Michael KreponPutin Gives the Mad Man Theory a Try

“Our Father, who art in heaven
of the full moon
and the hollow sun
shield from death my parents
whose house stands in the line of fire
and who won’t abandon it
like a tomb”
Lyuba Yakimchuk, “Apricots of Donbas”

Vladimir Putin has announced that his nuclear forces are on “high combat” alert. He’s playing the mad man card, threatening the use of nuclear weapons to get what he wants. Richard Nixon tried this at the outset of his presidency to prompt the Kremlin to help him wind down the war in Vietnam. Nixon’s signaling was so muted that it didn’t affect the Kremlin’s behavior. Later, during the 1973 war in the Middle East, Nixon tried a different approach, sending the message to increase the readiness level of U.S. strategic forces in the clear so that Moscow would intercept it.

All in all, Nixon was too calculating to make his mad man pose credible. Donald Trump, on the other hand, was typecast for the role. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has also tried out for the part, but play acting is one thing; prompting Armageddon is another. 

Putin knows this. He doesn’t do subtlety well, so he has dispensed with it. His announcement came in a televised meeting with his top two men in uniform, citing as his justification sanctions and “aggressive statements” by leading NATO powers. He no doubt hopes that by playing the mad man card, the West will back off. 

Is this a power move, or does it convey that his war of choice in Ukraine is not going as well as planned? If Putin’s gambit fails, then what? And what’s the most effective way to respond to his nuclear threats?

As if we needed further evidence, Putin’s mad man posture demonstrates that nuclear deterrence is a very dangerous business. It’s prone to failure in lesser cases, but it has held for seven decades in protecting humankind from worst cases. The worst case is nuclear exchanges between states with oversized nuclear arsenals.

It’s not just nuclear deterrence that fails to stop unwanted actions in lesser cases. Deterrence by means of prospective economic sanctions also fails when leaders have workarounds or are convinced that rewards will exceed penalties. Conventional deterrence offers the most protection, but this is an expensive proposition. And conventional deterrence does not apply for mismatches like Ukraine vs. Russia. In such cases, punitive measures are required to restore what deterrence fails to achieve.

In the case of Vladimir Putin’s war of choice against Ukraine, I wouldn’t bet on the side that possesses nuclear weapons. Instead, I’d wager on the side of history, as nuclear-armed states have a lousy track record in fighting against abstainers. One of the reasons to provide military, humanitarian, and economic support to Ukrainians in this war — but by no means the most important — is to reinforce the disutility of nuclear weapons as presumed instruments of leverage, worthy of their enormous expense.

If we wish to underscore that nuclear weapons do not add value in warfare and that nuclear threats diminish, rather than empower the threatener, how might we most effectively counter Putin’s presumptions to the contrary?

Putin clearly wants the specter of nuclear weapons’ use to hover over this war. In the run-up to the military campaign he planned to start, he presided over the flight-testing of missiles associated with the delivery of nuclear weapons. He did this with a compliant leader of Belarus by his side. Russian media outlets have also hinted that Putin might deploy offensive missiles as well as missile defense interceptors in Belarus. 

We can never be complaisant about the possible use of nuclear weapons, especially as nuclear danger rises. We certainly can’t rule out the possibility of nuclear weapons’ use in Ukraine. And yet, the rise in nuclear danger has been manufactured. Objective risk factors regarding first use are low in this war. Russia enjoys marked conventional superiority. If conventional superiority fails to achieve Putin’s ambitions, his use of nuclear weapons will vastly compound his failure. He’s not fighting U.S. forces in Ukraine; he’s fighting a massive homeland defense, against which mushroom clouds are not remotely justified. And Putin’s command and control apparatus is strong, making unauthorized use implausible.

On top of this, if Putin were to authorize the use of nuclear weapons against a state that has given up this option by voluntarily returning warheads to the Russian Federation, he would join the ranks of history’s most reviled mass murderers. Does the man on a mission to “denazify” (sic) Ukraine wish to become a modern-day Hitler?

Yes, this is a stretch, but it’s a purposeful one: If we wish to extend the seven-decade-long norm of not having mushroom clouds appear in warfare, then it’s okay to exaggerate the prospective crime. And it’s far better to exaggerate the crime than to hype the threat of nuclear weapons’ use in this war. When we hype Putin’s implied threats, we play into his hands.

So what exactly does Putin mean when he says,

“Whoever tries to interfere with our actions should know that the Russian response will be immediate and will lead to the kind of consequences you have never experienced in your entire history”? 

This threat has widely been interpreted in the U.S. media as nuclear-tinged. The Pentagon has reacted to Putin’s threatening statement in a notably different way, reminding him that the United States has offensive cyber warfare capabilities at the ready. This suggests that a more persuasive interpretation of Putin’s threat — and the area in which deterrence needs to be shored up — is in the cyber domain.

Putin’s public declaration of an increased alert rate will no doubt prompt U.S. countermeasures. There’s no need, in my view, to emphasize them. The U.S. nuclear deterrent speaks for itself. France’s foreign minister was wonderfully understated in this regard, reminding Putin that NATO also has nuclear weapons available for use. As low-key rejoinders go, that’s close to perfect.

How serious then, is the threat of mushroom clouds in this war? It’s only serious if Putin has lost his marbles and if the mad man isn’t a pose. No one can completely dismiss this possibility, given Putin’s decision to embark on a ruinous war and the absence of advisers willing to question his judgment. There is, however, a crucial distinction between overwhelmingly poor judgment and losing one’s mind completely. Putin’s life and leadership has been marked by calculation, not madness. 

I suggest that we apply the techniques of judo — something Putin can appreciate — to his mad man gambit. Let’s focus on how much more grotesque Putin’s crimes against humanity would be if he resorts to the use of nuclear weapons. Let’s magnify his prospective crime rather than help Putin hype the nuclear threat. Why ask “how high” when he prompts us to jump? Why reinforce his message?

If the people of Ukraine successfully resist his reckless gambit with the help of the West – however long this takes — many good outcomes are possible, including confirmation of the disutility of nuclear weapons. The eventual revival of arms control and much else depends on Putin’s defeat.



  1. Aces (History)

    Hope you’re right. But he comes off as a deeply psychotic and ill old man. Either cobble the entire USSR back together OR take everyone down with him.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      It’s only going to be more ugly. Today’s use of cluster bombs within city limits a case in point. But mushroom clouds? Would like to see a run on protest signs appearing in street demos of Putin with a Hitlerian mustache.

  2. Razumov (History)

    Almost the entire reaction to this war in the west is all about Putin’s psychology and his feels.

    As if this was all a therapy session rather than a historical geopolitical conflict.

  3. Erick Williams (History)

    I agree entirely with your lament about brandishing nuclear weapons, but I have a concern about the small arms that the US and NATO countries are lavishing on Ukraine. Sending arms to Ukraine, of all places, is likely to have unintended consequences. According to the Organized Crime Index, Ukraine ranks third among European nations in its level of corruption. Ukraine is notorious — among other things — for gun running. Google “Ukraine Gun Smuggling” to see what I mean. A responsible policy maker doesn’t brandish nuclear weapons; that’s understood. But neither should we lavish small arms on a country notorious for gun smuggling.