A Picture of Putin’s Nuclear Option

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

OPINION — Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has repeatedly threatened the use of his nuclear weapons and now has placed his nuclear deterrence forces on alert, should have accompanied his troops invading Ukraine last week, as they fought their way inside the 1,000 square-mile exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor complex.

From two miles away, he could have seen the vacant and decaying buildings of Pripyat, once home to 50,000 people. Or nine miles away, he could have observed the town of Chernobyl, where 12,000 once lived, but is now empty.

Both cities remain uninhabitable because of radioactivity from the fallout of Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor explosion 38-years ago.

Within Chernobyl’s radioactive exclusion zone, Putin would have had to face the long-time, destructive reality of any order he might give today to use nuclear weapons.

I think now is the time for Putin as well as the rest of us, to look seriously at the threat that nuclear weapons pose. The deadly destructive capabilities of modern weapons, and particularly nuclear ones, should keep any rational leader of a major nation from actually initiating offensive warfare against another country.

Putin so far has proved me wrong, at least at the conventional weapons level.

I was wrong to have believed the Russian lies over the last few months, from Putin on down, that the buildup of Russia’s military units on Ukraine’s border was for pressuring diplomatic concessions from Kyiv, the U.S., NATO and other European nations.

Now, with the Russian invasion not going as planned, unity emerging in the West, economic sanctions starting to take their toll on Moscow’s economy, and unrest among Russians who suddenly realized they were at war, Putin on Sunday raised the alert level of his nuclear forces.

In a publicly-televised Sunday meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, Putin ordered them “to transfer the deterrence forces of the Russian army to a special mode of combat duty.”

In effect, that meant Russian nuclear forces – which normally are at a state of “constant,” the lowest of four alert levels – would move to “elevated,” status, still below “military danger,” and “full,” the more dangerous of the alert levels.

Putin tried to justify raising the alert level by saying, “Western countries aren’t only taking unfriendly actions against our country in the economic sphere, but top officials from leading NATO members made aggressive statements regarding our country.”

Previously, Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons were based on military actions which threatened survival of the regime. On Sunday, he said that one reason he was raising the nuclear alert status was because of economic sanctions. Does he believe sanctions are threatening his survival?

It is clear that Putin knew such a step would be seen as a major escalation. He must have wanted it that way because on Sunday night, Russian state television led off with the anchor saying, “Russia’s nuclear potential is the most powerful in the world. Putin has warned: Don’t try to scare Russia.”

Looking back, it appears Putin has long had the nuclear threat in mind, even as he contemplated invading Ukraine.

Back on February 8, during his conversation with French President Emanuel Macron, who was trying to reopen diplomatic talks to head off an invasion of Ukraine, Putin made a reference to his nuclear weapons.

In explaining his demand that Ukraine be legally barred from joining NATO, Putin said, “Do you realize that if Ukraine joins NATO and decides to take Crimea back through military means, the European countries will automatically get drawn into a military conflict with Russia? Of course, NATO’s united potential and that of Russia are incomparable. We understand that, but we also understand that Russia is one of the world’s leading nuclear powers and is superior to many of those countries in terms of the number of modern nuclear force components.”

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Around that same time, during briefings of members of Congress, Director of National Intelligence Avril Hanes said Putin was moving Russia’s annual nuclear weapons exercises – normally held in the fall – to mid-February. U.S. intelligence analysts saw this as a not very subtle Putin reminder of Moscow’s nuclear capabilities.

Weeks later, on February 19, Putin went out of his way to publicize the exercise.

The Russian president invited Belarus President Aleksandr Lukashenko to sit beside him in the Kremlin’s equivalent of the White House situation room and watch on wall screens the testing of a variety of Russia’s nuclear weapons systems.

“The main objective of these exercises is to perfect the performance of our strategic offensive forces, with the aim of delivering a guaranteed strike against the enemy,” General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov told Putin.

For viewers, it was designed to be an impressive show of potential Russian offensive nuclear power on the eve of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces launched a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome that hit a target at the Kura range on the Kamchatka Peninsula, 3,700 miles away. A submerged, Northern Fleet Delta-IV class submarine in the Barents Sea launched a Sineva missile at the Kura range.

In addition, air-launched cruise missiles were fired from Tu-95 long-range strategic bombers; ships and submarines of the Northern Fleet, and the Black Sea Fleet fired off Kalibr cruise missiles.  The testing of non-strategic weapon systems, such as hypersonic and cruise missiles, were also part of the exercise.

In a pre-invasion televised address last Thursday, shortly before Russian forces began to cross the border into Ukraine, Putin reminded the world, “As for military affairs, even after the dissolution of the USSR and losing a considerable part of its capabilities, today’s Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states.”

Putin has openly and directly played the nuclear threat card at the same time Russian forces have stepped up attacks while his representatives engaged in talks to find a way to stop the fighting.

When nations are in conflict, arguments, diplomacy, even information warfare are standards tools, but no sane or rational leader of a nuclear power should knowingly initiate or even threaten such warfare against a neighbor or distant nation.

On June 16, 2021, at their summit in Geneva, Presidents Biden and Putin put out a joint statement to accompany the five-year extension of the 2010 New START Treaty. It said in part, “We reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” repeating language that was included in a 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev post summit declaration.

Two months ago, after the January 3, meeting of the leaders of five nuclear-weapons states (U.S., Russia, China, the U.K., and France) another joint statement on “preventing nuclear war and avoiding arms races” was issued. It too included the statement, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only two times nuclear weapons have been used in wartime – as terrible as they were – do not represent what today’s nuclear warheads would do.

Those two atomic bombs were detonated more than 1,500-feet above ground so that the fireball from their nuclear detonations did not touch the ground. As a result, there was no major radioactive fallout. Both cities were cleaned up, rebuilt and reoccupied fairly quickly. They are lively cities today.

That would probably not be the case if today’s nuclear weapons were used, primarily because their power is greater, they would be used in greater number and they would be aimed at targets on the ground or underground.

Radioactive fallout from exploding nuclear weapons on the ground or underground knows no boundaries. Fallout is created based on the size of the explosion, its relationship to the earth’s surfaces, and — most of all — the winds, which vary at different altitudes.

I have studied the outcome of American nuclear testing. I have visited the Marshall Island atolls of Bikini and Rongelap in the Pacific, where there was deadly radioactive fallout from thermonuclear tests held more than 64 years ago.  The fallout was picked up by the wind and  blown more than 100 miles away, harming people and the environment. I have written a recent book about it, Blown To Hell: America’s Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders.

Bikini and Rongelap, where over 250 people lived before the US tested weapons there, still hosts no permanent residents. After initial costly cleanup attempts, some people returned but eventually left because high levels of radiation began to appear in their bodies.

The islands that make up those atolls still have too much radioactivity on land and in the local waters to permit safe consumption of local food. The handful of Marshallese who suffered exposure to radioactive fallout in the 1950s who are still alive, for the most part, have experienced excessive health problems.

Putin’s repeated nuclear weapons threats, and now his move to raise the alert of his nuclear forces, implies that he might use them if the Ukraine campaign doesn’t go as he wishes.

If that’s the case, he ought to be picturing Pripyat and Chernobyl, not Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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