Despite, or rather because of the heroic efforts of the Ukrainian people, we have to face the possibility that Vladimir Putin will increase his threats both against Ukraine and against NATO. His war has gone awry, and he has less and less to lose by upping the ante. Indeed, he may decide that climbing is his only way to win.
Sanctions against the oligarchs have already begun to impoverish it. The flow of arms from NATO countries continues. A compromise would humiliate him. Exile is impossible. It engages in deliberate bombardment and shelling of civilian populations in Ukraine. Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Russian region of Chechnya and an ally of President Putin, acknowledged that Chechen soldiers were in the military columns as they approached Kiev. They are there presumably because they are ready to take action against the Ukrainian people that the ethnic Russian soldiers are not. Putin borrowed yet another page from Hitler’s playbook, from the chapter titled Schrecklichkeit.
We can and must provide weapons with which the Ukrainians can attack the massive columns of troops approaching Kiev. But the more successful these procurement efforts are, the more Putin will be tempted to try to block them.
He repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons. It is not clear whether these threats are inactive or not.
On CNN, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen warned that Putin could use tactical nuclear weapons. This warning did not come out of nowhere. Professor Dima Adamsky’s review of the extensive Russian doctrinal literature on the use of nuclear weapons tells us that Russian nuclear doctrine consists of using the presence of nuclear weapons on the battlefield to induce the adversary to caution. No American military officer wants to inadvertently lead an attack on a nuclear-armed unit. This caution gives Russian units greater freedom of action.
This doctrine leads us to expect tacit or explicit threats of the use of tactical nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil if NATO interferes with the Russian military in Ukraine. But what does “interference” mean? Defend humanitarian enclaves? Providing battlefield intelligence or material support to the Ukrainians?
If these threats fail, Russian doctrine is less clear, but the use of tactical nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory has been suggested. Which is a complication, since Putin made it clear that for him, Ukraine East Russian territory.
Whichever way you take it, the goal will be to confront NATO with a choice: stop helping Ukraine or risk the deployment of a nuclear weapon and all the loss of life – and instability – which would ensue.
If the Russian military continues to be stuck in the north, Putin may explore a negotiated settlement in which the Ukrainian government cedes Donbass and offers “guarantees” to Russia.
On the other hand, Putin may see a negotiated settlement as a risk to his domestic political position. In this case, Putin could step up his efforts to cut NATO material support to Ukraine in an attempt to crush the Ukrainian government.
In the event of an escalation, one would expect to see French or German government intelligence reports indicating that Russia is arming its battlefield ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads and has activated the control circuits used to deliver the permission to use nuclear weapons. Putin would most likely privately approach German Prime Minister Olaf Scholz or French President Emmanuel Macron, who has so far been his main interlocutor, and tell them that they have one last chance to avert a nuclear strike by ending the nuclear strikes. NATO military supplies to Ukraine via Germany. airbases.
When, what would NATO do? And what could America do? These are questions we should be addressing now, although we hope such a moment will not come.
Whatever our final decision in such a confrontation, there are a number of steps that could be taken by the West.
First and urgently, President Biden should publicly call on the Russian military not to obey orders to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine or NATO. Vladimir Putin may have nothing to lose, but the Russian people have everything to live for. Private military-to-military channels should reinforce this message.
Second, US missile defenses in Europe should be placed at higher readiness levels. A small number of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles are the most likely Russian nuclear delivery systems, but they are vulnerable to AEGIS Ashore ballistic missile defense systems in Romania and Poland. The first has been in operation for five years. The latter was to be operational at the end of 2022. This should be accelerated.
The radars of these systems were deliberately not optimized for defense against Russian missiles. But this can be improved by linking these systems to speed cameras elsewhere.
The United States also has four ships with dedicated NATO missile defense AEGIS systems based in Spain. They should be sent to the Baltic or the Black Sea – or wherever they will be most useful.
Other alert systems can be deployed or activated. The United States decided not to conduct a previously planned ICBM test flight to avoid the risk of miscommunication or misreading of American intent. It was wise. But that delay may also have convinced Putin that his threats are making the United States more cautious.
And we have to to be careful. But we also have to convince Putin that he cannot coerce NATO.
The measures proposed here are defensive, not offensive, and are designed to neutralize Putin’s ability to carry out threats.
But Putin might decide to go ahead anyway, in a game of nuclear chicken.
So, third, the United States should prepare all available means to disrupt Putin’s orders to his rocket forces.
And fourth, NATO must be prepared to deal with the radioactive fallout of a Russian strike and to provide medical and humanitarian assistance to the victims of such a strike. But preparations for retaliatory offensive nuclear strikes – or even precision non-nuclear strikes against Russian targets – at this stage would pose unnecessary risks of escalation and are not advised.
We have ignored Putin’s nuclear threats for too long. Now is the time to hinder his ability to carry them out.