Vladimir Putin, de facto President-for-Life of Russia, a week ago launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, thus embarking on the worst act of international armed aggression since the end of World War Two. However, Ukrainians have defended their homeland with ferocious heroism, and Putin’s illegal invasion is trending to abject failure. On Sunday, Putin escalated his oft-repeated nuclear threats: he claimed to have ordered Russia’s strategic forces into a high state of readiness.
We should take Putin’s threats of a nuclear endgame seriously, because this time, he has gotten himself into a corner from which there is no way out, and his own sense of grandeur and impending mortality conspire to remove any of the rational constraints that once tempered his actions. Obviously, in these circumstances, our long-standing policy of strategic deterrence must continue and even strengthen.
However, we should consider taking a novel step on top of that policy. We should address incentives to those personnel whom Putin needs in order to execute a nuclear attack, so as to increase the chances that they will not execute. In particular, we should declare an amnesty for individuals who form the operational chain between Putin and the use of nuclear weapons.
Putin clearly intended his threats against Ukraine to yield rapid, indeed instantaneous, success. The dispatch of helicopter-borne units to Antonov Airport, less than 6 miles from the center of Kyiv, on Day One of Putin’s botched invasion bespeaks hubris. Putin evidently thought that he could seize the runways, land special forces, then decapitate the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Putin then gave a bizarre speech, scarcely a day into the operation, imploring Ukrainian generals to overthrow their democratically elected President and establish a Quisling junta—further evidence that Putin harbored the hope that Ukraine would fold the instant Russian forces went on the move. A press conference from the Kremlin given by one of his generals insisting that Ukrainian forces were refusing to return fire suggests further still that the entire invasion plan rested on wishful thinking.
It would not be the first time that an autocrat losing his grip on power also started to lose his grip on reality. Though trite, the comparison is apt to Hitler’s final days in a bunker, giving orders to move non-existent army groups here and there around Europe. More apt still are less familiar examples. Philip II of Spain tried to invade England in the late 16th century, counting on a Catholic uprising to ease his campaign. The uprising didn’t happen, the invasion foundered in the sea, and England never fell. Napoleon III was convinced Mexicans would welcome his puppet emperor, Maximilian, with welcome arms. They didn’t. They fought, and they prevailed. And even democracies succumb to unrealistic hopes in times of war. In 2003, elements of the United States foreign policy establishment were dazzled by the prospect that Iraqis might greet obscure Iraqi exile politicians with open arms and acclaim them the new government of Iraq. That didn’t work. But Putin, keen to lecture about history, ignores the history that fails to flatter his self-regard. Ukrainians did not flock to Russia, and Ukrainian generals did not commit treason. Instead, they all fought and continue to fight.
Now Putin faces an impossible dilemma. If his invasion continues to unravel or bogs down in a bloody struggle against an enraged populace, then his reign is almost certainly finished. Perhaps he manages to press on—and turns Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odesa into smoldering ruins. The opening act of Putin’s political career was to destroy Groznyy, the capital of Chechnya, by laying down a withering barrage of rockets, killing thousands of civilians in the process. A similar attack on these much larger Ukrainian cities would constitute one of the worst atrocities in the history of modern warfare. But then what? Ukrainian resistance, already tenacious and effective, would intensify many times over. No Russian could walk a yard on Ukrainian soil except in mortal danger. The post-World War II resistance in Ukraine lasted into the early 1950s, and without a shred of foreign support. Armed to the teeth, today’s Ukrainian defenders would exact a terrible vengeance. To put the scale in perspective, Russia has reportedly lost over 4,000 military dead in Ukraine in the first four days of its invasion—approaching one-third the total Soviet losses in Afghanistan in the entire nine years the USSR remained in that country. The long-term occupation of Ukraine is out of the question. The losses would just as surely bring down Putin’s regime as would the more rapid military defeat that Russia seems to be facing.
The question, therefore, presents itself: what is Putin’s endgame, now that his aggression against Ukraine has failed to bear the easy fruit he gambled it would? We should worry that his escalating threats of nuclear war provide the answer.
To mitigate the risk of a nuclear endgame, we should do everything we can to convince the individuals who would operationalize a nuclear attack to refuse to do so. The strategic calculus of nuclear deterrence is indispensable here. But we should do more: we should declare a targeted and selective amnesty for those personnel on whom Putin must rely if his order to conduct a nuclear attack is ever to be executed. Abhorrent as it is to entertain leniency for a Russian military establishment perpetrating the atrocities that we are now watching unfold in Ukraine, we should declare this amnesty, not to show mercy to the aggressor, but to reduce the risk of a madman ending his own life and those of millions more in a nuclear cataclysm.
Not too different from the nuclear “football” that accompanies the United States President, the so-called cheget is always near the President of the Russian Federation. But, also like the U.S. system of strategic command, this is not some automatic device, the popular picture of a red button. It is instead a communications mechanism reliant, in turn, on a chain of human beings who are tasked physically to operationalize the command to launch an attack. These are the human beings whom we should address. We should let them know that they will not be subject to any post-Ukraine prosecutions or even sanctions. Instead, they will be immune, if they refuse to operationalize an order to launch.
To make their immunity meaningful, we should also make clear that Putin himself, and his paladins (excluding anybody upon whom he would need to rely to conduct a nuclear attack), will not get a free pass if they persist in their war of aggression. As far as it is consistent with the imperative that we prevent Putin from resorting to a nuclear attack, we must make clear that the perpetrators of aggression and atrocities will face justice.
At the end of his genocidal dictatorship, Adolf Hitler told his commanders to destroy all Germany, a country that the madman raved had failed him. Whatever insights into Putin’s health and his state of mind we might have, we should do everything we can to reduce the risk that the failing Russian President and obsessive reader of history, does not get a chance to borrow that page from the history book.
But perhaps a more apposite page is found in the opening days of World War One. Russia had expected an easy victory in the Masurian lakes. Instead, Russia’s army was surrounded and destroyed at Tannenberg. Cut off and isolated from his men, with only his uniform and a sidearm, Alexander Samsonov, the commanding Russian general, wandered off and killed himself. Thus a botched Russian invasion ended with a single shot in a forest. A well-aimed amnesty would help deny Putin an endgame with any higher body count than that.
Thomas D. Grant served as Senior Advisor for Strategic Planning in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the U.S. Department of State, 2019-2021. He is the author of Aggression Against Ukraine: Territory, Responsibility, and International Law (2015).