Kirby and suggested the “catastrophic consequences” for Russia would come about, not due to shifting weather patterns but due to a “decisive” U.S. response.

The Petraeus statement should make Putin worry about a massive U.S. conventional bombing campaign that could help Ukraine quickly retake all of its territory. The only thing I would have added is something about all options being on the table to make him worry about U.S. nuclear weapons too.

If you like more precise threats, what would you recommend? What should Sullivan have said?

It’s extremely hard to make a credible commitment to fight a nuclear war over territory far away from home.

EA: Honestly? I don’t think deterrence here is credible no matter what the White House says. That may be an unpopular view, but Washington has already tossed most of the existing economic and political options at Russia, and Biden has no interest in escalating this to a direct U.S.-Russia war. If it wasn’t worth fighting Moscow directly over Berlin in the 1950s, it’s sure as hell not worth it now.

This is the problem with extended deterrence writ large. It’s extremely hard to make a credible commitment to fight a nuclear war over territory far away from home. As the classic formulation goes: Are we really going to trade Chicago for Hamburg? That threat might be credible in the context of a formal alliance like NATO, particularly if conventional forces were already fighting on the ground. But for Ukraine—a country Washington has already decided not to defend through far less costly means—not a chance.

MK: I think deterrence is already working, and that is why Putin has refrained from using nuclear weapons so far. His forbearance to this point has not been out of the goodness of his heart.

But we could debate this all day, and there are many other items to discuss. What did you make of the latest news on the assassination of Darya Dugina, a Russian journalist and daughter of a far-right Putin supporter? It looks like this may have been a Ukrainian operation after all.

EA: Well, if the leaked intelligence reports from inside the U.S. government are accurate, it definitely was Ukraine—though apparently aimed at her father, not at her directly. That second part isn’t surprising; we always knew her father was meant to be in the car and was far more likely to be a target. But that first part is surprising. After the assassination, a lot of folks were speculating that it might actually have been the Kremlin trying to keep Russian nationalists in line. I think the assumption was that since the White House was exerting strong pressure on Kyiv not to engage in direct attacks on Russian soil, they wouldn’t accept this.

That’s worrying, as it implies the White House has less control of what Ukraine is doing with all these weapons and money than previously thought.

MK: According to the reports, the White House was unhappy with Ukraine for conducting this attack. I agree. I am not worried about direct attacks on Russian soil, and there may be some value to striking fear into the hearts of Russian elites to show they aren’t safe anywhere. But I just think it is bad strategy. Kyiv should focus on winning the war, not hitting symbolic but militarily meaningless targets in Moscow.

EA: Yeah, it’s certainly a strange choice. Morality and escalation risks aside, it still doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to kill Alexander Dugin, a man who is far less influential politically than often assumed in the West.

The timing of the leak is also curious. I wonder if there is more to it, that perhaps the Ukrainians are doing other things the White House isn’t happy with? That would suggest some cracks are starting to form between Kyiv and Washington. It was probably always inevitable, but it may make managing the conflict more difficult going forward.

Shall we move on from nuclear war to global economic crises? Just to keep the mood light.

MK: Well, on the upside, the crashing pound means it is a good time for Americans to travel to London!

There is a real risk of a recession in the United States and the developed world, as U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen acknowledged recently. There is inflation, post-COVID-19 supply chain issues, disruptions to food and energy supplies due to the war in Ukraine, excess demand due to Biden’s stimulus packages, and central banks around the world rapidly raising interest rates in an uncoordinated fashion. And this week, we also saw Trussonomics get off to an astoundingly bad start in the United Kingdom and a surprising decision from OPEC.

Where is this all headed?

EA: Well, if you believe the markets, it’s not headed in a good direction. The United Kingdom is the most recent flash point. When the new government of British Prime Minister Liz Truss announced massive tax cuts on top of significant spending, the markets rebelled, and confidence in the pound dropped. The pound was, at one point last week, trading nearly at parity with the dollar, which is the worst it has been in several decades. The Bank of England had to step in to rescue the bond market out of fears that a number of pension funds might go bankrupt, creating an even bigger financial crisis.

But the turmoil in Britain is just the most obvious case of economic malaise that is rapidly spreading around the world. COVID-19 spending caused some inflation, and the war in Ukraine has added higher food and fuel prices to that mix. The measures central banks are taking might curb inflation but at the cost of a lot of pain in labor markets. In short, in a number of countries, folks now feel that they can’t afford the standard of living they had just a few years ago. I’m no economist, but signs like these are usually a sign of political turmoil to come as well.

MK: Truss’s plans to reinvigorate Britain’s economy with tax cuts and deregulation make sense in theory, but they were poorly rolled out, catching markets and even some in her own party by surprise. Still, I think it was in poor taste for Biden to join the critics, saying he is “sick and tired of trickle-down economics.” It is not the president’s role to weigh in on domestic political debates within its democratic allies.

EA: I’m not opposed to deregulation, but Truss’s approach to this is basically former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher cosplay. She even said she “wasn’t for turning”—a reference to Thatcher’s famous speech—before immediately backing down the next day. She and her new chancellor had planned a big tax cut for the biggest earners, going so far as to abolish the country’s top income bracket, but they have now shelved that change thanks to the chaos on the markets.

Are you ready to join me in pointing out how few benefits Washington gets for its so-called Saudi alliance yet?

But while I’m pretty pissed off about the impact on the British economy, I think the more significant event for the global economy was the announcement this week by members of the OPEC+ agreement (which includes all members of OPEC plus Russia) that they plan to cut production by 2 million barrels a day. It’s a self-serving step by OPEC member countries that will help them keep oil prices high, shield Russia from the proposed G-7 price cap on oil exports, and add even more pressure to struggling economies around the world this winter.

OPEC’s fig leaf of an excuse is that it fears a new recession this winter will undermine global oil demand, but it is usually much more restrained than this when it comes to keeping oil prices stable. This is a notable shift in how OPEC usually conducts business and a clear political stand in favor of supporting Russia and undermining the United States’ ability to shape oil prices in coming months.

Are you ready to join me in pointing out how few benefits Washington gets for its so-called Saudi alliance yet?

MK: Well, it is not a formal alliance—in part because it is a complicated partnership. But on balance, Washington should still maintain constructive relations with Riyadh despite this recent, unhelpful decision.

Speaking of being helpful, I think I am needed in a meeting next door. Until next time?

EA: Good thing you don’t need to drive anywhere. If your friends in Riyadh keep this up, you wouldn’t be able to afford the gas.

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War.

  Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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