The whole world is responsible for upholding the nuclear weapons taboo – not just the United States. Putin is playing the nuclear card—again.
From the earliest days of the war in Ukraine, the Russian leader has regularly sought to remind his adversaries in the West that he remains in possession of a large nuclear arsenal, and that these weapons might be used if Ukraine, the United States, or other NATO countries cross a Russian “red line.”
This is the context in which many analysts have understood Putin’s latest announcement to “suspend” participation in the New START agreement. While the deterioration of the arms control regime is surely regrettable in its own right, it is the not-so-subtle reminder about Russia’s nuclear capabilities that have people in the West worried. But how anxious should they be? And what, if anything, should be done?
The obvious answer is that the world should be very concerned about threats of nuclear escalation. There are no guarantees against the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, and guarding against that calamitous outcome is something that requires constant vigilance, prudence, and strategic empathy.
But this says little about the proper way to stop the war from “going nuclear.” This is a harder question to answer, not least of all for Americans, many of whom tend to view the war in Ukraine through the lens of US global leadership. Whenever the prospect of a terrible outcome is discussed in the United States—whether a Ukrainian collapse, a humanitarian catastrophe, or the use of nuclear weapons—the inevitable response is to ask what Washington could and should do to avert disaster.
Last year, for example, retired general David Petraeus argued that it would be proportionate for the US military to obliterate all Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine, Crimea, and the Black Sea in response to a nuclear detonation. Others have embraced similarly hawkish means of deterrence.
But threatening massive military reprisals is the wrong approach to avoiding what President Biden has rightly called the prospect of a devastating nuclear “Armageddon.”
First, there is an obvious credibility problem. Why should Putin believe that the United States will fight a war against Russia in response to a nuclear detonation? Why would he not conclude instead that Washington is bluffing, and that there would be no military response to his use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine?
This relates to a second, related problem: the problem of entering into unnecessary and risky commitments. If it is accepted that Putin might discount US threats of a military intervention, is it really in the US national interest to articulate a policy of launching World War III in response to nuclear weapons being used?
Consider what would happen if the United States launched massive conventional strikes on Russian military targets – destroying tank formations, sinking ships, and killing soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Would Moscow be cowed into submission? Possibly. But it might also retaliate in kind (as best it could) or else resort to the use of even more nuclear weapons. There would be no way for leaders in Washington to control the pace or scale of escalation.
Simply put, waging a conventional war against Russia would place US national security in irretrievable danger. Political leaders would forfeit any chance of controlling the military situation. The security of societies across Eastern, Central, and Western Europe would also be placed in extreme jeopardy. Ukraine would become a hellscape.
Fortunately, it is not just the American people who have an interest in deterring Putin from using weapons of mass destruction. The rest of the world has skin in the game, too. This is why, as the risk of nuclear escalation increases, Washington would be better served prodding other governments to make their own (more credible) threats to retaliate against Russian barbarism.
Putin must be told in no uncertain terms that breaching the nuclear taboo would be an offense against the entire international community. It is essential for Putin to know that crossing the nuclear Rubicon would result in his total isolation and delegitimization.
More seriously, the world must impress upon Putin that using nuclear weapons would badly worsen Russia’s economic situation, national security, and even the survival of the present regime. While there are strict limits to what the United States can threaten in this regard, other actors – India and China, especially – have enormous political, diplomatic, and economic leverage over Moscow that must be brought to bear.
It might be too much to expect Xi Jinping or Narendra Modi to make public threats against Putin, of course. But both leaders have a strong self-interest in preventing the normalization of nuclear weapons being used on the battlefield. It is realistic to hope that they might privately warn Moscow about their intentions to withdraw their lifelines in the event of a nuclear attack in Ukraine
Most of the other major powers that have held back from punishing Russia for the invasion of Ukraine – Turkey, Brazil, Argentina, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa among them – have even stronger reasons to deter Putin’s use of nuclear weapons. For these countries and others like them, it would verge on being an existential threat to face a world in which nuclear blackmail becomes commonplace and proliferation becomes harder to hold in check.
For nearly 80 years, the nuclear taboo has held strong. Not since Hiroshima and Nagasaki has a nation used nuclear weapons in anger. Every government has benefited from this de facto prohibition on nuclear attacks. This is why deterring Putin from using nuclear weapons is of the utmost importance – not just the United States, but for the entire international community.
Can Putin be made to believe that using nuclear weapons would bring about his total isolation and the potential collapse of his regime at home? It is a deterrent well worth trying for – but it will take a global effort, not unilateral threats made by the United States.
Author Expertise and Experience
Dr. Peter Harris is an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities, and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive.