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Putin Must Know the Price He Will Pay for Using Nuclear Weapons

A U.S. Air Force 509th Bomb Wing B-2 Spirit refuels from a 351st Aerial Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker during the Bomber Task Force training exercise over England, Aug. 29, 2019. The B-2 aircraft will operate out of RAF Fairford, England, and will exercise there at U.S. Air Forces in Europe's forward operating location for bombers. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jordan Castelan)

Here’s How the West Should Respond to Putin’s Nuclear Threats: Russian President Vladimir Putin, humiliated by repeated defeats in Ukraine, increasing hints that his forces might use nuclear weapons to regain momentum, retake lost ground, and simply punish the Ukrainians.

How Should the West Respond to Putin’s Nuclear Threats?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is correct that Putin will likely use nuclear weapons if he believes he will face no consequences. Putin’s ego is paramount. He both despises Zelenskyy for outshining him militarily, politically, and diplomatically and resents that Ukraine’s success has impinged on the historical legacy Putin sought to craft. Whereas Putin saw himself as surpassing the legacy of Catherine the Great, who expanded Russian territory and ushered in a golden age, today, he has become a smaller, weaker version of Tsar Nicholas II, under whose rule Russia collapsed.

More practically, Putin instinctively knows that if he loses, he will face revolution.

While the West is right to fear Putin’s possible Parkinsonic finger on the nuclear button, it is crucial not to fumble the response. By telegraphing fear of nuclear Armageddon, President Joe Biden only enhances Putin’s power and encourages further brinksmanship. Even worse has been the response of French President Emmanuel Macron, who has undermined deterrence by announcing that he would stand down France’s own nuclear forces in the event of a Russian launch. This is dangerous because it undermines the deterrence that provides the best means to avoid a nuclear exchange.

To shrink or retreat in the face of a nuclear threat would guarantee more frequent nuclear crises. If Putin’s tactics work, Kim Jong-un will regularly threaten Seoul or Tokyo. Pakistan, whose economy makes Russia look solvent, will threaten Delhi and Mumbai. China will use nuclear weapons to extort the world over Taiwan, a country to which it has no historical or legal right.

Instead, it is time for the West to make clear, both publicly and in detail privately, the consequences of Putin’s actions.

Russia and Putin Must Pay a High Price

First, it is time to publish a list of all those subject to death should Putin use even a low-yield nuclear weapon. In 2006, I did a deep dive into the legality, both in international and U.S. law, with regard to assassination. Bottom-line upfront: The conventional wisdom that targeted assassinations violate the laws of war and Congress is wrong. To eradicate military leaders and civilian commanders is ethnical if it can forestall far greater violence. For men like Putin and the generals who surround him to believe they can order the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and their own people with impunity is counterproductive to pursuing peace. Simply put, if even Putin’s most loyal henchmen understand that a nuclear blast in Ukraine will lead to the end of their own life, they are more likely to forestall Putin’s actions. The risks inherent in cutting Putin down are high, but they are better than the certain death the West must inflict should Russia use nuclear weapons.

Second, the United States should simply publish a list of Russian cities equivalent in size to Ukrainian cities. Kyiv, for example, has a population of approximately 2.7 million. It is equivalent in size to the combined population of Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg. Odessa has a population of 1 million, equivalent to Volgograd. While the White House need not enunciate the principle of an eye for an eye, the implication should be clear for ordinary Russians. Yes, collective punishment is illegal under international law, but the laws of war only work when all sides adhere to them. Simply put, Russians must know they cannot remain aloof. If such moves encourage Russians to evacuate their own cities until the crisis ends, so be it. Putin should understand the economic disruption inherent in making nuclear threats.

Third, as the possibility of a nuclear exchange looms, the West should signal to Russians, who are rightly proud of their cultural heritage, that now is the time to safeguard it. The West should publicly call for the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg or the Pushkin Museum in Moscow to remove their paintings, statues, and artifacts to underground storage in the countryside. Hopefully, this will prove to be an unnecessary precaution. Still, it is essential Russians understand that Russian use of nuclear weapons will mean that war can no longer be limited to Ukrainian territory.

The United States should not saber-rattle with a threat of nuclear retaliation, especially given its ability to retaliate accurately and precisely with non-nuclear weapons. Deterrence is not simply a military strategy but a psychological one as well. The Biden administration should not fear that raising the stakes for Russia would be irresponsible warmongering. Reticence and weakness in the face of aggression never bring results; meeting challenges head-on with strategies to prevail does. Had President John F. Kennedy backed down on Cuba, it is inevitable that the Soviets would have pressed their advantage elsewhere. They would not have washed their hands of conflict and gone home.


Russia’s Topol-M missile system TEL

Likewise, while Putin is correct that the United States is the only country that has used nuclear weapons in wartime, the recognition of just how devastating those weapons were—even if they forestalled the need to invade Japan—led to decades of arms control treaties and a stigma that persists to this day. To erase that stigma lowers the bar for future use. Too much is at stake for Biden to go wobbly now.

Russia's Putin

Russian President Putin. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).



  1. Yrral

    October 14, 2022 at 9:14 am

    France give Putin a pass ,on using Nukes in Ukraine Google France Nuke Russia

  2. John

    October 14, 2022 at 9:52 am

    Putin thinks that our tactical nuclear forces are so atrophic that Nato will fold when he employs an escalate to deescalate strategy.
    To counter this the US needs to field nuclear versions of its almost mature boost glide hypersonic missiles including the Army’s DarkEagle, the Navy’s Global Prompt Strike and the Air Force’s ARRW.
    France should increase its number of nuclear cruise missiles to 400 and GB should purchase Dark Eagle from the US.

  3. 403Forbidden

    October 14, 2022 at 11:14 am

    West, especially US, won’t do anything really crazy stupid other than cranking out more russophobic rhetoric and dire threats should Russia use tactical nukes against ukros.

    Reason is ukros ain’t worth US civilian infrastructure like US mega cities, silicon valley industrial region and power stations and US space launch centers.

    If an old, old, really old senile man inexplicably decides to sacrifice those US treasures, definitely someone would stop him pronto and chuck him out of the white house.

    So, all those threats against Russia using nukes are just hot air. Same with nations like Germany and Britain.

  4. Tamerlane

    October 14, 2022 at 11:40 am

    The author is insane with his prescriptions—prescriptions which would ensure all our thermonuclear war if adopted, and also is a hard leftist/neoconservative who doesn’t even address the absolute red-line in American foundational law requiring congressional declaration of war to enter a war. Rubin acts as if Ukraine is an ally, or as if there is some lawful basis to retaliate against Russia; when there is none without a direct declaration of war by the United States congress. Every one of Rubin’s prescriptions is a recipe for escalation and devastation for the United States at the exact moment a plurality-and almost majority of the American people oppose sending more treasure or weapons to a Ukraine at all… but like the rest of AEI, the same fools who got us national building and regime changing in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, he is incapable of learning from his own hubristic error.

  5. Ross

    October 14, 2022 at 12:48 pm

    Love the Russian trolls who think using tactical nuclear weapons is no biggie. Their complete disregard for other human lives is a disgrace (as if they are better than the Ukrainians) and has been pointed out before, there is no practical use for a tactical nuke. You all are 5-year-olds having a temper tantrum.

  6. Fred Adams

    October 14, 2022 at 3:43 pm

    This article is spot on. Except that we should be careful to avoid certifying that we won’t answer a small tactical nuke with an absolute Armageddon of total strategic nuclear destruction.

    “I’ll jab you if you jab me” is pat-a-cake and a playground tactic that will not deter.

    No response should be ruled out.

  7. Rodavlas

    October 14, 2022 at 3:54 pm

    The author is completly mad. To assassinate russian top leader(s) automatically unleash a total nuclear response.

    The question is: are you willing to watch your kids die of radiation poison? Do you know what horrible is to die that way?

  8. Tamerlane

    October 15, 2022 at 1:03 am

    Ross, it is Ukrainian trolls like you, without regard for American lives, who are pushing insane ideas like an attempt at regime change or regime decapitation of a nuclear superpower. It is not that tactical nukes are no biggie, but rather that your policy prescriptions—intervening to the point of a Ukrainian “victory” conventionally, will certainly be met by escalation up to and including nuclear weapons. This is evident because to Russia and its elites of all ideological backgrounds, Ukraine within NATO is the reddest of all red lines—something they view as a fundamental, existential threat to their very existence as a nation. The failure to comprehend this by trolls like you (or your persistence in the face of this obvious situation) is what is making the use of nukes ever more likely—and it will be turbochickenhawks like yourself and Biden who will be to blame when it does.

  9. Grit

    October 15, 2022 at 8:02 am

    Good grief no. We don’t need to be exposed to radiation–and all the sickness that entails–for the next two decades because one backwater nation decided to attack a neighboring backwater nation on the far side of the globe, and people like the author chose to blow the conflict out of all proportion. If Russia and Ukraine want to squabble let them. We need to stay out of it. “He that passeth by, and meddleth with strife belonging not to him, is like one that taketh a dog by the ears.” Proverbs 26:17

  10. Readbull

    October 15, 2022 at 9:18 pm

    Would anybody be shocked if WE did it and blamed Russia? If it happens and democrats declare marshal law and postpone elections indefinitely, I’d be real suspicious.

  11. iGreg

    October 16, 2022 at 12:45 am

    I started out being sympathetic to Ukraine. HOWEVER, the more I look at this the more I smell globalist BS. The USA is pumping billions into Ukraine with NO oversight or auditing. By screwing over our own oil and energy industries the West has made the world more dependent on foreign oil, including Russia’s oil. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet empire the West has pushed NATO right up to the Russian border. Enough is enough. Whether or not Ukraine falls under the control of Russia (again) is not worth a single American life or any more free money. Another thing, the globalist corporate controlled western media has been predicting Putins illness and death since the war started. He does not look sick or dead to me.

  12. John Doe

    October 16, 2022 at 4:28 am

    “Putin’s possible Parkinsonic finger” – let’s talk about your possible idiocy, Michael.

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