Reader’s Roundup: will Putin use nukes?

Jeremy Stern
Jeremy Stern
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The American strategist Thomas Schelling believed that on any given day, there is no issue on earth more important than nuclear weapons. Schelling might have been right, but living a normal life depends on not having to feel like he was right. No one who gets dumped or fired can have their suffering put into the proper perspective by imagining an imminent threat of nuclear annihilation; the man who attempts to win a fight with his wife by reminding her of Russia’s tactical warhead arsenal is likely to be met with derisive laughter.

That might have changed this week. On September 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of Ukrainian territories his armies do not hold, presumably in order to lower the threshold for a nuclear strike. On October 3, a train operated by Russia’s secretive nuclear division was spotted in central Russia heading toward the front line in Ukraine. Recall that the United States has signaled that a nuclear strike on Ukraine could trigger NATO’s Article 5 “collective defense” commitment on grounds that radiation could spread to NATO territory, like Poland.

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Experts have since made various authoritative predictions about whether Putin will or won’t resort to tactical nukes, whether his subordinates will obey or disobey his orders, and whether he’s still rational or has lost his mind. The one thing most of these predictions have in common is the baseless confidence of the people who make them. In reality, few people have any idea what Putin is thinking, what events will determine the decisions he will make, or what Kremlin officials, military officers, or “lone soldiers” will or won’t do in response. Better to read information-rich, historically-minded articles from knowledgeable but modest analysts who understand the fog of war, and the contingency of decision-making at the highest levels of political power.

In an article at Eurointelligence, Wolfgang Münchau, the veteran Financial Times columnist, makes the important point that “the likelihood of a nuclear war rises in proportion to the likelihood of a Russian defeat. …If we consider the likelihood of a Russian defeat in Ukraine as high, as so many experts now seem to believe, then surely, the likelihood of a nuclear attack cannot be simultaneously low. If we agree with Garry Kasparov that Putin will not personally survive a defeat, then why should he refrain from using nuclear weapons? The risk, we conclude from the knowledge we have, is not small and rising, as [noted experts] claim, but large and stable.”

At the Wall Street Journal, the historian Walter Russell Mead lays out the reasons why the nuclear option can’t be considered irrational: “Making threats about the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine advances both Mr. Putin’s goals in Ukraine and his larger campaign against the American-led order. Nuclear weapons, he hopes, could shift the military balance on the ground, and the fear of nuclear war could force Washington to dial back military support for Ukraine. The threat or use of nuclear weapons could split Europe between ‘peace at any price’ governments and governments of countries closer to Russia whose determination to resist nuclear blackmail would only grow.”

In other words, in order to win the war, Putin has to break the EU and NATO’s commitment to Ukraine; a nuclear strike would almost certainly split the EU and NATO into opposing camps, perhaps with Germany and France on one side pitted against Eastern and Northern Europe and the United States on another. At the very least, a credible threat of a nuclear strike is essential to achieving that goal. Whatever else Putin fails to achieve, and however much suffering he inflicts on his own people, he sees breaking the West as his life’s work.

On the flip side, at the economics blog Marginal Revolution, an informed reader lays out a convincing list of 9 reasons why “the situation is grim but unlikely to lead to nuclear weapons,” including that “Putin’s reign at home remains secure. This is one where Twitter will really lead you astray. …certain people in our media see populations everywhere as perennially on the cusp of radical change. I see thousands of gloomy men shuffling obediently onto troop transports.” The Institute for the Study of War believes that “Putin would likely need to use multiple tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine to achieve his desired operational effect—freezing the front lines and halting Ukrainian counteroffensives. But the operational effect would need to outweigh the potentially very high costs of possible NATO retaliation. … Russian nuclear use would therefore be a massive gamble for limited gains that would not achieve Putin’s stated war aims.” Back in June, Eric Schlosser, author of a 2013 history of nuclear weapons systems and accidents, explained what we know about U.S. defense planning for a range of nuclear strike scenarios. His article is worth revisiting.

Prediction markets and forecasting tournaments currently put the likelihood of a nuclear strike somewhere between 7-15 percent. That might not sound like a lot, but consider that in a careful 2019 study by Luisa Rodriguez of the Effective Altruism Forum, that number was 1 percent, which at the time was considered somewhat alarmist. Imagine if the International Space Agency announced that the likelihood of an asteroid hitting earth has increased by 1000 percent in the last couple years.

Finally, read a first-hand account of the Hiroshima bombing by Yoshito Matsushige, a survivor, here. You can also read the first-hand account of Father John A. Siemes, who was professor of modern philosophy at Tokyo's Catholic University, here. In 2020, Smithsonian Magazine put together nine first-hand accounts of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, which you can read here.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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