WASHINGTON — For the first time since the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, top government leaders in Moscow are making explicit nuclear threats and officials in Washington are weighing scenarios in case President Vladimir V. Putin decides to use a tactical nuke to compensate. the failures of Russian troops in Ukraine.
In a speech on Friday, Putin raised the prospect again, calling the United States and NATO enemies seeking Russia’s collapse and declaring again that he would use “all available means” to defend Russian territory, which he has now declared includes four Russian provinces. eastern Ukraine.
Mr. Putin reminded the world of President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, 77 years ago, adding: “By the way, they created a precedent.”
Senior US officials say they believe the chances of Putin using a nuclear weapon remain low. They say they have seen no evidence that he is moving any of his nuclear assets, and recent Pentagon analysis suggests little military benefit. And the cost to Putin, in a furious international response, perhaps even from the Chinese, whose support he most needs, could be tremendous.
But they are much more concerned about the possibility now than they were at the start of the Ukraine conflict in February. After a series of humiliating retirements, staggeringly high casualty rates and a deeply unpopular move to conscript young Russians into service, Putin clearly sees the threat of his nuclear arsenal as a way to instill fear and perhaps regain some respect. for Russia. Energy.
More importantly, it may see the threat of releasing some of its stockpile of roughly 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons (lower-yield warheads usable in smaller bombs, short-range missiles, or artillery rounds) as a way to extort concessions that have. been unable to win on the battlefield. Some Russian military analysts have suggested exploding a tactical weapon in a remote location like the Black Sea as a demonstration, or perhaps using one against a Ukrainian military base.
“This is not a hoax,” Putin said last month, a reminder that making use of nuclear weapons for the first time is an integral part of Russia’s military strategy. Last weekend, President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, responded that any use of nuclear weapons would have “catastrophic consequences” for Russia, adding that in private communications with Moscow, the United States had “explained” how the United States and the world react.
Such threats and counter-threats, seemingly drawn from the worst moments of the Cold War, are exactly the kind that most Americans and Russians thought ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
For a quarter of a century, both sides celebrated a reduction in their strategic weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles that can cross oceans. When nuclear threats have been made, it has been primarily by would-be atomic powers, such as North Korea, which has yet to prove that its weapons can reach US shores.
The Biden Presidency
Now that the midterm elections are approaching, this is the position of President Biden.
But in the last seven months, that has changed.
In issuing his warning to Russia last week, Sullivan declined to outline the playbook of US or NATO responses, knowing that a key to Cold War deterrence was a degree of ambiguity.
But in substantive talks, several officials suggested that if Russia were to detonate a tactical nuclear weapon on Ukrainian soil, the options included cutting Russia off from the world economy or some kind of military response, although the Ukrainians would most likely deliver it with weapons. conventional ones provided by the West.
For their part, Russian analysts and officials see the specter of nuclear conflict as a clear advantage for their side.
Because the outcome of the war in Ukraine is of existential importance to the Kremlin but not to the White House, they say, Russian officials appear to believe they would have the upper hand in the test of wills that brinkmanship nuclear policy represents.
Dmitri A. Medvedev, a former Russian president and a hardline Vice President of Putin’s Security Council, made that thesis last week in a mail on the social network Telegram. If Russia were forced to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, he argued, NATO was unlikely to intervene militarily because of the risk that a direct attack on Russia could lead to all-out nuclear war.
“Foreign and European demagogues are not going to perish in a nuclear apocalypse,” he wrote. “Therefore, they will swallow the use of any weapon in the current conflict.”
As the full extent of Ukraine’s gains in its September counteroffensive became clear, the Biden administration stepped up its study of steps Putin could take to reverse the perception that the Russian military was losing the war. Administration officials quickly saw some of his predictions come true, as Putin announced a mobilization of military reserves despite the dissent it provoked.
Now, with the annexation of Ukrainian territory, concern is growing in Washington. If Ukraine is able to build on its success and Putin faces a humiliating defeat, US officials worry that he may move quickly with the remaining steps and consider using a nuclear weapon.
And with Russian forces withdrawing from the strategic Lyman railway hub in territory annexed by Moscow on Friday, Russia continues to lose ground in eastern Ukraine.
Mr. Putin clearly sees Russia’s nuclear arsenal as the foundation for what remains of Russia’s great power status.
He has touted its world-destroying potential in his State of the Union addresses and has insisted that in the event of a nuclear war, “we would go to paradise as martyrs, while they would simply perish.”
The revelation of the Ukraine conflict—that Russia’s conventional forces were poorly trained, unimaginative and ill-equipped—has made Putin even more reliant on his unconventional weapons, an inherently unstable balance of forces.
“We are in a situation where superiority in resources and conventional weaponry is on the side of the West,” said Vasily Kashin, who specializes in military and political issues at the Moscow Higher School of Economics. “Russia’s power is based on its nuclear arsenal.”
The problem for Putin is how to gain real-world advantage from the destructive force of Russia’s nuclear warheads without actually using them. To some extent, he has been successful. Biden’s reluctance to put US or NATO troops into direct combat roles, or to provide Ukraine with weapons that could strike deep within Russia, is rooted in concerns about nuclear escalation.
But Putin also faces limitations. His threat to use nuclear weapons must appear believable, and repeated enchantment of nuclear threats can undermine his effectiveness. The threat may be more effective than using a weapon because the cost to Russia of breaking a 77-year-old taboo could be astronomically high. Most experts believe he would catch up only if Russia, or Putin himself, felt an existential threat.
“The possibility of Putin attacking out of the blue seems very low,” said Graham T. Allison, author of a seminal 1971 book on the Cuban missile crisis, “Essence of Decision.” “But as Kennedy said at the time, the plausible scenario is if a leader is forced to choose between catastrophic humiliation and a roll of the dice that could result in success.”
Allison suspects that Putin will not face that choice unless Ukraine succeeds in driving the Russians out of the areas Putin annexed on Friday.
For that reason, the next few weeks could be a particularly dangerous time, according to a number of US and European officials. But Putin is not likely to use a nuclear weapon right away. His initial steps, according to officials, would likely involve a campaign of sabotage in Europe, attacking Ukraine’s energy infrastructure or targeting top officials in Kyiv. Some officials question whether the attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines may have been a first step, although it is not clear that Russia was behind the sabotage.
But by escalating his nuclear threats in combination with annexation, Putin seems to have two goals in mind: One is to scare the US and NATO from intervening directly in Ukraine. The second is to force the West to stop supporting Ukraine, or perhaps force the Ukrainians to come to the negotiating table in a disadvantageous position.
In Russia, the airwaves are full of threats that constantly refer to Moscow’s nuclear options.
In a recent interview on state television, foreign policy analyst Dmitri Trenin said Russia needed to convince Washington that the escalation could lead to nuclear attacks on the American mainland.
“The American strategy of inflicting a strategic defeat on Russia is based on the belief that Russia will not use nuclear weapons: it will either be afraid or it will consider that the destruction of civilization remains too high a price to maintain its position. ”, Mr. Trenin said. “And here, in my opinion, you read a potentially fatal miscalculation for all of humanity.”
But the threshold at which Putin would resort to nuclear weapons, or how he would use them, is far from clear. Another analyst, Ivan Timofeev, said in a telephone interview that he believed Putin would use them only in the event of direct NATO intervention in Ukraine.
Using them against Ukrainian forces in the context of the current war would bring limited military advantage and deepen Russia’s international isolation, he said.
“I don’t see the possibility that China or India or any other Russia-friendly country will support such a decision,” said Timofeev, program director of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research organization close to the Russian government. “If you look at interests pragmatically and rationally, this scenario is not beneficial for Russia.”
Mr. Kashin, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, said his analysis of recent statements by Russian officials led him to conclude that Putin’s annexation on Friday was a sign that Ukraine’s further advances could lead to nuclear use.
“These territories will not be handed over,” Kashin said.
“A one-time use of a nuclear weapon would not make sense; I wouldn’t change a thing,” he added. “I think that would be a pretty serious use because that’s what would make it possible to change the situation on the battlefield immediately.”
Putin’s veiled threats about the use of nuclear weapons have suggested that he has also thought of large-scale revolutionary attacks. He said last year that anyone who threatens Russia’s core interests will face an “asymmetric, swift and harsh” response. and in June, hey it was lazy when asked how he would respond if Ukraine and the West crossed certain “red lines” in war.
But Putin warned that Russia could target “decision-making centers,” a broad term that analysts have interpreted to mean major government buildings and other military and political centers.
“Regarding the red lines,” he said, “let me keep this to myself because on our end it will include some pretty tough action targeting the decision-making centers.”
David Sanger other julian e barnes reported from Washington, and Anton Troyanovsky of Berlin