Parsing the end game: what if Putin lit off a tactical nuke?

FILE - In this April 22, 1952 file photo, the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb rises above Nevada's Yucca Flat. (AP Photo, file)

This is a topic that’s been cropping up in the form of various bits of doom porn since before the Russian invasion began, but it was thankfully still almost entirely hypothetical. But as Jim Geraghty points out in today’s Morning Jolt, we may be quickly approaching the point where we will be forced to answer the question. The war in Ukraine is not going well for Vladimir Putin at the moment. Much of his army remains bogged down in various places and he’s been losing a lot of troops, reportedly including four generals. Their rocket bombardments are doing plenty of damage to the cities and taking out a horrific number of civilians, but the Ukrainian military and its burgeoning ranks of armed civilian volunteers have been cutting off Russian military units and destroying massive amounts of hardware. The Russian economy back home is imploding and unrest is growing. At some point, it’s very likely that Putin will look for a way to “escalate to deescalate,” as Geraghty puts it. And he might do that by launching a tactical nuclear weapon.

This newsletter has repeatedly discussed the official Russian military doctrine, “escalate to deescalate” — that is, “If Russia were subjected to a major non-nuclear assault that exceeded its capacity for conventional defense, it would ‘de-escalate’ the conflict by launching a limited — or tactical — nuclear strike.” In other words, Russia’s official strategy when losing a war is to escalate it by using tactical battlefield nukes in order to “deescalate” it on favorable terms.

It isn’t likely that Russia will launch or detonate a tactical nuclear weapon yet. But it also isn’t unimaginable anymore. Apparently, Putin and the Russian military have been thinking about this option for a long time. In 2014, Ukrainian defense minister Valeriy Heletey said that, “The Russian side has threatened on several occasions across unofficial channels that, in the case of continued resistance they are ready to use a tactical nuclear weapon against us.”

Jim first reviews the four basic classes of lower-yield nuclear detonations: air bursts, surface bursts, subsurface bursts, and high altitude bursts. If Putin grows desperate enough and wants to scatter the opposition, either of the first two types of attacks might do the trick. Putin could even choose to set off an air burst over the Black Sea just as a demonstration of power and the obvious threat that he could next do it over a city.

So what then? Geraghty repeatedly makes the point that we want to do everything in our power to avoid the United States or any of our NATO allies getting into a shooting war with Russia. That’s an admirable goal to be sure, but isn’t it also exactly what Putin is counting on? As many of us have been saying from the beginning, the only thing Vladimir Putin respects is force. Little will curb his ambitions if he doesn’t suspect that there is a credible threat of retaliation that would make the cost of his actions too great to risk.

But that credible threat has been missing in action. Joe Biden has been telegraphing our (lack of) punches since day one and other NATO leaders have followed his lead. As long as the number one priority is “avoiding world war 3” (as Biden has specifically stated repeatedly), then forcing the withdrawal of the Russian military from Ukraine falls somewhere lower on the list. Putin has no need to worry about repercussions because he’s been repeatedly assured that the Ukrainians will be left on their own aside from some shipments of defensive military equipment.

But what if Putin ups the ante in the way described above? Would our answer be the same, essentially saying, ‘you shouldn’t use nuclear weapons, but as long as you don’t fire them at a NATO nation we won’t do anything to stop you?’ That’s not quite the same as opening the vault door for the bank robbers, but it’s definitely a way of telling them that they have all the time in the world to figure out how to blow it open because the cops will not be on the way.

I agree with Jim that a no-fly zone should still be off the table, at least for now. If we do that, it’s only a matter of time before a Russian jet shoots down an American or NATO jet (or vice versa) and then all bets are off. But if Ukraine continues to overperform in their defense of their nation and Putin begins to smell a Russian rout, we need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. Under no circumstances should the U.S. or any NATO nation fire a nuke first. And there may be a way to inflict a significantly large amount of damage on Putin’s forces without a tactical weapon to convince Putin that the cost of his Ukrainian adventure is simply too high to continue. But the specter of nuclear war has already been raised. And we had better hope that Joe Biden and our generals have thought this through all the way to every possible ending and have a plan in place to respond accordingly. But based on the performances we’ve seen recently, particularly during the pullout from Afghanistan, I really just have one phrase repeating in my head today. God help us all.