HARDLY a day goes by without Russian President Vladimir Putin (pictured) waving his nuclear bludgeon to cow Ukraine and the West. Is he crazy? Maybe, because launching such weapons would break a 77-year-old nuclear taboo.
Ever since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the unthinkable has been kept in check through some 200 conventional wars – even where nuclear powers were involved on one side or the other. Only once did the Soviet Union and the US come close to the edge of the abyss – exactly 60 years ago during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Why did they pull back, and what are the lessons for our time?
Recall how, in 1914, the great powers stumbled into World War I. Then imagine that kaisers, czars, and kings could have looked into a crystal ball and seen the world of 1918. Twenty million died, along with four great empires: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman. In Russia, Bolshevism won, and Fascism would soon follow throughout Europe. Only British foreign secretary Edward Grey had it right in 1914: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
Today, with a Russo-American nuclear arsenal of 12 000 weapons, Putin needs no crystal ball. He may think that a “little” tactical device will not bring on Armageddon. But maybe his generals did not dare tell him what tactical nukes can do. The best assessment is by then-US secretary of defence James Mattis in 2018: “I do not think there is any such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon. Any nuclear weapon used any time is a strategic game changer.”
Sergei Shoigu, Putin’s defence minister, now sidelined because of Russia’s military failures in Ukraine, should tutor his boss. The explosive power of tactical weapons ranges from 0.3 to 170 kilotons of TNT. The Hiroshima bomb was only 15 kilotons and claimed the lives of 90 000 people.
What would happen if Putin did drop a “little” bomb? The US could not know whether this was just a one-off attack. It would put its strategic forces on DEFCON 2 or even the highest level, DEFCON 1, appropriately called “cocked pistol”.
Britain and France would do so as well – and so would the Russians.
Bombers would take to the air; missile silos would open their protective covers. Angst would squelch caution. Just a slight miscalculation or miscommunication could set off a strategic exchange. If you start a little war, be ready for the Big One.
Putin’s general staff should have studied American war games. One at Princeton University simulated a US-Russian exchange. It began with tactical nukes and ended in all-out strategic war. The toll? Ninety million dead and wounded within the first several hours. Climb one rung of the escalation ladder, and you quickly end up at the top.
Is Putin demented, as long-distance psychiatrists in the media are surmising? Let’s not play Dr Freud, but put our money on the “Madman Theory” of international politics, also known as the “rationality of irrationality.” The great strategist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling (I was a student of his at Harvard) came up with a compelling example.
Assume someone shows up on your porch and calmly says: “Give me US$20 or I’ll blow my brains out.”
You probably would not be impressed and offer him some soothing hot milk. Now assume he returns, bug-eyed and foaming at the mouth. Wouldn’t you rather give him the cash instead of having to repaint the porch and spend hours with the police?
Putin may simulate insanity, but it is “rational” brinkmanship. If he can intimidate Ukraine and the West, he will do a lot better than his failing army. On 18 September, his henchman, Duma member Andrey Gurulev, outdid himon state TV. “We should not nuke Ukraine, because we still need to live there,” he explained, but should instead target the real “decision centres,” that is, Berlin and, above all, London. “We could turn Britain into a Martian wasteland in three minutes.”
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in it,” mused Polonius. Make-believe lunacy, also known as “psy-war,” promises to be a winner, just as it was for the man on Schelling’s porch. Pretend to lose control, and you frighten your target into submission.
To talk like a madman is the real game; to execute the threat is not credible in a world of 13 000 nuclear weapons, where Russia, too, would become a “Martian wasteland.” Meanwhile, 300 000 of Russia’s best and brightest have reportedly absconded, rather than fight in Ukraine, since Putin launched his “partial mobilisation” of the armed forces; a similar number fled Russia after the invasion began on February 24.
US President Joe Biden has issued his own, but appropriately unspecific, threats in this test of wills. The US is acting rationally in the true meaning of the word, imposing sanctions on Russia and providing support to Ukraine, but not intervening directly, which could trigger all-out war. Biden has dispatched US$17 billion in military and financial aid, and more is in the pipeline. The US also provides precious space-based and battlefield intelligence that enables the Ukrainians to score one tactical surprise after another.
The US has delivered high-precision HIMARS multiple-rocket launchers. Yet their rockets’ range is only 85 kilometres. The US has ruled out the longer-range Army Tactical Missile System, because it could hit targets 300 kilometres away inside Russian territory, as well as Abrams tanks and combat jets that can attack as well as defend. While Putin mimics madness, Biden wants to avoid escalation. But the mere prospect that Biden could reverse that decision is a high-value bargaining chip that should give Putin pause.
The West also has legitimacy on its side. In Ukraine, the West is trying not only to save an innocent country’s sovereignty, but to preserve one of the most precious gifts of the postwar era: a European order no longer based on conquest. It is the longest great-power peace in the continent’s blood-drenched history. Such high stakes underpin stamina, will, and credibility, despite skyrocketing energy prices. Even the most détente-minded Europeans would not want Russian armies ensconced on the Polish-Ukrainian border, let alone see the Baltics gobbled up by Russia. That is rational, not off the wall.
Putin is clearly playing the madman. Crazy, though, is not the same as stupid. He struts and threatens, but this imperialist needs no crystal ball to peer into the future. In a nuclearised world, those who shoot first die second.
About the writer: Josef Joffe teaches international politics at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies.–Project Syndicate.