What if Putin has cancer? Rumors abound. How might a condition such as cancer impact his thinking on Ukraine?
One key reason some observers have thought that Putin ultimately would not launch nuclear weapons is due to a fundamental survival instinct and the wish to remain in power. It is likely that Russian use of nuclear weapons could quickly result in the complete and total destruction of Putin and his regime.
Therefore, regardless of whether Putin estimates he might have a possibility to win a tactical or limited nuclear engagement, many believe he simply would not risk his own elimination. Putin is known to be autocratic and cruel, but there is not much speculation that he is suicidal. Launching nuclear weapons would, in effect, amount to a suicidal impulse of some kind from Putin, something which many believe does not exist given his ability to maintain and preserve his power.
However, what about the cancer rumors? It is rumored that Putin may have some kind of cancer, which might imperil his future and add new dynamics to his decision-making. Such a possibility could possibly inspire a measure of reckless disregard for life from Putin and place Russia’s nuclear arsenal in an extremely precarious position.
While Putin might care about his legacy and the extent to which he is regarded as a successful and dominant Russian leader, he might prefer a suicidal, apocalyptic, destructive ending to his life and regime than a devastating loss to Ukraine. A loss to Ukraine would leave Russia extremely vulnerable, greatly weakened, and even embarrassed. Would this possibility back Putin into a corner such that he decides to launch nuclear weapons with reckless abandon?
Escalate to Win
Russia has already used hypersonic weapons, something that could be perceived as a break beyond a certain threshold, yet any use of nuclear weapons would pass yet another threshold.
Putin and his regime routinely threaten to use nuclear weapons on a regular basis, however, this may merely be posturing designed to manipulate and scare NATO into restricting its involvement.
Arguably, this “escalate to win” kind of strategy, through which Putin holds the entire world hostage with nuclear threats, was arguably effective for quite some time.
Russia’s nuclear threat, and the belief that it could actually present a realistic and credible danger, could be a key reason why the Pentagon waited so long before sending HIMARS and GMLRS (Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems) rockets to Ukraine. Perhaps Putin’s nuclear posturing is also responsible for why it has taken the Pentagon so long to approve the delivery of Abrams tanks, Bradleys, and now F-16 fighter jets.
The arrival of these platforms does pertain to this broader equation about Putin’s potential use of nuclear weapons, because should Putin feel backed into a corner and be facing defeat and the end of his rule and regime, he might well think that a nuclear option would provide his only opportunity to prevail or even survive.
He may calculate that NATO and its allies would not respond with nuclear weapons as it would risk the end of civilization and massive escalation. Would NATO and the West simply let a nuclear strike stand without a commensurate or greater nuclear response? Perhaps this could happen out of pure interest in preserving the earth, as a total nuclear war would clearly place all human civilization at risk of destruction.
Ultimately, while Putin is already thought to be unpredictable to a certain extent, the arrival of cancer could introduce an unprecedented measure of instability for Putin and definitely place the world at greater risk.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.