Russia’s ten-day plan to overrun and annex Ukraine is now in its tenth month. The Pentagon assesses that the war has killed or wounded more than 100,000 Russian soldiers. As Russian President Vladimir Putin ails and his legacy lies in tatters, fear that he might turn to nuclear weapons remains real, Putin’s own denials notwithstanding.
Both Russia’s rhetorical saber-rattling and the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons highlight problems with traditional deterrence. First, the fact that Russia already has nuclear weapons limits retaliatory options. Neither the White House nor the leadership of any other state will risk military retaliation against a country willing to use nuclear weapons. American policymakers will rationalize that a tactical nuclear weapon is not the same as a city-buster, even if it does break the nuclear stigma. This then suggests a reformulation of nuclear deterrence to differentiate between different flavors of nuclear weapons.
Those afraid of escalation are also certain to make an argument parallel to that which emerged almost a decade ago after President Barack Obama backpedaled on his chemical weapons redline. In order to excuse inaction, his defenders argued that the difference between a high explosive and a sarin-laced bomb really was a distinction without a difference since the result was the same for the victims.
A greater danger is that the cancer possibly ravaging Putin’s body will change his calculation. For ideological reasons, he might simply want to punish Ukraine. If nuclear weapons might destroy Kyiv, Kharkiv, or Kherson, force Ukrainians to surrender or flee, and allow Russian troops to occupy the country, he may believe the legacy worth it: Instead of being the man who ruined Russia, he may believe Russians will remember him as the leader who returned their country’s cultural birthplace.
For Putin, this legacy matters; he could care less what the outside world thinks. Any nuclear use by a terminally ill leader undercuts the logic of Cold War-era mutually assured destruction.
Perhaps during the Cold War, mutually assured destruction did not dissuade nuclear annihilation to the extent that some political scientists believed. It is possible the world simply got lucky, such as in the aftermath of the Korean Air 007 shoot-down.
The end of such deterrence leaves a huge strategic gap not only limited to Russia. Consider Iran: For too long, diplomats and academics have downplayed Israel’s concerns about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program by arguing that the regime in Tehran is not suicidal. True enough, but what if either Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or the regime he represents is not suicidal but insetad terminally ill? If regime change comes to a nuclear-armed Iran, what is to stop the ideologically vetted custodians of the nuclear weapons from launching in the last hours of their power in order to fulfill their lifelong ideological goal to destroy Israel, Saudi Arabia, and/or the United States? It is doubtful any country would respond in kind to Iran, especially if its regime had fallen in the interim. After all, as ongoing protests show, the Iranian people are not an enemy; only the regime that represses them.
Pakistan’s collapse poses a different challenge to deterrence. Pakistan has had nuclear weapons for decades. Beginning with its defeat in the Bangladesh war, Pakistan’s military fanned the flames of Islamic radicalism in the belief that an all-encompassing Islamic identity would paper over the ethnic divisions pulling Pakistan apart at the seams. Fast forward 50 years and extremists run rampant and with impunity throughout Pakistani society and especially within its military. If Pakistan collapses and its nuclear weapons fall into the hands of those who seek martyrdom, deterrence goes out the window. After all, how does a country deter those who actively seek death?
Each case requires a new approach. Whereas the non-proliferation community seeks to prevent non-nuclear countries from acquiring nuclear weapons, as robust an effort is required to ensure that nuclear countries have a doctrine and controls over their use so no single person or even small group would have the power to autonomously order a launch. Uncertainty over such controls was what heightened policy concerns during the 1999 India-Pakistan Kargil War. Interceding with even unofficial nuclear powers to ensure proper safeguards is the nuclear equivalent of opposing the illegal drug trade but offering addicts free needles in order to preserve greater health and safety.
Pakistan may require a military solution if it appears on the brink of collapse. That said, this is a scenario for which the United States has long planned, although the prospects of inserting special operators into the country to secure nuclear weapons that may be spread across hundreds of miles of hostile territory is daunting.
The best solution is simply not to allow hostile regimes to go nuclear in the first place. Even if the Islamic Republic did use a theoretical nuclear arsenal, it could lash out conventionally and with terrorism knowing that it was secure behind its own nuclear deterrence. The last 80 days, however, have shown just how illegitimate and weak the Islamic Republic is. Even if it survives Khamenei’s death, it is essentially a zombie regime. To turn a blind eye to the Islamic Republic’s continued nuclear development or limit response to an endless quest for a diplomatic magic formula is to enable a small number of future nuclear custodians who care little for deterrence to use the world’s worst weapons in pursuit of ideological objectives.
The nuclear challenge Putin poses may occupy the West, but terminally ill dictators with nuclear weapons may soon not just be a Russia problem.
Expert Author Biography: A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. A former Pentagon official, Dr. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, and both pre- and postwar Iraq. He also spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. For more than a decade, he taught classes at sea about the Horn of Africa and Middle East conflicts, culture, and terrorism, to deployed US Navy and Marine units.
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).
Dr. Rubin has a PhD and an MA in history from Yale University, where he also obtained a BS in biology.