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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Would Putin Use Russia’s Nuclear Weapons To Stop a Coup?

Russia Nuclear War
Topol-M Missile - By Vitaly V. Kuzmin

George F. Kennan, who articulated the Containment strategy that was ultimately pursued by the U.S. to peacefully end the Cold War, was never clear in the last step of how precisely a more liberal regime would emerge. The Cold War ended unexpectedly with a swift coup followed by an administrative break-up of the Soviet Union. One of the core and implicit objectives of the West’s strategy in Ukraine is that battlefield defeat and humiliation of Russia will lead to the pacific toppling of Vladimir Putin and his entrenched Siloviki power base, despite their possession of an extensive apparatus of coercion, including nuclear weapons.

The mobilization and deployment of 300,000 to one million Russian citizens to war in Ukraine, is thought to accelerate this outcome. The question arises what happens when a nuclear weapon-armed regime confronts a spreading revolt within its military in the opening moves of a civil war? Most observers, to avoid the difficult truth that the collapse of the Soviet Union was an impossibly lucky outcome, sidestep examining the other ways it could have played out. This is an especially pertinent issue since it raises questions about how the inevitable regime transitions will occur in nuclear-armed North Korea and China

The Kremlin guard were instrumental power brokers in the immediate death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, and KGB involvement was decisive in Leonid Brezhnev’s displacement of Nikita Khrushchev in 1964, and the overthrow of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. However, given Putin’s co-dependence with the FSB (Federal Security Service) Siloviki, a coup is less likely to come from within his inner circle, and more likely to originate from a brigade or divisional commander of the army. The military’s refusal to support a KGB operation against Boris Yeltsin with a commando team in 1991, and its actions against the 1993 October Coup by Alexander Rutskoy, indicate it is a decisive power broker when its interests don’t align with the intelligence services. Putin must be aware that military garrisons were key in suppressing the abortive 1905-07 Russian insurrection, and that it was a revolt in the Russian army that felled Tsar Nicholas II in 1917. Putin’s deployment of masses of poorly equipped and led soldiery to Ukraine risks a backlash if his policies do not live up to their nationalist expectations.

Waltz and Nuclear Weapons Meets Ukraine

In his seminal 1981 More May be Better monograph, political scientist Kenneth Waltz argued that the global spread of nuclear weapons will enhance peace through the obvious deterrent effect of nuclear weapons. This is his first error, as Russia’s leaders are clearly seeking to use its nuclear arsenal to shield Russia’s conventional attack on Ukraine against outside intervention. This strategic belief in nuclear weapons as an offensive shield against Taiwan’s democratic allies is also driving China’s rapid nuclear build-up, including an eighth Jin-class ballistic missile submarine, and 300 missile silos.

Waltz also argued that the development of nuclear weapons requires a level of institutional maturity that then simultaneously makes these regimes aware of the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons, thereby instilling restraint. It is Waltz’s second error to assume a covariance between the complex constitutional history that drives sophisticated political-economies like the U.S., with the relatively simple organizations required to assemble nuclear weapons. Apartheid South Africa’s entire nuclear weapons assembly program at Advena, producing six and a half nuclear warheads, relied on a dual-use 900 square meter workshop. North Korea has achieved miniaturized boosted fission warheads on exo-atmospheric ballistic missiles, yet has the administrative sophistication of a commercial prison. The Soviet Union’s failed Buran manned shuttle program, failed moon landing prospects, and supersonic civilian airliner, coincide neatly with the regime’s fatal inability to ascertain its perceived illegitimacy among its citizens. We now know it is possible for states that are remnants of multi-ethnic empires, to also have sophisticated access to nuclear technology without stable governmental institutions, like Yugoslavia, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, China, Indonesia, and Turkey.

Waltz has argued that nuclear weapons strongly favor the status quo, based on Bernard Brodie’s argument that there is no reliable defense against secure second-strike nuclear weapons. Waltz’s third error is not considering the impact of nuclear in the context of civil war, where there are strong incentives for offensive action. In civil wars, control of territory equates to resources for recruitment and taxation, and the existence of besieged enclaves incentivizes attack. Furthermore, the deployment of nuclear weapons is intended to maximize their second-strike ability against rival countries, but in a fluid civil war, nuclear weapons at fixed bases suffer from a use-it-or-lose-it dilemma, leading to the pressure for their early use. There is also less likely to be moral restraint in civil wars, as compared with inter-state conflict and the laws of war, because civil wars typically coincide with institutional and moral collapse. As explained by political theorist Edmund Burke, the violence of revolutions often creates a self-consuming destruction of institutions that perpetuates the violence even against non-combatants. This is the reason that more lives are lost in intra-state conflicts that in wars between countries. The 1966-1976 Chinese Cultural Revolution was more of an intra-elite choreographed youth uprising than caused by an actual institutional collapse, so Beijing kept close control of its nuclear arsenal.

Putin, a Coup and History

During a rebellion in October of 1795, Bonaparte fired artillery, the most powerful weapon of its day, on the people of Paris. We can speculate about the counterfactual history of whether nuclear weapons would have been used in the 1939-1940 Spanish Civil War, or the wars in Yugoslavia from 1991 to 2001. Would the Punjab core in a faltering Pakistani state ever resort to the use of nuclear weapons to quell secession in its outlying provinces of Balochistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkwa, or the Sindh? In 1971 in East Pakistan, the Pakistan Army and local militias put to flight between 6 and 8 million refugees. Would they have used nuclear weapons today to avert the break-up of Pakistan? Given that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, and that it is a holdover imperial state with Persians constituting less than half of the population, would Tehran resort to nuclear weapons to avert fragmentation?  

That Apartheid South Africa dismantled its nuclear warheads just prior to the beginning of universal suffrage indicates the importance of the influence of outside powers. Syria’s chemical weapons use in 2013-2017 was enabled by Russian patronage. However, we can ask the same questions again about General Yuan Shikai’s revolt during the 1911 Chinese Revolution, the 1917-1922 Russian Civil War, and the 1945-1949 Chinese Civil War, in which foreign intervention was limited by the dramatic scale of the conflict. A nuclear civil war may cause fright among near neighbors, even if they are themselves armed with nuclear weapons, since deterrence is complicated by an unclear enemy and targets. Alternately, a nuclear civil war may provoke pre-emption by nuclear-equipped neighbors.

The case that most closely approximates Putin’s situation is the 20th of July 1944 Wehrmacht coup attempt against Adolf Hitler, which ultimately failed, and was coordinated with an assassination attempt. If Hitler survived the coup, but support for the Wehrmacht gained ground, would he have resorted to using nuclear weapons against the mutineers? Would North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un use nuclear weapons if there was a spontaneous revolt among the 3rd Corps at Nampo? Presumably Kim Jong Un would always have the option of fleeing to China.


Russian President Putin. Image Credit: Russian Government.

Would an upper echelon of China’s Communist party, resort to the use of nuclear weapons if China were to succumb to a mass uprising including rebel military regions? What if regionally widespread Chinese disaffection was not sufficient to undermine the cohesion of the Communist Party in Beijing, but could lead to a revolt in Hunan Province in the Southern Theatre Command, and it had clear signs of spreading like Yuan Shikai’s revolt in 1911? Hunan was the center of the 1851-1864 Taiping Rebellion, which spread to the outskirts of Shanghai and cost twenty million lives. What if that Command, based in Guangdong, is ready to seize Yulin naval base on Hainan Island, where China stores its ballistic missile submarines? Some authors, like Joseph Miranda, have speculated about a Chinese nuclear civil war along these lines.

Would Putin Do It?

The early manifestation of a military revolt against Putin, is most likely to erupt from the brigade and divisional officers of mauled formations in Ukraine, which are being rotated out of the frontline to bases near the cities of Krasnodar, Rostov-on-the-Don, Belgorod, Kursk and Bryansk. The uprising may be motivated by a commander seeking a more liberal regime, or one who offers little more than a settlement on the status quo in Ukraine. A coup may also produce something worse: a hyper-nationalist seeking to displace Putin for a military President, or worse, glory, leaving a wake of successive military coups like the ones that plagued South Vietnam. The last opportunity for Putin to use nuclear weapons is when entire divisions and Russian armies (corps-equivalents of 30,000 soldiers) become mutinous, before the revolt spreads to garrisons around Moscow, and the main headquarters. The 12th Main Directorate stores nuclear weapons at 12 facilities and another 35 bases, although it only possesses some 2,000 non-strategic weapons deployable on tactical and theatre missile systems like the Iskander and aircraft, not including another 200 strategic nuclear bomber warheads deployed at airbases. Ultimately the key question is whether the pilots or army operators in Russia’s six Iskander missile brigades of the Central and Southern Military Districts will side with Putin, rather than a mutinous army unit pursuing one of the motives mentioned above.   

There is very little for outsiders like the U.S. and NATO to do in this circumstance, except to constantly and explicitly reiterate the readiness of the alliance to retaliate in kind if the nuclear suppression threatens to spread across Russia’s borders. Unlike NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya, Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang have the means to retaliate, and because a regime willing to initiate domestic nuclear war does so because it has no remaining exile sanctuaries, and is therefore likely to strike out in vengeance. However, a preemptive nuclear disarming or damage-limitation attack may become viable, since any regime that desperate is also likely to have significant fissures in its command of nuclear forces – and who know what Putin would do once the bombs start falling.

Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is an associate professor of international relations at Concordia University, and the author of Militarization and War (2007) and of Strategic Nuclear Sharing (2014). He has published extensively on Pakistan security issues and arms control and completed research contracts at the Office of Treaty Verification at the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, and the then Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO). He has also conducted fieldwork in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, and Egypt, and is a consultant. He is a former Operations Officer, 3 Field Engineer Regiment, from the latter end of the Cold War to shortly after 9/11.

Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is an associate professor of international relations at Concordia University (Montreal), former army engineer officer, and has written extensively on Pakistan, where he conducted field research for over ten years