Is Putin Preparing for Nuclear War?

On the eve of Russia’s March presidential election, Putin said he would not hesitate to use nuclear missiles if there were threats to the existence of the Russian state or its sovereignty and independence. ‘Weapons exist in order to use them,’ he boasted, as he claimed that Russia’s nuclear triad of land, air and sea-based missiles was far more advanced than that of the United States—which is patently untrue. When asked if a nuclear confrontation with the West over Ukraine was inevitable, he said that he ‘had not yet seen the need to use nuclear weapons. I don’t think everything is rushing directly towards this, but we are ready.’ He stressed, ‘I have said many times that Ukraine is a matter of life and death for us.’

Russia’s current nuclear doctrine lists four scenarios under which nuclear weapons would be used: if Russia is attacked with nuclear missiles; if it believes nuclear missiles are being launched against it; if any attack is aimed at crippling its nuclear forces; or if the very existence of the Russian state is threatened, including by the use of superior conventional weapons by NATO.

So, let us look at the pros and cons of a decision by Putin to use tactical or, indeed, strategic nuclear weapons.

In theory, Russia may seek to use enough tactical nuclear weapons to inflict damage on the battlefield in Ukraine to prevent Russia’s own defeat. The calculation in Moscow would be that the United States would be unwilling to cross the nuclear threshold in retaliation for the use of only tactical nuclear weapons—which are not a direct threat to the US itself. Washington may be willing in these circumstances to force Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to terminate the conflict early.

Tactical nuclear missiles carry much smaller warheads than strategic ones. Moscow has 1900 such missiles. Unlike strategic nuclear missiles, tactical ones cannot devastate entire cities.

As might be expected, there are very many different views in the West on this vexing question. In many ways the most optimistic is Lawrence Freedman, Britain’s doyen of the history of military thinking. Freedman says that using tactical nuclear weapons is pointless from the Russian point of view because of their restricted military effect. But he acknowledges that the Russians have made ‘a number of stupid decisions and they can make more.’

He thinks Putin is well aware of what he would be unleashing if he moved to a nuclear war. However, he goes on to note correctly that in the former Soviet Union the Communist regime was a collective leadership with a strong general staff and ‘it was a pretty cautious leadership when it took military action.’ By comparison, today’s Russia, he says, is a personalized dictatorship where everything is under Putin’s control. Freedman observes that we have no idea about the quality of information getting to Putin nor whether anybody is challenging him or warning him about where these nuclear developments are going.

Freedman has been asked about the view of Avril Haines, chief of US intelligence, that Putin will use nuclear weapons if he feels threatened. In response, Freedman said, ‘It’s silly to say under no circumstances will nuclear weapons be used,’ because he (Freedman) didn’t know, and he doubted that Putin himself knew. Freedman concludes, however, that if the Russian state were directly under threat—say, if Ukraine were really going to march on Moscow—‘then you would say that’s a situation that would bring nuclear weapons in.’

I disagree with Freedman’s view that the defeat of Russia in Ukraine would not be a threat to the survival of the Russian state and that the Russians ‘will just withdraw their troops’ from Ukraine.

The further worry here is that some of Putin’s advisers are making some quite outrageous propositions for Russia to use nuclear weapons. One example with whom I am familiar is Sergei Karaganov, who has been a long-time adviser to the Kremlim and is currently honorary chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. In an article published in Moskovsky Komsomolets in October 2023 entitled ‘No Choice Left: Russia Will Have to Launch a Nuclear Strike on Europe’, Karaganov said ‘Our American partners, who deliberately downplay the danger of nuclear war, should know that this [a nuclear war] is possible.’ He went on to argue that a large-scale thermonuclear war ‘is looming not only, and not even so much, because of the situation in Ukraine. There are much deeper reasons. Theoretically, we will have to threaten several European countries, not necessarily in Eastern Europe, with nuclear strikes as a last resort.’

Karaganov went on to observe that some US experts claim there would allegedly be a non-nuclear attack ‘on the Russian Armed Forces, on our territory.’ When asked what would be the military gain if Russia did use nuclear weapons in response, he said he did not know exactly but thought that ‘NATO will fall apart, and they will run, all run every which way.’ He boasted that one theoretical option was for a retaliatory Russian strike to ‘target hundreds of American military bases overseas.’

Importantly, I am not arguing that Karaganov is necessarily an influential adviser to Putin these days. In my experience of him, he is, to say the least, rather boastful. Nevertheless, it is a considerable worry that these sorts of outrageous nuclear threats are being traded frequently in Moscow.

Now let’s turn to strategic experts in the United States. Graham Allison, who is the distinguished professor of government at Harvard University, has noted that Russia remains as much a superpower as the Soviet Union ever was and that it has a nuclear arsenal ‘that can literally erase the United States from the map.’ However, he goes on to quote national security adviser Jake Sullivan as saying in response to Putin’s nuclear threats that ‘we have communicated directly, privately, and at very high levels to the Kremlin that any use of nuclear weapons will be met by catastrophic consequences for Russia.’

Allison observes that while the US has been essentially phasing out tactical nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War, Russia’s defense plans have made them a major pillar. He goes on to observe that after seven decades without any use of nuclear weapons in war, ‘a nuclear taboo’ has led many to conclude that nuclear weapons are no longer usable weapons of war. But he observes that both the US and Russia ‘continue to rely on the threat to use nuclear weapons to defend themselves.’ Allison goes on to make an important admission: ‘It is hard to deny an uncomfortable similarity between Putin’s threat to retaliate with nuclear weapons against any overwhelming conventional attack on Russia’s newly annexed territory with America’s threat in the Cold War to retaliate with nuclear weapons to a Russian conventional attack on the territory of US NATO allies.’ He rather lamely concludes that Putin’s latest move has taken us into a much more dangerous world, and that the Biden administration ‘is right to take his threats seriously.’

The distinguished Wall Street Journal writer Walter Russell Mead observes that Putin has declared that the conflict in Ukraine is a war for the very survival of Russia and that this does raise the specter of a nuclear strike. He goes on to observe that the Biden administration ‘Must see the world through Mr. Putin’s eyes. Only then can officials know how seriously to take the nuclear sabre rattling and develop an appropriate response.’

Mead clearly has read a lot of Putin speeches. He quotes them at length. For example, he cites Putin’s deranged view that ‘the West is not a coalition of equals; it represents a domination of the evil Anglo-Saxons over the Europeans and Japan.’ Mead observes that making threats about the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine advances both Putin’s goals in Ukraine and his larger campaign against the American led order. Mead believes that making threats about the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine could force Washington to dial back military support for Ukraine. The threat or use of nuclear weapons could split Europe between ‘peace at any price’ governments and governments of countries geographically closer to Russia whose determination to resist nuclear blackmail will only grow. Yielding to Russian blackmail over Ukraine would be a massive blow to US credibility and power overseas. Yet deterring a Russian attack involves the risk of a deepening US engagement ‘in an escalating war.’ Mead concludes that the threat Putin poses to vital American interests ‘must not be underestimated, and the threat that he will use nuclear weapons in Ukraine is real.’

The final American expert whom I want to quote is Richard Betts, who is professor of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University and whose 1982 book ‘Surprise Attack: Lessons for Defense Planning’ I used extensively when I was director of what is now Australia’s Defense Intelligence Organization.

Betts recently said that planning for the potential that Russia would use nuclear weapons was imperative and ‘the danger would be greatest if the war were to turn decisively in Ukraine’s favor.’ He feels that the only situation in which the Russians’ incentive ‘to take that awesome risk would be plausible’ is an attempt to prevent defeat by shocking Ukraine and its NATO supporters into standing down. He illustrates his argument by asserting the Russians might do this ‘by setting off one or a few tactical nuclear weapons’ against Ukrainian forces ‘or by triggering a symbolic explosion over an empty area.’

Betts observes that the US could choose to rhetorically decry any nuclear detonation but do nothing militarily; or it could unleash nuclear weapons of its own; or it could refrain from a nuclear counterattack but enter the war directly with large-scale precise conventional airstrikes and the mobilization of ground forces. He concludes, however, ‘all these alternatives are bad because no low-risk options exist for coping with the end of the nuclear taboo.’

He says ‘a conventional war response is the least bad of the three because it avoids the higher risks of either weaker or the stronger options.’

And Betts finishes with some somber thoughts about levels of escalation when nuclear weapons are being used. He questions whether a Russian nuclear attack would trigger NATO shifting  from merely supplying Ukraine to engaging directly in combat itself. A Russian rationale for use of tactical nuclear weapons would be as much to frighten NATO away from crossing that line as to coerce Ukraine into surrender, he says. Under these circumstances, if a few Russian nuclear weapons do not provoke the United States into direct combat, Moscow ‘will have a green light to use even more such weapons and crush Ukraine quickly.’

I would add here that, since Betts wrote those words, Putin has made it very clear that reabsorption of Ukraine into Russia is not his only priority. Reasonably reliable opinion polls show more than 60 percent of Russians think this is now an existential war for the very survival of the Russian state, its culture and values.

Betts makes two crucial conclusions. First, that a nuclear war could easily strike Americans as an experiment they do not want to run. Second, with tactical nuclear shots Russia would be at an advantage, because it has many more tactical nuclear weapons than the United States does. This asymmetry would require US policymakers ‘to resort sooner to so-called strategic forces to keep the upper hand. He concludes that the non-nuclear, conventional option ‘is hardly attractive because a direct war between the major powers at any level risks escalation to mass destruction.’

So, what does this pessimistic outlook imply for Australia? We are not a nuclear weapons power, and we are not a party principal to military events that arise in Europe. However, the use of nuclear weapons for the first time since 1945 would have global implications, including for Australia. We do have (limited) access to US nuclear doctrine, and we must encourage our US ally to make it absolutely clear to Putin that there is no such war-fighting option available to him as a ‘limited nuclear war.’

In other words, Putin needs to understand that even use of tactical nuclear weapons by him may risk total war and the end of Russia as a functioning state.

Paul Dibb is emeritus professor in strategic studies at the ANU. This an edited version of an article that first appeared in The Australian on 18 May. This article is published courtesy of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).