Putin Won’t Use a Nuke. Chemical Weapons, Maybe.

By Adm. James Stavridis, dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

The Russian leader fears escalation he can’t control, and has other options to terrify Ukraine and intimidate the West.

As a former military commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, I do a lot of speaking in the US and internationally about the war in Ukraine. The question I get asked most frequently is terrifying and simple: “Would Vladimir Putin use a nuke?” 

Fortunately, I think the odds of the Russian president doing so are extremely low. But as this terrible conflict grinds on, it is worth examining the question: What is stopping Putin from nuclear aggression?

Remember that days after the invasion, Putin publicly put his forces on nuclear alert, a reminder to the West that Russia is a nuclear-capable nation with a powerful arsenal of around 6,000 weapons. His ominous “reminders” have continued.

The US, of course, is equally well supplied. Both nations have long-range, high-yield strategic weapons for delivery by a triad of systems — intercontinental ballistic missiles; long-range bombers and missile-carrying jets; and ballistic-missile submarines. Both also have stockpiles of “tactical” nuclear weapons — lower-yield warheads that could conceivably be used in limited measures on battlefields — including nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and gravity-drop bombs carried by aircraft.

Beyond the US arsenal, NATO is a nuclear-capable alliance: French and British strategic forces reportedly number around 500 devices, deployable in a variety of ways. These forces are both national weapons and under the authority of the alliance, with the supreme allied commander having verification codes.

In other words, there are lots of nukes on either side of the Ukraine conflict. But there are three important factors holding Putin back from using his, through either strategic or tactical use.

First, although Putin may seem not to care about international opinion, any use of a nuclear weapons would have immense negative repercussions around the globe. The Russian leader is keenly aware that from an economic and diplomatic perspective, he must keep China (at least passively) on his side — for selling his oil and gas, controlling the United Nations Security Council and obtaining high-technology imports.

He also wants to maintain additional economic strength, especially sales of his hydrocarbons in the “swing vote” regions of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia (especially India). Using a nuclear weapon would lose him support from many of the nations that are trying to steer a narrow course between the Western-backed Ukrainians and Russia.

A second concern is that using a nuke would make control of the ladder of escalation difficult and dangerous. Putin knows that once the threshold is crossed, even by a tactical weapon, the Western nuclear nations would go on high alert and the possibility of miscalculation leading to a major strategic exchange rises. Putin likes his life and loves his country — he’d not be enthusiastic about risking it all, even for the prize of Ukraine. (I co-authored a novel about a war between the US and China in the year 2034 that follows such a scenario, and it’s all-too possible.)

Third, could Putin use a tactical nuclear weapon against a specific target in Ukraine? Potentially Kyiv (to decapitate the government) or the western city of Lviv (to destroy the supply chain providing arms through Poland) or the Black Sea port of Odesa (killing the Ukrainian economy)? 

Conceivable, but unlikely. Putin could achieve many of those military goals by using conventional means, if he massed his offensive fires at a given city. He would probably calculate that the risks of a tactical strike outweigh the benefits.

In the end, it’s more likely that if Putin wants to do something to really strike terror into Ukrainian hearts, he would opt for a chemical weapon, perhaps directing it against one of those three city targets. He has shown in Syria an indifference to the use of chemical weapons by his ally, President Bashar al-Assad.

And, importantly, it would be more difficult for the West to conclusively attribute the use of a chemical weapon to Putin — the delivery is more ambiguous, and he’s already laid the disinformation groundwork to point to US-Ukrainian chemical and biological programs (fiction, but embedded in many social networks).

Worrying about Putin’s using a weapon of mass destruction is warranted — but more likely it would be chemical than nuclear. Cold comfort perhaps, but at least we would remain at arm’s length from the lever to the apocalypse.

This piece is republished from Bloomberg Opinion.

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