Could Putin Do the Unthinkable?
Vladimir Putin announced a deadline of May 9—Victory Day, which this year marks the 77th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany—for success in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Given the poor performance of Russia’s armed forces and the outstanding performance of Ukraine’s thus far, most recently demonstrated by its sinking of the Moskva, Putin’s hoped-for success by that deadline seems unlikely. Running out of admirals, generals, and intelligence chiefs to sack as a means of deflecting blame, Putin may face a choice between personal humiliation and military escalation. Based on recent statements, not only does the latter seem more likely, there is a genuine threat of the nightmarish worst-case scenario: weapons of mass destruction.
Given that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian state media this week that “NATO, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy” and—while claiming that Russia was trying to avoid nuclear war—said that “the danger is serious, real. And we must not underestimate it.” Putin himself said that outside interference in Ukraine was an “unacceptable strategic threat to Russia”: “We have all the weapons we need for this,” he said. “No one else can brag about these weapons, and we won’t brag about them. But we will use them.” If Putin makes use of chemical or especially nuclear weapons to avoid defeat, President Joe Biden will face America’s greatest national security crisis in living memory.
A signal success of the United States since World War II was preventing our enemies from conquering us or our allies, South Vietnam and Afghanistan sadly excepted, while also deterring and making taboo any further use of nuclear weapons, beyond of course the two we dropped on Japan. Even the demonstrative use of a lower-yield tactical nuclear weapon by Russia would mark the end of the postwar order through which, under U.S. leadership, most of the world enjoyed relative and increasing levels of prosperity, freedom, and peace. It would augur the beginning of an era more like that of 1914-45, scarred by the Great Depression, totalitarianism, genocide, and world wars that included the use of chemical and nuclear weapons of mass destruction and killed as many as 100 million people.
The Cabinet and White House staff need to be, and certainly are, preparing courses of action to be considered in the event of Russia’s use of WMD. One course of action that should be ruled out—unless a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally is attacked—is a response “in kind,” as the president unfortunately misphrased it. For one thing, the U.S. simply lacks chemical weapons. And a retaliatory use of nuclear against Russia might foreseeably result in an uncontrollable ascent of an escalatory ladder, as theorist Herman Kahn envisaged it, that ends in the literal destruction of the United States.