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Unraveling the enigma of Putin’s nuclear button

Lately, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have ratcheted up their threats, likely in response to an imminent influx of Western aid for Ukraine. As intended, their words have sparked escalatory fears of a potential Russian nuclear response. 

Given such weapons exist, Russian leaders know it is impossible to outright dismiss such a claim. Further, Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling intentionally frustrates democratic Western world leaders who must remain responsive to constituent fears, a construct that’s absent in Russian-style autocracies. 

Such rhetoric, however, is likely void of reality.

Given an educated and thematic analysis of possible Russian nuclear use based on facts and history, there is little chance Putin’s words are anything more than posturing hyperbole.

Russia’s military doctrine is based on a “scaling” construct, enabling the use of tactical nuclear weapons (perhaps the pinnacle of oxymorons) as a response option in conventional conflict. In effect, Russia’s long-standing doctrine is escalation unbound, an ends justify the means construct. Many news outlets suggest that tactic is a primary fear of Biden’s National Security Council, and specifically Jake Sullivan.

Arguably, too many Westerners, including Sullivan, inappropriately view Russia through western lenses. Case in point; the U.S. admits a drastic overestimation of many Russian capabilities. Those assessments presumed Russia trained, equipped and resourced their forces just as the West does. Clearly, that was wrong. 

They have made a similar mistake with Russian doctrine. While the U.S. adheres to doctrine as if near gospel, Russia views it as mostly an information campaign, intended to frighten adversaries rather than an actual security philosophy. Two cases in recent history demonstrate this point. 

In 1989, Russia withdrew from its failed Afghan campaign, and in 1996, Russia sought a disadvantageous peace agreement with Chechnya. In both campaigns, Russia’s doctrine clearly stated the use of nuclear weapons was a viable option, but Russia was unwilling to employ them.

Instead of a Russian doctrine construct, a better way to consider nuclear conflict is via deterrence theory. In basic terms, deterrence theory suggests nations possess nuclear weapons to prevent their use by others, and any use of such weapons would only be warranted if a nation’s existence was threatened. 

Much like Russia’s failed military campaigns, the U.S. did not use nuclear weapons in response to failed conflicts. Both Russia and the U.S. were never under an existential threat of extinction. 

The same is true of today’s Ukraine war. Even if Ukraine seizes an offensive and achieves its full strategic goal of 2013 borders, Russia’s existence remains under no threat. Hence, it’s highly unlikely Putin would consider nuclear escalation.

With Vladimir Putin or any tyrannical world leader, a chance exists that deterrence theory fails (although it hasn’t for decades under his rule). While deterrence alone may not be enough to dissuade Putin’s use of nuclear weapons, the ramifications might well be. 

Unlike conventional, nuclear weapons possess radiological fallout, subject to unpredictable atmospheric phenomena. Detonating a nuclear weapon in Ukraine would cause significant death and suffering in neighboring nations, possibly Russia or a NATO nation, pending wind direction. Chernobyl’s nuclear disaster had fallout reach as far as 500 kilometers. 

Ironically, a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine could threaten the one thing such weapons should protect. In effect, Russian nuclear use causes an existential threat to Russia. A unified global response post-detonation would fundamentally risk Russia’s current existence. Therefore, it is irrational to believe that Putin would consider nuclear weapons as long as Russia’s existence remains secure.

Nuclear weapons are perhaps humanity’s worst creation. Simply appeasing those who possess them out of escalatory fears, however, isn’t merely a slippery slope, it’s a cliff and a dangerous precedent. Western leaders should evaluate Russia’s potential responses with clear-eyed, rational and sobering honesty. 

Tragically, most discussions are awash in hyper-partisan talking points and social media exaggerations. Yes, it is possible Putin could employ nuclear weapons. It’s also possible the sun will burn out tomorrow. Thankfully, both likelihoods are indeed remote.

Retired Col. Jeffrey H. Fischer is a 30-year military aviator with seven combat tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans. He also served as a senior diplomatic defense official at numerous European embassies. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Follow him on X/Twitter: @jefffisch.

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