Rule Five Nuclear Threshold Friday

Russia Matters’ analyst Kevin Ryan thinks Putin may order the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine:

Many Western experts say they take the threat of a Russian nuclear strike in Ukraine seriously but make the mistake of asserting that the odds are low. The result is that many officials view the problem of tactical nuclear weapons as serious but not urgent. Earlier this month, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told a Senate hearing that Putin’s weakened conventional force would make him more reliant on “asymmetric options,” including nuclear capabilities, for deterrence, but that it was “very unlikely” that Moscow would use nuclear weapons in its war against Ukraine. Speaking at the same hearing, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, also assessed the chances as “unlikely.” 

In fact, the evidence is strong that the problem is urgent and I argue that Putin will use a tactical nuclear weapon in his war in Ukraine. Western leaders need not wonder about Putin’s nuclear-use red lines and how to avoid crossing them while supporting Ukraine, in my view. Putin is not waiting for a misstep by the West. He has been building the conditions for nuclear use in Ukraine since early in the war and is ready to use a nuclear weapon whenever he decides, most likely in response to his faltering military’s inability to escalate as much as he wishes by conventional means. This article will not consider exhaustively what may prompt Putin’s decision, but we should not fool ourselves by thinking we can prevent it. Instead, we should prepare responses for a new world in which the nuclear genie is out of the bottle.

I’m not sure I agree.  Putin is a creature of the Cold War, and while apparatchik he has been and apparatchik he may be, but the use of nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War was a big, shiny red line that nobody wanted to cross.  And I’m skeptical in the extreme that Putin has any notion that once that bottle is uncorked, there will be anything much left in the way of control – and the nuclear-armed world, I remind you readers, includes such wildly unstable regimes as North Korea and, in the near future and thanks largely to Barack Obama, Iran.  Indeed, if Iran manages to build a working nuke, I think they will use it in short order, with Tel Aviv the likely target – and any reservations they may have about that will be off the table if Putin has given them a precedent.

Skeptical as I am, though, I’m reluctant to say that this is an impossible scenario.  If Russian forces are being pushed back, and Putin sees the necessity of a win for his political (or maybe even physical) survival, well, desperate men are known to take desperate actions.  And Putin isn’t the most stable guy on the table.  As for the U.S. response, if any?  Well, Putin isn’t the most dementia-raddled guy on the table, either.  I suspect the response of the Biden(‘s handlers) Administration will be no more than a strongly worded letter.



Speaking of that, Mr. Ryan concludes:

As soon as Russia uses a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, the “fallout” will begin and spread. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians will be dead, suffering or dealing with the effects of the nuclear explosion. Hundreds of millions of Europeans will be bracing for war. But 7 billion others around the globe will go about their business, alarmed to be sure, but physically unaffected by a nuclear explosion in Ukraine. This last outcome of a Russian tactical nuclear strike may ultimately be the most dangerous to the international order. The image that many people have of nuclear arms as civilization-ending weapons will be erased. In its place, people will see these weapons as normal and, although tragic, acceptable in war. Just a “bigger bullet.” It is in this dramatically changed context that the United States will have to decide how to respond.

In this Mr. Ryan is correct.  If Putin pops a nuke, even a low-yield tactical nuke over, say, a big assembly area or a major logistics base, then it may well be Katie-bar-the-door, and the world as we know if irrevocably changed.  I would not care to be in Seoul or Tel Aviv were this to happen.