Rumor has it that the U.S. military is gaming out potential consequences if Putin decides to use tactical nuclear weapons, also known as theater nuclear weapons. Whether or not he actually decides to go nuclear may depend on what comes next in Ukraine.
Will the Russian military suffer further humiliations like their forced withdrawal this past week from the strategic and logistically vital city of Lyman? Will Russia experience more wartime losses with its conventional forces leaving Putin with few options but nuclear to avoid additional embarrassment? Are his repetitive threats to use all means to achieve his land grab objectives just designed to evoke fear? His rhetoric is pretentious, but if the man has truly entered the realm of his own virtual reality, anything is possible. That Putin is a manipulative political creature is beyond dispute.
Dr. Abigail Brenner, a psychiatrist, wrote several years ago in Psychology Today, that “Manipulative people have mastered the art of deception. They ignore boundaries and avoid responsibility. Manipulative people can play the victim, making you seem to be the one who caused a problem which they began but won’t take responsibility for. They can be passive-aggressive or nice one minute and standoffish the next, to keep you guessing and to prey on your fears and insecurities. They often make you defensive. They can also be extremely aggressive and vicious, resorting to personal attacks and criticism, dogged in their pursuit of getting what they want. They bully and threaten, and won’t let up or let go until they wear you down.”
This all sounds too familiar with respect to Mr. Putin. Is the man sane or insane? Who knows for sure, but the wise prepare for the worst. I don’t claim to have a definitive answer to the question of whether Mr. Putin will resort to nuclear weapons, but there are some factors that may be useful if one were to try to construct a calculation of will he or won’t he.
On the scary side of the equation, Putin has left himself few options if the battlefield continues to tilt in Ukraine’s favor. He has essentially pushed all his chips into the middle of the table, daring NATO and Ukraine to call his bluff. Or is it a bluff? Using the language of a terrorist he has said that in the event of a nuclear exchange, “we would go to paradise as martyrs, while they would simply perish.”
President Obama once said “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness.” With a GDP the size of Italy, this view of Russia’s power is spot on. However, Russia’s claim to superpower status resides in its nuclear arsenal and therein lies the problem.
Again, on the wayward assumption Mr. Putin is willing to take the region or the world with him to catastrophic consequences if he can’t achieve his imperial objectives, then we have a real problem. The circumstances remind me of the Cuban Missile Crisis when Nikita Khrushchev deployed nuclear armed missiles to the island of Cuba in the fall of 1962. But the difference is that Khrushchev was not a mad man. Diplomacy prevailed with the USSR withdrawing its missiles in exchange for the U.S. withdrawing its nuclear tipped missiles from Turkey. President Kennedy had effected a naval quarantine of the island of Cuba, but the nuclear trigger was still one twitch away.
Graham Allison of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard reminded us of Kennedy’s analysis at the time which was that, “The plausible scenario (at the time) was if a leader is forced to choose between a catastrophic humiliation and a roll of the dice that might yield success,” anything was possible.
Putin is already suffering global isolation, even with his opportunistic friends in China and India slowly turning their backs on what could amount to a potential Russian suicide operation. The Russian people are growing disillusioned with the so-called “special military operation” and fallout from Putin’s new conscription orders and war casualties conflate to threaten Putin’s power in the Kremlin and among the military. While all this sounds very pessimistic, there is another view which is more hopeful.
That view argues that Putin is using nuclear threats to prod Ukraine to move to the bargaining table, to accept the land annexations and end the hostilities. This view believes that a single use of a tactical nuclear weapon would be useless and stupid, not really changing the wartime circumstances on the ground and likely to result in harsh condemnations even from the likes of China, Hungary, India and perhaps a supermajority of members of the UN General Assembly and Security Council, remanding Russia to the equivalent of Siberian seclusion vis-vis the rest of the world.
Dissecting Putin’s mind on what may come to pass is a forensic nightmare. In my view, the man is capable of anything given his arrogance, his hubris, his obsession with power, his contemptuous disdain for the West, and his desire to rebuild the Russian Imperial Empire. His insecurities and fear of humiliation are fuses that absolutely could detonate fissionable material. All to say, better to be prepared. If that means gaming out schemes to respond to Mr. Putin’s potential use of theater nuclear weapons then better to be safe than sorry. There’s no denying the potential for this new cold war with Russia to get hot.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.