Putin Isn’t Crazy Enough to Use Nukes. Or Is He?

By Adm. James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

In recent weeks, we have seen a curious dichotomy in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military approach to his war in Ukraine. With one hand, he is reaching for modern weapons of war: hypersonic missiles, cyberattacks and precision-guided munitions.

With the other hand, he is turning to the dictates of medieval warfare in encircling large cities and threatening to reduce them to rubble. He has in effect said to the heroic defenders of Mariupol, “Lay down your arms, and I will spare your homes and your spouses and children.” Predictably, the Ukrainians, who enjoy not only the moral advantage but increasingly the tactical one, have spurned his offer. So his cannons boom, his cruise missiles fly and the tally of his war crimes rises by the day.

What can we learn about modern warfare, and how to foil Putin’s approach to it, from events in Ukraine?

The top concern is probably the Russian president’s unsubtle saber rattling about nuclear weapons, including putting his nuclear forces into “special combat readiness” and the ominous statement from his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, “You know about the famous black suitcase and the red button.”

Putin surely doesn’t want things to reach an apocalyptic level — he, too, has children and a country he deeply loves. But would he risk a relatively low-yield tactical nuclear weapon — perhaps to knock apart a city from which most civilians have fled — in hopes of avoiding Western retribution in kind?

Maybe, but doing so would raise him to the top of the pantheon of history’s war criminals. I suspect it is a line even he is reluctant to cross, although he will continue to threaten it.

More likely would be the use of a chemical weapon, something he previewed when he falsely accused the Ukrainians of harboring their own arsenal. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is taking the threat seriously. “I expect allies will agree to provide additional support,” said Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday, including “equipment to help Ukraine protect against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats.”

A chemical or biological attack would terrorize the population — a key objective in Putin’s Plan B strategy now that Plan A, a blitzkrieg decapitation of Ukraine’s government, has failed. It would also help him conserve his inventory of cruise missiles and bombs, which is shrinking rapidly. Few things would empty a city faster than a cloud of nerve gas.

As President Joe Biden meets with the European allies in Brussels, they should be crafting specific plans for each scenario. Putin’s use of weapons of mass destruction would probably need to be met by what NATO has henceforth avoided: a no-fly zone, at least above western Ukraine, to maintain the flow of weapons from Poland into Ukrainian hands. A Russian chemical attack might also demand a NATO ground force to protect the western city of Lviv, to which the Ukrainian government of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy may need to relocate to prepare for mounting a nationwide resistance.

Another modern weapon Putin has rolled out is hypersonic missiles. While not confirmed by the Pentagon, the Russians say they launched one at a precisely demarcated target late last week. There is much confusion about hypersonic weapons. In a nutshell, they move at more than five times the speed of sound, have maneuverability in flight (and thus are hard to knock down), and can be either self-powered like a cruise missile or glide to their target after being launched from an aircraft or rocket. (Strictly speaking, hypersonics fly at low altitudes like traditional cruise missiles, although in the media the term is commonly used to describe some ballistic missiles and space-launched weapons. Bloomberg’s Roxana Tiron has a good explainer here.)

The significance of the Russian launch has little to do with defeating Ukraine and much to do with signaling to the West. Putin is warning the U.S. and NATO that not only does he have nuclear weapons, but that he could deploy one on a platform against which there is little to no defense.  

We should take the point: The U.S. needs to build its own hypersonic missiles to create a deterrent regime, and explore defenses against them, probably using lasers (ultimately the only system fast enough to engage them). The military is already on both these paths, but feasibility is years away. Thus NATO should take seriously Putin’s signal, but not overreact to it. The West has plenty of other escalation options — cyberwarfare, conventional strikes, maritime responses — if necessary.

Finally, the bear that hasn’t growled is cyberwarfare. Biden rightfully has highlighted both the nuclear and chemical weapons possibilities, but Putin will may well ramp up on cyber against (in probably this order) U.S. consumers (gas pipelines and food distribution networks); transportation grids; financial institutions; the U.S. government itself.

As we reach the one-month mark in this war, Putin is primarily using the strategies of ancient warfare: destroying cities and terrorizing populations. But in the background loom the most modern tools of combat: cyberattacks, hypersonic missiles — and perhaps chemical weapons and or even tactical nukes. The U.S. and its allies need to plan now how they will react to any or all of them.

This piece is republished from The Washington Post.

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