Putin Threatens to Nuke the World | Opinion

Russia sortied ballistic missile submarines and land-based mobile missile launchers on March 1 in what was called a drill.

Two days earlier, Vladimir Putin put Russian nuclear forces on "special combat readiness," in other words, high alert.

Minutes before the Ukraine invasion, the Russian president warned of "consequences that you have never experienced in your history."

"Yes, Putin might do the unthinkable," said James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, to Business Insider.

For almost a decade, Russian doctrine has been to "escalate to deescalate," to threaten or even to use nuclear weapons early in a conventional conflict or crisis. John Hyten, until last year the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, more correctly termed the doctrine "escalate to win, escalate to end."

As Hudson Institute senior fellow and GeoStrategic Analysis president Peter Huessy told Newsweek, "escalating to win" assumes nuclear threats will "coerce an enemy to stand down and not fight."

Ukraine, at the moment, is still fighting. Putin apparently believed the country would fall in a few days. With the conflict now in its third week, Russian forces are continuing to struggle on the battlefield.

Many analysts say nuclear weapons have no utility in Ukraine, but that assessment does not take into account Putin's maliciousness. One use of tactical nukes would be to avoid high-casualty, street-by-street battles in Kyiv and other cities.

Why is the now-famous Russian 40-mile tank column not entering the Ukrainian capital? Mud, fuel shortages and enemy attacks may not be the only reasons. Russia could be thinking of employing weapons of mass destruction—chemical or nuclear—before trying to capture Kyiv.

As Russian forces have encountered unexpected resistance, Russia's threats have come at a fast pace. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Wednesday that World War III would be nuclear.

"Nuclear war is part of our strategic culture," an unnamed retired Russian diplomat told American foreign policy analyst Harry Kazianis on the sidelines of a Track 2 dialogue in 2012. "Yes, we would start one if our homeland, our way of life, was threatened, absolutely. Why wouldn't we?"

Remember, few thought Putin would launch a full-scale invasion, which has now become the largest assault in Europe since World War II. Strong powers completely failed to deter a conventional attack by a weak one, so we should now be prepared for deterrence to fail again.

For three decades, Americans did not think seriously about nuclear weapons. Instead, they resorted to slogans, such as the one President Biden adopted just last June in a joint statement with Putin: "A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought."

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with the head of Russia's Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, a big business lobby group, at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 2, 2022. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Moreover, Biden could be going beyond mere sloganeering. Up until the Ukraine invasion, many expected his administration would announce in the Nuclear Posture Review the adoption of a No First Use or Sole Purpose policy. Both policies, radical departures from the one in place since the 1940s, would prevent the U.S. from using nukes to protect allies from non-nuclear attacks.

"This gives the enemy the initiative, should they wish to go nuclear under an escalation-to-win strategy, and seriously undercuts the extended nuclear umbrella deterrent that we provide to our NATO and western Pacific allies," Huessy told Newsweek last year, referring to Biden adopting such policies. "This would be a huge gift to China and Russia," noted a "European official" to the Financial Times.

China, Russia's "no limits" partner (the pair adopted the phrase in the 5,000-word joint statement last month), has formally adopted No First Use. And Beijing is keenly watching what happens in Ukraine.

If Putin's nuke threats prevent others coming to Ukraine's rescue, he will undoubtedly employ similar warnings to grab the Baltic States, Poland and other areas. The ambitious Russian leader wants to reassemble the Soviet Union, but it looks like he also harbors even grander ambitions, such as incorporating all the territories of the old Russian Empire. He may even be looking for more than that.

China is also demanding "lost" territory. To grab it, Beijing has periodically made unprovoked threats to incinerate American population centers. And beginning last July, Chinese propaganda talked about lobbing nuclear weapons into Japanese and Australian cities.

Beijing's primary target remains Taiwan. Former Chinese disarmament diplomat Sha Zukang once issued a public warning that China would nuke the island republic.

"As Russian nuclear forces have already deterred President Biden from sending troops to Ukraine and deterred NATO from giving more combat aircraft to Ukraine, so China has long ago decided to use nuclear blackmail to keep the U.S. out of its future murder of Taiwan's democracy," said Richard Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center to Newsweek. "But that's not all. For the last decade, China and Russia have been building a military entente that has long included cooperation in 'strategic defense,' or defense against U.S. nuclear missiles. It is highly plausible that China and Russia already have decided to cooperate in 'strategic offense,' or the coordination of their nuclear forces to blackmail or even to destroy the United States."

President Biden, when asked on February 28 whether Americans should be worried about a nuclear attack, gave a one-word response: "No."

The correct answer was "yes."

On the day after Putin raised nuclear forces to high alert, the U.S. Strategic Command put its "doomsday plane," the E-4B, into the air. The craft is designed to protect the president, senior civilian officials and top military commanders in the event of a nuclear attack.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter: @GordonGChang.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.