Michael KreponPutin’s Use of A Nuclear Weapon Against Ukraine Would Backfire

Quote of the week:

““What is the only provocation that could bring about the use of nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the priority target for nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the only established defense against nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. How do we prevent the use of nuclear weapons? By threatening the use of nuclear weapons. And we can’t get rid of nuclear weapons, because of nuclear weapons. The intransigence, it seems, is a function of the weapons themselves.” ― Martin Amis, Einstein’s Monsters

The odds are against Vladimir Putin using a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. Let’s reinforce these odds by clarifying the ways how such a monstrous decision would backfire against him and against Russia.

First, let’s consider the reasoning by which Putin might authorize the first use of a nuclear weapon in warfare since 1945. He is resolved not to lose this war, and by nearly everyone’s calculations, a stalemate equates to Moscow’s failure. The Russian Army is taking grievous losses in soldiers, equipment, and morale. The more Putin’s Army seeks to hold ground, let alone seize new ground, the more Russian losses will accumulate.

Putin might conceivably convince himself that he can stop this war on favorable terms, divide NATO, and demoralize Ukrainian resistance by means of a mushroom cloud. And if his grip on reality is tenuous enough to launch an aggressive war against Ukraine, we can’t entirely dismiss the possibility that he will miscalculate badly once again.

War causes friction, even when U.S. and NATO troops are not fighting Russian forces directly. We know that in the friction of crises and war, close calls happen. In the worst nuclear crisis so far – the Cuban missile crisis – one close call happened when a Soviet air defense battery shot down a U-2 reconnaissance plane. Another close call occurred at sea, when the U.S. Navy employed aggressive tactics to force a Soviet Foxtrot sub to the surface under standing orders to impose a quarantine around Cuba.

Friction doesn’t always happen by design. There are times, as President John F. Kennedy ruefully noted during the Cuban missile crisis, when somebody down the chain of command just doesn’t get the memo. And there are times when sensible orders are implemented unwisely in the field. Friction can lead to fire, even nuclear fire.

The war in Ukraine is nowhere near as dangerous as the Cuban missile crisis, but nuclear danger resides here, as well. As this war unravels for Putin, he might make a deliberate decision to salvage what he can by crossing the nuclear threshold. Or by authorizing the use of chemical weapons.

Now let’s count the ways that the detonation of a single Russian nuclear warhead, regardless of yield, target, and method of employment, would backfire on Putin – even if the detonation does not produce mass casualties.

First, Putin is obliged to consider whether the use of nuclear or chemical weapons in Ukraine would change NATO’s rules of engagement in this war. He can’t be sure of the answer, and he might not like it. If Putin’s calculating mind is still functioning, he should be able to figure out that using nuclear or chemical weapons against Ukraine would make a bad situation worse.

Second, Putin would become the first leader in human history to wage an aggressive war and to authorize the use of a nuclear weapon. The country on the receiving end voluntarily repatriated nuclear warheads to Russia in return for security assurances by Moscow. By detonating a nuclear warhead on or above Ukrainian territory — or by using chemical weapons — Putin would ensure himself a unique place in the pantheon of the world’s worst villains. Putin likes to think of himself as a hero; there’s nothing heroic about authorizing a nuclear detonation.

Third, Putin’s use of a nuclear weapon would make Russia far more insecure. One of the great ironies of living with the Bomb is that deterrence remains strongest as long as there is no battlefield use. First use constitutes a grave failure of deterrence. First use leads to more use — immediately or thereafter. Russian doctrine equates first use with countering an existential threat. Ukraine isn’t an existential threat; it’s a massive screw up.

Fourth, Russian nuclear deterrence would be weakened after first use. Nuclear armed states will spend even more money to reinforce deterrence, while abstainers will accelerate hedging strategies. The net result of this chain reaction of events would weaken Russian national security. If Putin authorizes a nuclear detonation on Ukrainian soil, he shoots Russian nuclear deterrence in the foot.

Fifth, after the poor performance of the Russian Army in Ukraine, nuclear deterrence is Putin’s sole remaining high card. If he authorizes first use, his “war winning” weapon becomes an “avoid losing” weapon. This is something that might be expected from Kim Jong Un if his regime were in mortal danger. Nuclear use by Putin to avoid losing a war of choice would project weakness, not strength.

After three-quarters of a century of No Use, the first use of a nuclear weapon in this war would be a momentous act. It would shake the foundations of deterrence. The world would become a far more brutal and dangerous place. As the instigator, Putin would become the personification of crimes against humanity. Our nuclear future, the future of arms control, and much else depend on extending the norm we live by — the norm of No Use.

The odds are decidedly against Vladimir Putin authorizing the use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. But given the stakes involved, even a low probability event demands our attention. There’s no better time than the present to clarify the ways that first use would backfire against Putin and against Russia.


  1. jimntexas (History)

    Pretty most of those arguments would apply if Putin invaded Ukraine. Which was a crazy thing to do but he did it.

    I do hope you are correct, but I’m not counting on Putin using logic.

  2. Alex (History)

    If he’s in merely a semi-rational state, I can foresee one scenario in which Putin uses nukes tactically. There are two corridors on which it is possible to invade Crimea: Ukrainian Highway M-17 in the west, and M-18 in the east. If the collapse we’re seeing is severe enough to lead Ukraine’s troops to Crimea, then I can foresee a scenario in which he could convince himself to detonate two at those two spots. Such an act would, in his mind, simultaneously achieve his goal of intimidation, cut off the peninsula, and do it all with relatively minimal loss of life as far as nukes go. Obviously I don’t need to elaborate on the catastrophic political ramifications of such an act. But like the other commentator I no longer expect Putin to always be rational in his decision making.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Don’t see recapturing Crimea as a priority.