Ever wonder why North Korea is willing to starve its own people and ensure it remains a third-world country for the foreseeable future to build a nuclear arsenal? For the Kim family, atomic arms just might be more important than food – and that says a lot. For Pyongyang knows Washington would never dare consider regime change if Seoul, Tokyo, or Los Angeles could become a nuclear fireball. That also means when North Korea says it will never give up its nuclear weapons we should take that statement at face value.
That brings us to the war in Ukraine. It should be no surprise that Russian President Vladamir Putin keeps making nuclear threats as his war of choice against Kyiv seems likely to end up as a massive frozen conflict that neither side can truly win, at least for the moment. He also knows the deck is increasingly stacked against him as time goes on. Putin can see the flow of Western arms keeps increasing by the day, as well as the sophistication and lethality of those arms keep getting better. The Russian president likely fears the West could decide to change its mission in Ukraine from restoring Kyiv’s territorial integrity to ending the Putin regime forever – something many on the populist right here in the U.S. increasingly see as the current Western goal.
Putin has clear evidence to believe this is possible. Indeed, President Joe Biden made comments in a speech in Poland back in March that Putin “cannot remain in power.” Put this all together and we can see from Moscow’s perspective why it is making such dire threats. Russia wants to remind NATO and the West the price for any move towards any sort of regime change strategy that is blatant could be millions or even billions dead if a full-blown nuclear war ensues. Moscow clearly won’t tell us what it considers its clear nuclear red line, but it seems that we are closer to it than ever before.
But would Putin really act on his nuclear threats? He says he isn’t bluffing, but how do we know for sure? I informally polled some top experts I have worked with in the past on different projects to get a sense of what the expert community is thinking on this issue. Interestingly enough, almost all said Putin would not use his nukes, but many surely hedged their comments for obvious reasons as Putin is a tough person to get a read on.
Putin’s Nuclear Threats: What the Experts Think
“I certainly don’t think it’s likely,” explained Ian Bremmer, President of the Eurasia Group, in comments to 19FortyFive. “The implications for Russia would be grave—use of nuclear weapons would likely lead to NATO’s direct intervention in Ukraine and would also end Putin’s friendly relations with most of the world’s developing countries…including in his own region.”
But of course, Putin is a gambler and is not afraid to take risks. So can we completely rule out his use of nuclear weapons? “Never say never,” explained Bremmer. “If he’s truly desperate and fears he’s facing removal, Putin strikes me as capable of inflicting any and all horrors. But there’s a reason he’s waited this long for a limited mobilization. He’s ultimately focused on survival.”
Other experts I polled made similar comments to me. “While nuclear weapons might ensure the West does not attack his regime, it also means if he uses them preemptively in Ukraine or for any reason he has forfeited his own life,” explained a former Senior Trump White House official speaking on background. “Putin needs to understand that NATO won’t back down in a fight. If he did use any sort of nuclear weapon, tactical nuclear weapons, or something larger – any sort of nuke – he must understand that his days as the President of the Russian Federation would be over. No sane democracy could allow such a man to stay in power. The good news is I don’t think he would use nuclear weapons as I am sure the White House has made this clear in some capacity – or at least I hope so.”
I reached out to my colleague and friend U.S. Army Lt. Colonel (Retired) Daniel L. Davis as well to get his assessment. Having served multiple tours in Afghanistan and having some very strong expertise on this issue as well as combined arms warfare knowledge, his assessments of the Ukraine conflict have been quite prescient. “If Putin is pushed into a corner, if he feels Russia is in danger of being driven from Ukrainian territory – especially if the Ukrainian drive is enabled by yet more advanced Western weapons – it is very possible Putin could use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine to forestall a defeat.”
We will have much more to say on this issue as we are polling as many top-tier experts on this topic to get a sense of where the war in Ukraine could go – and if we are truly looking into the nuclear abyss after all. Stay tuned…
Expert Biography: Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) serves as President and CEO of Rogue States Project, a bipartisan national security think tank. He has held senior positions at the Center for the National Interest, the Heritage Foundation, the Potomac Foundation, and many other think tanks and academic institutions focused on defense issues. He served on the Russia task force for U.S. Presidental Candidate Senator Ted Cruz, and in a similar task force in the John Hay Initiative. His ideas have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, CNN, CNBC, and many other outlets across the political spectrum. He holds a graduate degree focusing on International Relations from Harvard University and is the author of the book The Tao of A2/AD, a study of Chinese military modernization.