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The Morning Dispatch: About Those Nukes
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The Morning Dispatch: About Those Nukes

Why Putin may be bluffing, and what happens next if he's not.

Happy Wednesday! And to all our readers observing Yom Kippur today, we hope you have an easy and meaningful fast. G’mar chatima tova.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Pentagon announced a new $625 million security assistance package for Ukraine on Tuesday, tapping into previously approved congressional aid to send Ukraine four more HIMARS mobile artillery systems, 16 howitzers, Claymore anti-personnel mines, ammunition, and other equipment. The United States has now sent Ukraine approximately $16.8 billion in military aid since Russia’s invasion in late February. President Joe Biden also spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to underscore that “the United States will never recognize Russia’s purported annexation of Ukrainian territory.”

  • Nearly 110 deaths from Hurricane Ian had been reported as of Tuesday night—about half of them coming in Florida’s Lee County—and more than 320,000 households in Florida remained without power as of Wednesday morning. The Federal Emergency Management Agency on Tuesday announced it has approved more than $70 million for recovery efforts, and FEMA workers are visiting shelters to help Florida residents apply for assistance.

  • After months of declines, gas prices have begun to rise again in recent days, with the nationwide average up about 1.5 percent week-over-week according to AAA data. Planned refinery maintenance on the West Coast accounts for some of the reversal, as does the expectation that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC+) will reduce oil production by as many as 2 million barrels per day. The Biden administration has reportedly been lobbying against such a cut in advance of today’s OPEC+ meeting.

  • The U.S. labor market cooled somewhat last month, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting Tuesday there were 10.1 million job openings in the United States at the end of August—down from a near-record 11.2 million one month earlier. The quits rate—the percentage of workers who quit their job during the month—held steady at 2.7 percent month-over-month, and the number of layoffs and discharges ticked up slightly from 1.4 million to 1.5 million.

  • The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Tuesday awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics to three scientists—France’s Alain Aspect, America’s John Clauser, and Austria’s Anton Zeilinger—for their experiments with quantum entanglement, when particles act like a single unit even while parted.

  • New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge hit his 62nd home run of the season on Tuesday, surpassing Roger Maris’ record for the most home runs in a single season in American League history—and seventh most in Major League Baseball history.

About Those Nukes

Vladimir Putin addresses a rally marking the annexation of four Ukrainian territories last week. (Photo by Alexander Nemenov / AFP via Getty Images.)

In 2018, a pro-Kremlin journalist asked Russian President Vladimir Putin what scenario would drive Russia to use nuclear weapons. The answer lined up with established Russian nuclear doctrine: A strike is justified if Russia’s existence is at risk.

“Yes, for humanity it will be a global catastrophe, for the world it will be a global catastrophe,” Putin said. “But still, as a citizen of Russia and the head of the Russian state, then I want to ask myself the question: ‘Why do we need such a world if there is no Russia there?’”

Why, indeed. Nuclear saber-rattling is nothing new for Russia’s ruler and his cronies, but the threats have taken on new weight as Ukrainian forces continue to thwart Russia’s conventional warfare efforts—repelling Russia’s drive toward Kyiv, launching successful counteroffensives, and now driving Russian troops out of field, town, and city. A shambolic partial mobilization seems unlikely to help Russia get its war effort back on track.

Russia’s military setbacks are once again raising the question: Will Putin reach for nuclear weapons to accomplish what boots-on-the-ground apparently can’t? 

Russia’s illegal annexation last week of about 20 percent of Ukrainian territory—not all of it actually under Russian control, given Ukraine’s recent successes—reignited fears that the Kremlin could extend its zone of nuclear defense to the annexed territory, declaring Ukrainian counterattacks justification for nuclear strikes. On Saturday, pro-Kremlin Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said Russia needed a change of strategy, including “the use of low-yield nuclear weapons.”

A pro-Kremlin Chechen leader calling for nuclear strikes is obviously alarming. But the mental image it conjures—a mushroom cloud leveling a massive city—is likely an inaccurate representation of how a Russian escalation would play out. If Putin takes that step—still an enormous if—he would likely deploy one or more of the roughly 2,000 “tactical” nuclear warheads in Russia’s arsenal. As veteran national security journalists David Sanger and William Broad reported this week, such weapons vary dramatically in size and delivery mechanism, but most have a “small fraction” of the power of the bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki nearly 80 years ago. Tactical nukes “might collapse a few city blocks or stop an oncoming column of troops,” the pair write. “But they would not destroy the world.”

The primary goal of such a strike would likely not be concrete military gains, given the character of this war. “There is not much that nuclear weapons can do on the battlefield,” Pavel Podvig, director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project, told The Dispatch. “There are no large concentrations of troops, there are no aircraft carriers.” With Ukraine’s forces relatively spread out, hitting an airstrip or weapons depot wouldn’t be a crippling blow, and therefore probably not worth the consequences of using a nuclear weapon.

Why, then, deploy a weapon that hasn’t been used in warfare since 1945? To send a message. A nuclear strike would undoubtedly mark a new stage in the conflict, and represent an attempt to “shock Ukrainians into surrender,” Podvig said. Russia could, for example, detonate a bomb over a relatively unpopulated area—the Black Sea, or the highly symbolic Snake Island—opting against a mass-casualty event while signaling a willingness to kill tens or hundreds of thousands if its demands aren’t met. The radioactive fallout of a “messaging” nuke would still have disastrous consequences, of course, for both the environment and the health of all those in its range.

Most Western analysts and officials still see such an escalation as unlikely. “We have to take seriously his kind of threats given everything that’s at stake,” CIA Director William Burns told CBS News in an interview that aired Sunday. But echoing other Biden administration officials, he added that the U.S. doesn’t have “practical evidence” that Putin is moving toward using nuclear weapons just yet. Western intelligence agencies are watching closely for any strike preparations, including moving nuclear weapons into place or preparing Russian troops. “It’s a process, and that process is likely to be visible,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security Program. U.S. intelligence officials, for example, were able to swiftly deny a report yesterday that Russia was moving a nuclear train toward Ukraine’s borders.

Despite veiled threats and non-denial denials, Russian leaders haven’t made the final rhetorical shifts that many analysts expect before a strike. If the point of a nuclear blow is to intimidate Ukraine into surrender and drive the West to slow its support, Russia has motive to strongly telegraph its intentions—and at least thus far, its leaders haven’t explicitly said they will respond to Ukrainian gains on annexed territory with nuclear strikes. 

Putin’s big military address last week, for example, merely “reminded” the West that Russia has some weapons that are “more modern than the weapons NATO countries have,” and that they aren’t afraid to make use of them in response to a threat about the “territorial integrity” of Ukraine. On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov played down Kadyrov’s suggestion of employing low-yield nuclear weapons.

As reckless as he’s been the past year, Putin has shown relative restraint on the nuclear issue—and there are structural reasons to think he won’t break that seal. Depending on the type of warhead and the weather conditions, any nuclear fallout could affect Russian troops or drift into Russian territory. It could also affect nearby NATO territory, risking an immediate escalation in which Russia would not come out on top. Plus, such a move would likely cost the Kremlin its neutral-to-warm relationships with China and India, two of the last major purchasers of Russian oil.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, have publicly warned of “catastrophic” repercussions for Russia if it does decide to cross that nuclear threshold—though few analysts believe Western countries would respond with nuclear strikes of their own. “We have communicated to the Russians what the consequences would be, but we’ve been careful in how we talk about this publicly,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told ABC News in late September. “We want to lay down the principle that there would be catastrophic consequences, but not engage in a game of rhetorical tit for tat.” The U.S. still has economic weapons left in its arsenal—secondary sanctions targeting entities still doing business with Russia, seizing frozen Russian assets—along with literal weapons it has thus far been hesitant to provide Ukraine.

David Petraeus—the former CIA director and retired Army general—outlined a far more aggressive approach over the weekend. “Just to give you a hypothetical, we would respond by leading a collective [NATO] effort that would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea,” he told Jonathan Karl, making clear he had “deliberately” not talked to Sullivan about this. “There has to be a response, it cannot go unanswered. But … it’s not nuclear for nuclear. You don’t want to, again, get into a nuclear escalation here. But you have to show that this cannot be accepted in any way.”

Far preferable to a scenario in which Western countries are punishing Russia for a strike is a scenario in which they successfully deter Russia from carrying one out in the first place. “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg told NBC News’ “Meet The Press” on Sunday, echoing Cold War-era rhetoric. “And this is a message that NATO and NATO allies convey clearly to Russia.”

Worth Your Time

  • The Onion, a satirical publication, filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on Monday in support of a man from Parma, Ohio, who faced criminal charges over a Facebook post parodying his local police department—and it’s a fantastic defense of humor, levity, and free speech. “Parody provides functionality and value to a writer or a social commentator that might not be possible by, say, simply stating a critique outright and avoiding all the confusion of readers mistaking it for the real deal,” the brief reads. “One of parody’s most powerful capacities is rhetorical: It gives people the ability to mimic the voice of a serious authority—whether that’s the dry news-speak of the Associated Press or the legalese of a court’s majority opinion—and thereby kneecap the authority from within. Parodists can take apart an authoritarian’s cult of personality, point out the rhetorical tricks that politicians use to mislead their constituents, and even undercut a government institution’s real-world attempts at propaganda.”

  • Touting Maryland’s recent decision to remove certain college-degree requirements, Gov. Larry Hogan argues in the Wall Street Journal that credentialism has gone too far. “It’s time to debunk the fiction that a prestigious degree is the only key to the American dream,” he writes. “Employers should stop requiring college degrees for jobs that don’t need them. In Maryland, we’ve led the charge by announcing that thousands of state jobs will no longer have such requirements. If more states follow our lead, the trend could spread to the private sector. The federal government should also expand Pell grant subsidies for short-term skills-based training, not only expensive four-year degrees. Second, the federal government and states must drastically ramp up apprenticeship programs to create alternative pathways to careers like cybersecurity, healthcare and the skilled trades. Maryland’s innovative EARN program has successfully created partnerships with these kinds of industries to develop job-training programs, generating $17.32 of economic impact for every $1 of state funding.”

Rest in Peace, Loretta Lynn

The country music icon and coal miner’s daughter died on Tuesday at her home in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, at the age of 90. 

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Is Putin going to launch a nuke? What’s on the docket for the new Supreme Court term? Does the latest Herschel Walker scandal doom the GOP’s chances of taking back the Senate? David, Adam, Declan, and Andrew tackled all that—plus a debate over the legitimacy of Aaron Judge’s home run title—on last night’s edition of Dispatch Live (🔒). Dispatch members who missed the conversation can catch a rerun—either video or audio-only—by clicking here.

  • The midterm elections are slightly more than a month away, and this week’s Sweep (🔒) catches you up on all you need to know. From potential polling misses, to the volatility of the Latino vote, to Trump’s new super PAC, to Herschel Walker’s October surprise, it’s going to be a bumpy 34 days. “Campaigns aren’t taking anything for granted right now,” Sarah writes.

  • In Tuesday’s Uphill, Haley looks at a push in the Senate to allow more international students who earn STEM degrees at American universities to stay in the United States. “Former and current national security officials have been lobbying Congress to pass such a bill, citing a scarcity of workers for important defense industry positions,” she notes. “Nearly two-thirds of U.S. graduate students in artificial intelligence and semiconductor-related programs are born abroad.”

  • Sarah is joined by Axios senior political correspondent Josh Kraushaar on today’s episode of The Dispatch Podcast for a conversation about 2022 and 2024. Was Democratic candidates’ summer momentum nothing but a temporary sugar rush? Have Republican hopes for a red wave been dashed by poor candidate quality? And have the 2024 presidential primaries already started?

  • Chris Stirewalt makes his post-book tour return to The Remnant today for some old-fashioned rank punditry on partisanship, the midterms, and America’s changing demographics. What to make of the Herschel Walker situation? Why does MAGA World hate Mitch McConnell so much? How much influence will Dobbs have in November? Do party primaries have any redeeming qualities?

  • David devotes his latest French Press (🔒) to pushing back on false smears of his character from those he labels the “gutter right.” While politics has never been a gentle pursuit, he writes, “the advent of Trumpism and the Trumpist ethos has spawned a host of popular voices who embrace lies as a tactic and character assassination as an objective.”

  • There’s a heap of good stuff on the site today: Tevi Troy on the 75th anniversary of the first televised White House address and the development of the medium since, Audrey and Price on Republican Adam Laxalt’s chances at edging out Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada, Nick Catoggio on why Herschel Walker’s latest scandal might be difficult to overcome in Georgia, and Jonah on how Vladimir Putin currently “plays the same role Fidel Castro did on the socialist left—an avatar for a wholesale critique of America.”

Let Us Know

We’re going to re-up a question that sparked an interesting conversation on last night’s Dispatch Live

If the U.S. intelligence community assessed Russia was gearing up to launch a nuclear strike—transporting warheads, moving its own assets out of the way, etc.—how would you want the Biden administration to respond? Declassify and publicize the information? Mount a conventional warfare response with NATO allies? Covertly and preemptively take out the nukes? None of the above? All of the above?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.