Time to Stop Wobbling and Learn to Love the Bomb

Cipher Brief Expert View

Rob Dannenberg served as chief of operations for the Counterterrorism Center, chief of the Central Eurasia Division and chief of the CIA’s Information Operations Center before retiring from the Agency.  He served as managing director and head of the Office of Global Security for Goldman Sachs, and director of International Security Affairs at BP and is now an independent consultant and speaker on geopolitical and security risk.

View all articles by Rob Dannenberg

OPINION – In the 1964 movie, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, an insane U.S. general triggers nuclear war by ordering a bomb attack on the Soviet Union.  The movie, starring Peter Sellers and George C. Scott, was a comedy that was made 58 years ago. 

Today, “If Putin is forced to choose between losing on the one hand in Ukraine and escalating the level of destruction, there’s every reason to believe he will escalate the level of destruction,” according to Harvard University’s  Graham Allison as quoted in the Financial Times

Putin is losing in Ukraine and with the flow of weapons from the West, particularly from the United States, steadily increasing in quantity and quality, the Russian invasion is likely to continue to fail.

Putin expected—or was briefed—that the campaign would be over in a few days with a puppet government installed and Ukraine on the road to Belarus-style servility. The result has been much different, and with the May 9 “Victory Day” anniversary rapidly approaching with not even a Pyrrhic victory in sight, we should recalibrate our expectations on what might come next and that could well be the Russian use of one or more tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine as a move that would compel President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to either sue for peace or sacrifice his country to utter destruction.

Any observer of Russia’s reduction of Grozny or Aleppo and now Mariupol, to rubble, knows that Putin is capable of this level of violence and destruction without remorse. Moreover, his warped world view may see the use of a nuclear weapon as a “legitimate” great power tool akin to the U.S. use of nuclear weapons to end the war with Japan in 1945. 

By any reasonable calculus, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a disaster. Russian losses in both men and materiel have been staggering, the strategic conception and tactical execution of the campaign abysmal, and the performance of the Russian army in terms of morale, discipline, and criminal activity has to be alarming to any competent observer in the Kremlin.

Russian communications discipline has been poor and effectively exploited by Ukrainian forces. Russia recently established a unified command structure under Southern Military District Commander General Alexander Dvornikov (who became known as the ‘Butcher of Syria’) to try and improve Russian offensive performance with the more limited objectives of securing the entirety of the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. 

Performance has not improved and reportedly, Russian General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov traveled to the front to take personal command but was forced to return to Moscow after a strike on a Russian front headquarters not far from Izium, a strike which killed or wounded a number of senior Russian generals and caused an interruption in Russian offensive operations.

There is no reason to believe that Russian military performance in Ukraine will improve without significant escalation, including the use of weapons of mass destruction.

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Putin’s actions in recent weeks indicate that he seems to recognize that Russian military performance is unlikely to improve and absent a number of escalatory steps, Russia may lose the war. His rhetoric to the Russian people about everything going according to plan notwithstanding, his actions tell another story.

Reportedly, more than 100 senior FSB officials have been put under house arrest over the poor intelligence that was provided on Ukrainian military capabilities, and the commander of the Black Sea fleet was relieved of his duties over the loss of the Moskva, the flagship of the Russian fleet.

There are a number of reports of strikes by Ukrainian forces or saboteurs in Russian staging areas near the border with Ukraine and elsewhere in the Russian Federation. But perhaps more importantly, the Russian official media narrative on the war has changed.

What was at first described as a “Special Military Operation” is increasingly described as a war against NATO. There is increasing talk that Putin will order a Russian general mobilization in his remarks on May 9. The term “existential” is now being used by Russian officials to describe the conflict with NATO and the risk presented to Russia should Finland and Sweden decide to join NATO, which looks increasingly likely.

In response, Russia is threatening to deploy nuclear weapons to Kaliningrad, much to the bafflement of Kaliningrad’s neighbors, Poland and Lithuania, who have long assumed the nuclear-capable Iskandr missile systems that are already there were provisioned with nuclear payloads. 

On April 20, Russia tested a new multiple-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile system known as the “Sarmat” which Putin said “…(will) provide food for thought for those who, in the heat of frenzied aggressive rhetoric, try to threaten our country.” 

Let us not forget that in the days before launching his invasion of Ukraine, Putin visited a bunker outside Moscow to observe a test of Russia’s strategic nuclear systems. Shortly after the invasion began, Putin publicly ordered his Minister of Defense and General Staff Chief to increase the level of preparedness of Russia’s deterrent forces. Thus, the threat of the use of nuclear force has been on Putin’s mind and part of his messaging to the West since before the invasion.

Many experts have assessed that Putin is capable of using a nuclear weapon, and may be increasingly inclined to do so.  He certainly believes there is a level of escalation that the West will not match.  He may be right.  All the more reason that serious thought should be given on how to deter Putin from taking such a step.

We know from experience since March 2014, that Putin is not deterred by the threat of sanctions. However, the threat of loss of the war in Ukraine and the collapse of his kleptocracy might deter him. To date, the West has been reluctant to state explicitly what its response might be if Putin decides to use weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps it is time to be more explicit—if initially only in direct communication to the Russian government.

In my view, Putin needs to know that if he crosses the nuclear threshold, the response will be either proportionate (eg, direct NATO involvement in the war to eject Russian invaders from Ukraine including Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk) or symmetrical (eg, a nuclear strike on Ukrainian forces in the field or a population center would be responded to in kind by NATO on Russian forces) and end of war terms for the West will turn to unconditional surrender.

This is dangerous and untested ground, especially when dealing with a leader like Putin. Appeasement of such leaders has never worked and we would be foolish to believe they will work now. We must also not forget that others of the ilk of Chinese President Xi Jinping, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei are watching. As Margaret Thatcher (the “Iron Lady”) once noted, this is no time to get wobbly.

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