How seriously should Americans take Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to conduct tactical nuclear weapons strikes on Ukraine? After a month in which Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive left Russia stunned, Putin recently upped the ante.
In his first major speech since the Feb. 24 invasion, he called up an additional 300,000 troops, announced plans for referenda in four Ukrainian provinces to provide cover for Russia annexing them, and issued a clear threat to use his nuclear arsenal to defend not only his homeland but also the territory he has captured. As he said: “Our country possesses various means of destruction … when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we, of course, will use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people.” Lest anyone miss his point, he concluded: “Those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weathervane can turn and point towards them.”
President Biden believes that Putin is deadly serious. As Jake Sullivan, his National Security adviser, said, “We’ve been careful in how we talk about this publicly” because we do not want to “engage in a game of rhetorical tit for tat.” Sullivan nonetheless offered some clues about what the United States has already done in response to Putin’s threat: “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.”
So, what do Biden and his national security team know that makes them take Putin’s nuclear threat so seriously? In brief, seven inconvenient facts.
First, in one dimension, Russia remains as much a superpower as the Evil Empire ever was: It has a nuclear arsenal that can literally erase the United States from the map. In the Cold War, strategists coined the acronym MAD — mutual assured destruction — to make vivid the ugly reality: While either major nuclear power can destroy its adversary, it cannot do so without triggering a retaliatory response that destroys itself. So, in confronting Russia, we still live in a MAD world. And in that world, the United States and Russia continue to bet their own survival on the credibility of their capability and will to retaliate with their own nuclear weapons to a nuclear attack by the other.
Second, Ronald Reagan summarized most succinctly the profound consequences that follow from the first point in his oft-repeated one-liner: “a nuclear war cannot be won, and therefore must never be fought.” As Biden has stated clearly in explaining why the United States is not sending American troops to fight on the battlefield with Ukrainians, “the US will not fight World War III for Ukraine.”
Third, while the Cold War nuclear arsenals of the United States and Soviet Union that numbered almost 100,000 have mercifully been sharply reduced, Putin continues to command an arsenal that includes more than 6,000 nuclear warheads, 1,500 of which are deliverable by long-range missiles, bombers, or submarines, each weapon capable of devastating any city in the world within hours.
Fourth, Putin’s arsenal also includes 1,900 tactical nuclear weapons designed for use on the battlefield or at shorter range. With an explosive impact similar to the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima, if the Boston bomber had detonated not dynamite but a tactical nuclear weapon, the blast would have destroyed buildings as far away as MIT and and the surrounding area would have been blanketed with radioactive debris.
Fifth, in strategy 101, nuclear weapons are the weaker powers’ “equalizer.” In the 1960s and ’70s when the United States and NATO faced the threat of 100 Soviet divisions attacking through the Fulda Gap and driving to the English Channel in less than a week, the US strategy called for the use of hundreds of tactical nuclear weapons to stop Soviet tanks in their advance. While the United States has essentially phased out tactical nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War, Russia’s defense plans have made them a major pillar.
Sixth, 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. In fact, both the United States and Russia continue to rely on the threat to use nuclear weapons to defend themselves. This threat is called nuclear deterrence. Moreover, the United States also provides what is often referred to as a “nuclear umbrella” that protects treaty allies who choose not to build their own nuclear arsenals by guaranteeing that we will use our arsenal to defend them.
Seventh, despite the stark differences between allies and territories that have been seized by force, it is hard to deny an uncomfortable similarity between Putin’s threat to retaliate with nuclear weapons against any attack on Russia’s newly annexed territory and America’s threat to retaliate with nuclear weapons to a Russian attack on the territory of US NATO allies to whom we have given an “Article V” guarantee.
Putin’s latest move has taken us into a much more dangerous world, and the Biden administration is right to take his threats seriously.
Graham Allison is a professor of government at Harvard University. His latest book is “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?”