Breaking the Nuclear Taboo
Are Putin’s threats credible, or is he just playing the madman?
Sixty years ago, in October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union stood ready to unleash nuclear war over Cuba—the first such conflagration since Hiroshima. The Soviets had emplaced 162 nuclear warheads on the island that could reach the American mainland, and the United States was ready to pounce at the risk of unleashing the apocalypse. Yet on October 28, Nikita Khrushchev caved, and his nukes went back home in November. Why this happy outcome? The answer by way of an anecdote burned into this author’s memory.
I was a novice at Swarthmore College then, a student of Kenneth N. Waltz, one of the greats known as the “father of neo-realism” whom we will keep reading for a long time to come. Holding forth at the dinner table, he told his students to stay cool. Why this bizarre advice while the United States was sliding into nuclear war?
Because, Waltz argued, the overall balance of power was in America’s favor. First, the United States held a vast conventional advantage in the Caribbean. The Soviet fleet didn’t even have an aircraft carrier for power projection, let alone combat forces nearby. Second, the United States enjoyed nuclear superiority. Its long-range missiles could hit Russia, but not the other way round. Third, the balance of credibility-cum-legitimacy was on the U.S. side. Cuba was not some faraway conflict, but posed a direct threat to the American homeland ninety miles away. After thirteen fateful days, Khrushchev caved, and the Soviets pulled back from the brink.
This ultra-realist take comes with a poignant punchline. In the middle of salad, Waltz called out to his wife in the kitchen, “Huddie, did you store enough water and canned food in the basement?” Here is the difference between rational analysis and human angst; the heart follows a different path than the brain. Back then, this great realist was on target with his cold-eyed assessment, but we students were not relieved by his confident take. If Waltz was right, we did have to finish our seminar papers on time. No nuclear war, no excuses, no extension.
Cuba is history, but the lesson is not. Nuclear weapons have unhinged a thousand years of statecraft when great-power peace was just a pause between two wars. We have been blessed with a nuclear taboo that has held for seventy-seven years, ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki perished in the nuclear fire. Since then, nuclear-armed powers have not confronted each other directly, let alone reached for the ultimate weapon.
Yet today, Putin keeps threatening tactical nuclear strikes on Ukraine. Is Putin crazy, as so many long-distance psychiatrists have it? If he is crazy, then he is crazy like a fox. Why this reassuring idea? And how does it relate to Putin’s nuclear blackmail?
Let’s do a thought experiment by going back to the eve of World War I, grippingly described in Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August. Assume the leaders of the Entente and the Central Powers had had a crystal ball back in August of 1914 that showed them the world after four years of global war. Four empires would fall—down with the Wilhelmine, Tsarist, Habsburg, and Ottoman empires. Around twenty million soldiers and civilians (the numbers vary) would die in the slaughter. The Reich would be amputated at Versailles in 1919, and the once mighty Habsburg Empire “on which the sun never set” would become tiny Austria with a population of eight million, excelling at schlag, strudel, and Strauss. The war would pave the way for Bolshevism and fascism—and ultimately for World War II. 1914 would be the start of Europe’s second “thirty years’ war” that would end in Europe’s almost-suicide.
Only Britain’s Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey had it right on the third of August: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.”
The cosmic difference between then and now is that we don’t need a crystal ball to peer into the future. From countless studies, we know what nuclear war would do. It would kill many tens of millions and lay waste to the planet because radioactive clouds respect neither borders nor regimes.
A valid interjection: Putin is threatening only tactical nukes, only short-range battlefield weapons. A “little” bomb won’t trigger the apocalypse. So, what exactly are tactical nukes? Sure, they do not cross oceans, and their explosive “dial-a-yield” charges range between .3 and 170 kilotons of TNT—as compared to the megatons carried by intercontinental missiles. Tactical weapons might not be quite as devastating, then. But consider an inconvenient fact: The Hiroshima bomb packed a measly fifteen kilotons, and it killed ninety thousand.
But couldn’t Putin count on a tightly limited tactical war, way short of Armageddon? Think again. Back in 1945, the United States had only a handful of bombs, and Russia had none. Today, the two have thirteen thousand between them, including about two thousand tactical weapons on either side. Maybe Putin’s generals dare not tell him what tactical devices might trigger. Listen to James Mattis in 2018, then Donald Trump’s secretary of defense: “I do not think there is any such thing as a tactical nuclear weapon. Any nuclear weapon used any time is a strategic game changer.”
He was echoed by Joe Biden: “I don’t think there is any such thing as the ability to use a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”
Looking back at Cuba in 1990, Waltz quoted Clausewitz: It is “imperative … not to take the first step without considering what may be the last.” And back in 1962, John F. Kennedy repeated Clausewitz: “It isn’t the first step that concerns me,” he said, “but both sides escalating to the fourth and fifth step—and we don’t go to the sixth because there is no one around to do so.” In a conventional crisis, by contrast, leaders can bluff because the next step will not unleash megadeath in a few minutes; so, why not a throw of the dice? Nations do come back from conventional defeat.
The basic point is this: As Putin waves his club, he cannot count on a firebreak between tactical and strategic weapons. Behind a “small” bomb lurks the apocalypse. Putin’s general staff must have read up on American war games. Take this Princeton study, which simulated a U.S.-Russia exchange. It began with tactical nukes and ended in all-out strategic war. Ninety million were dead and wounded. Climb one rung, and you are bound to end up at the top of the ladder.
But Putin is a maniac, isn’t he? Look at it from his side. Talk may be cheap, but he couldn’t just strike out of the blue, as that would put him on the road to hell. Consider the technicalities, which only Der Führer ignored while sacrificing his own nation. The United States would detect the telltale signs of Russia bringing its tactical devices out of their bunkers and loading warheads onto delivery vehicles. Space-based surveillance would notice the preparations as the readiness of tactical nuclear units rose above the normal level. Without a shot being fired, Russia would have stepped onto the escalation ladder, though Putin surely does not intend to do so.
But the contest of wills wouldn’t stop this side of the firebreak because Putin would have to take out a strategic insurance policy. Mobile long-range rockets as well as missile submarines would go into assigned positions, and, amidst mounting tension, the United States would not be able to reliably distinguish between a maneuver and the real thing. Finally, rising alert levels would register in the nuclear command and control system. If all this were to happen, the United States would conclude that tactical war was about to erupt, which might segue into strategic war.
One could still surmise that this is for show only, blackmail and psychological warfare to cow the West and Ukraine. But now look at this once more from the Russians’ side. When they game the effects of such deployment, they could not ignore the obvious.
As the United States watched tactical-plus maneuvers, it could not know whether this was just make-believe recklessness. To deter the real thing, it would put its strategic forces on DEFCON 2, possibly ratcheting up to the highest level 1, gruesomely code-named “cocked pistol.” So would Britain and France—and the Russians in fact, as well. Starting “small” still requires preparing for the Big One to maintain deterrence. Bombers would take to the air; ballistic submarines would move toward the American continent, normally well-camouflaged missile silos would shed their protective tops. Angst would squelch caution, with fingers on the trigger.
Just a slight miscalculation or misunderstanding could set off an exchange. If Putin starts or only pretends to start a limited war, you don’t need a crystal ball to see the likely consequences. So, Putin has to factor in a strategic exchange whose costs would dwarf whatever gain he hoped to score against Ukraine.
Let’s make the point in another way. In a non-nuclear system, states could believe that they can win. And if they lost? For great powers, the price was bearable—even for Nazi Germany, whose population was not wiped out—and the powers could always come back another day. Not so in an overkill world. So, behind the bluster and blackmail, restraint rules as it never has before. Vladimir the Cunning knows this. Take the first step and you have to face, as JFK put it in 1962, the catastrophic escalation to the fifth.
Now, let’s recall those would-be psychiatrists who believe that Putin is a case for the looney bin. Such a long-distance diagnosis real shrinks would never make; they want to examine the patient face-to-face. Nor does madness square with Putin’s behavior in the past, which was based on weighing risks and opportunities. Taking the expansionist road, he could grab Crimea and the Donbas at low costs because he rationally predicted that the West would react with bluster and sanctions only. So, what is his game? At this point, let’s go to the “Madman Theory” of international politics, also known as the “rationality of irrationality.” The greatest strategist of our days, Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling, offers a compelling analogy.
Picture a man showing up on your porch and calmly saying, “Give me twenty bucks or I’ll blow my brains out right here and now.” Probably you would not cave, but offer him a cup of soothing hot chocolate: “Let’s talk this over.” But a bit later, the same intruder returns, trembling, rolling his eyes, and foaming at the mouth. Wouldn’t you rather give him the cash instead of having to repaint the porch and deal with hours of police questioning?
Putin’s soi-disant insanity should be classified as rational brinkmanship. By intimidating Ukraine and the West, he can do better than his army, which excels mainly against hospitals, power stations, and civilians. To boost the credibility of your threats without having to execute, leave the really crazy stuff to your underlings, a few steps removed. On September 18, Putin’s henchman, Duma member Andrey Gurulev, went bonkers on state TV, Russia 1: “We should not nuke Ukraine because we still need to live there.” How reassuring! But what followed was as demented as can be: We should target the real “decision centers,” the general blathered—that is, Berlin and above all London. “We could turn Britain into a Martian wasteland in three minutes.”
“If this is madness, there is method in it,” opined Polonius in Hamlet. Make-believe lunacy, also known as “psychological warfare,” promises to be a winner, just as it was for the man on Schelling’s porch. Pretend to lose control, and you frighten your target into submission. Simulating madness is the real game; to go nuclear is not credible in an overkill age, which may turn Russia into a “Martian wasteland” as well.
Now look at Joe Biden, who sometimes likes to go off script. Yet the President does understand the deadly rules of the nuclear game. The United States is acting rationally in view of the cosmic stakes. It is sanctions, not direct intervention, that is rife with limitless risk. Biden has dispatched $54 billion in aid to Ukraine, half of which is military, and more is in the pipeline. The United States delivers precious space-based and battlefield intelligence that keeps enabling the Ukrainians to score tactical surprises against an outwitted Russian army.
The United States has sent high-precision HIMARS multiple-rocket launchers. Yet the range of those sent is only about eighty kilometers. The longer-range rockets of up to three hundred kilometers are out as they could reach into Russian territory—one step over the line. So, Biden signals resolve while avoiding too much provocation. How about Abrams tanks and combat jets that can attack as well as defend? Not now, but the mere prospect is a high-value bargaining chip that should make Putin think again. You escalate, and so will we—but unlike you, we will honor the nuclear taboo. To send anti-air assets is a defensive move that signals resolve. But no boots on the ground.
Let’s return to Ken Waltz, when he argued sixty years ago that in Cuba the balance of legitimacy was on the American side, as well. The Soviet Union was the aggressor, the United States on the defensive. Khrushchev’s deadly game was to overturn the status quo, Kennedy’s counter-strategy was to uphold it against the Soviet thrust into the Caribbean.
Today, the West also has legitimacy on its side. In Ukraine, it is trying to protect two precious values. One is moral: to save an innocent nation tortured by Russian imperialism in the heart of Europe. The other value is embodied in an unprecedented historical feat: a European order no longer rife with conquest. It is the longest great-power peace on this bloodthirsty continent—and, indeed, around the world. Great powers have fought lesser states since World War II, but not each other. Pacified Europe is a gift treasured also by Germany and France, who are always tempted to play the broker between East and West and pocket the fee.
Why harp on legitimacy, which is not an outstanding tenet of realism? For the West to be on the better side of history, legitimacy helps to shore up stamina, will, and credibility in spite of skyrocketing energy prices and inflation. Even the most détente-minded Europeans would not want Russian armies ensconced on the Polish-Ukrainian border or to see Russia lording it over the Baltics. That is a rational, indeed, a benign quest. To boot, it is one of those rare instances where moralpolitik and realpolitik go hand in glove.
There is an obvious counter to such arguments. Doesn’t the West need to give Putin an “off-ramp” that allows him to save face? This raises a tortuous question buried in the recent past. The West talked Ukraine into giving up its nuclear weapons by extending security guarantees in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. Alas, that did not prevent massive Russian rearmament under Putin, and the West did not come to the aid of Ukraine when Putin grabbed Crimea and the southeast of the country. Nor did the Minsk Agreement of 2015 work. It was to remove heavy weapons from the theater and restore Kyiv’s control over its national borders. We know how that story ended. On February 22, Putin declared the deal null and void; two days later, he pounced.
Such is the oldest law of international politics: Opportunity makes for a thief. Putin was perfectly rational when he went on his expansionist rampage—go while the going is good. Realism has taught us that ceding Ukraine’s southeast would whet, not still, Putin’s appetite. He has clearly signaled that he wants to restore the old Soviet empire, at least to get a certified sphere of influence over Eastern Europe—a droit de regard, as the French call it. If the West gives, Putin will take and ask for more, which is a bitter lesson of state history. At Yalta, FDR and Churchill signed over Eastern Europe to Stalin, thinking he would be satiated. He was not, extending his tentacles across all of Europe until Harry S. Truman mounted a deterrent wall named NATO.
So, as the West tries to save Ukraine along with a magnificent post-1945 order, balance of power politics must rule, though direct Western intervention remains a no-no, as the rules of the nuclear age demand.
To conclude, Putin is clearly playing the madman. Crazy, though, is not the same as stupid. This imperialist struts and threatens, but he needs no crystal ball to peer into the future. In a nuclearized world, those who shoot first will die next. And for what? A slice of Ukraine? Threatening nuclear war is credible only when a nation’s very survival is at stake.
Josef Joffe, a member of the American Purpose editorial board, teaches international politics and political thought at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. This contribution extends and brings up to date an earlier, much shorter piece published by Project Syndicate.
Image: Vladimir Putin meets with nuclear workers, October 2020. (Wikimedia Commons: Kremlin.ru)
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