Putin’s nuclear bluff rewrites the playbook
By Tom Arms
Is Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons a big bluff? Is he just blowing hot air that should be ignored?
Or, is he readying his nuclear arsenal as you read these words, and we are on the threshold of Armageddon unless we cave in to his demands?
Actually, it does not matter whether Putin’s plans to use nukes or whether his threats are part of some terrifying diplomatic bluff. The fact is that he has made the bluff. And in doing so he has rewritten the nuclear playbook and made the world a more dangerous place.
Nuclear weapons in the past have been classified as a defensive weapon. There was a time in the 50’s when some American policy makers argued for a pre-emptive strike, but that stratagem was soon replaced by Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). This transformed nuclear weapons into solely defensive weapon whose purpose was to deter an enemy attack rather than to launch one.
Some countries—mainly China and India—have adopted a “No First Use” policy which means they will only use their nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack from another power. Beijing has a proposed a No First Use treaty with the US. They have also suggested that the No First Use rule be extended to all nuclear powers. Washington has rejected this.
The US, UK and France (the three nuclear NATO countries) have complemented MAD with the “Flexible Response” doctrine. This they will fire their missiles if faced with losing in the face of an overwhelming conventional weapons attack. This is more or less the policy of Pakistan, Israel (which refuses to admit to ownership of a nuclear arsenal) and even North Korea.
Barack Obama considered switching to a No First Use policy but was talked out of it by European allies who feared that it left them vulnerable to a conventional weapons attack from the large Russian army.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 pledged No First Use. The sincerity of the promise was questioned at the time and it was dropped in 1993 by the Russian successor state. Boris Yeltsin felt at the time that the overnight deterioration of his military’s conventional weapons capability dictated greater reliance on the nuclear arsenal.
Then in 2020 came Putin’s “Presidential Executive Order on Nuclear Deterrence.” This made it clear that Russia reserved the right to use nuclear weapons to protect what it decided was its territory. This obviously includes the bits of Ukraine which it annexed in 2014 and 2022.
With the stroke of a pen backed up with menacing threats, Putin has transformed his nuclear arsenal from a purely defensive weapon into an offensive weapon by threatening to use them as part of a conventional weapons war for territorial gain.
He doesn’t even have to use the weapons. The threat of use can be enough to either force Ukraine to make territorial concessions or deter NATO from supplying military and economic aid. It has already successfully deterred the Western Alliance from sending troops.
Once again, is he bluffing? Many thought he was bluffing about invading Ukraine. But he did. Bluffing is a time-honoured and much-respected technique at the Vegas poker tables where the stakes can run into millions. But Putin is betting eight billion lives in a game where diplomatic transparency should be the guiding hand.
It may be argued that since Hiroshima the mere existence of nuclear weapons has implied threat to use nuclear weapons as a first use offensive weapon. Yes, but Putin has made it explicit and in doing so moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock that much closer to midnight.
If Russia comes out ahead of the game in Ukraine then Putin has opened the door to other nuclear powers using their conventional forces backed up by the threat of nuclear attack if the conventional option fails. These include North Korea and, probably in the near future, Iran.
That is why the recent G20 summit in Bali condemned not only the use of nuclear weapons but also their “threatened use.”
Two of the key signatories of the summit communique (which also deplored Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) were China and India. They are important backers because their support for the communique implicitly reinforces their commitment to a No First Use policy.
Xi Jinping has clearly made his concerns about the Russian nuclear rhetoric known to Putin. Otherwise, he would not have signed the communique or denounced the threatened use of nuclear weapons when he met with German Chancellor Olof Scholz.
Chinese pressure could persuade the Russian leader to scale back the threats. But the words have been spoken. The policy has been changed. Putin has released a new version of the nuclear genii. It is, however, just possible to stuff it back into the lamp. But to do so requires the defeat of Russia.
Tom Arms is the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published book “America Made in Britain.”