Could Putin Do the Unthinkable?
Use of weapons of mass destruction would create America’s greatest national security crisis in living memory.
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.
The Biden administration deserves credit for good policies it is now following, even if it arrived at them slowly by fits and starts: arm the Ukrainians and help their refugees, condemn and sanction Moscow, rally and possibly expand NATO, send more U.S. forces to Eastern Europe and (let’s hope) provide covert assistance to Russian opposition figures. But what can Biden do if Putin crosses the WMD Rubicon? What responses would be commensurate to such a grave provocation by Russia?
Our responses must work toward of making Russia under Putin’s continued dictatorship a pariah state in the aftermath of any nuclear use. Some ideas:
Indict every Russian official in the chain of command, from Putin down to the servicemember who turns the launch key, as war criminals. While these defendants might now be out of our reach, take out “red notices” to inhibit the international travel, in perpetuity, of those who will later lack diplomatic immunity.
Declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, freeze its assets in this country, and place “secondary sanctions” on its economy to sanction any entity that trades with Moscow. Force the world to choose between doing business with the U.S., which runs the global financial system, or Russia, which pumps some oil and gas. While this would be wrenching, if it decoupled the American economy from those of adversaries who would stick with Putin even after he used nuclear weapons in Europe, that break in trade relations might eventually have become necessary on other grounds, anyhow.
Sever diplomatic relations with Moscow. This would have the added benefit of closing down Russia’s embassy and consulates in this country, which are heavily used as cover platforms by their aggressive security services. Encourage our allies to do the same. Necessary bilateral contacts could continue through diplomatic and intelligence personnel in third countries, and the “hotlines” between the White House and Kremlin and the Pentagon and Russian defense ministry.
Move to kick Russia out of all international organizations to which the U.S. belongs, including the United Nations. While the State Department would cringe, as a practical matter, the FBI and NYPD can physically deposit Moscow’s U.N. mission personnel at the departure gates at Kennedy Airport if they are declared persona non grata for a very good reason.
Detain all known or suspected “illegal” Russian intelligence officers—i.e., those lacking diplomatic immunity—in the United States. Hold them until the end of hostilities in Ukraine. Again, encourage allies to do likewise.
Destroy any Russian air, artillery or naval unit identified as having launched the WMD, but with conventional weapons delivered by stealth bombers, precision global strike missiles, or attack submarines. While even a conventional U.S. kinetic attack on Russian forces, especially inside Russia, would pose a significant risk of escalation, it might specifically deter similarly armed Russian units from conducting further such WMD attacks.
Launch a cyber-attack on Russian command-and-control (C2) systems, including nuclear C2 systems, in an effort to prevent further attacks. The U.S. and its adversaries refrained from doing this to each other in the past, fearing that such an attack might be unsuccessful, yet trigger nuclear use by a country afraid of losing the use of its weapons. Once nuclear weapons are used that serious concern, while still valid, is less salient.
These measures are harsh, but if Russia uses a nuclear weapon to defeat Ukraine, Moscow will realistically threaten to use one against a NATO ally such as Poland next. China might use one in a naval action while invading Taiwan, or against non-nuclear countries that come to its defense such as Japan. The nuclear nonproliferation regime would end, Saudi Arabia and Iran would race to obtain the bomb, and soon either country would use one. The stakes for world peace and American security are that high, and therefore so must be our willingness to prevent such outcomes.
One thing the Biden administration has done poorly in this war thus far is to communicate our intentions to friends and foes. Cabinet departments disagree with one another in public; far too often, the president’s statements on Ukraine are contradicted by his own subordinates. (Take the aborted plan to send MiG fighter jets from Poland to Ukraine, for example.) Clear and consistent messaging is essential, yet American credibility has unfortunately been squandered. To help rebuild it, Biden should make use of the services of former presidents and Cabinet officers with gravitas from both parties, as other administrations have done in past international crises, to reinforce to foreign leaders on his behalf just how severe the consequences will be if Russia uses weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine.
Kevin Carroll served as an Army and CIA officer, and as senior counselor to the secretary of homeland security.