He threatened any country that interfered in his invasion of Ukraine with “consequences greater than any you have faced in history.” He placed his nuclear forces on high alert and held exercises with them. And then he proclaimed that Western sanctions amounted to a “declaration of war” against Russia.
The fate of humanity suddenly seems to be in the unsteady hands of an isolated, frustrated, and potentially unhinged Vladimir Putin. And people are understandably panicked about that prospect. “The fact that there’s a very short path from, say, Putin feeling humiliated to the end of life as we know it,” the sociologist Kieran Healy wrote, “is literally insane.”
At this point of the conflict over Ukraine, the odds are that the Russian president’s threats amount to a bluff intended to intimidate and coerce his opponents in the West. But regardless of whether the risk of nuclear war has actually increased, Putin’s actions have opened our eyes to how dependent we all are on the whims of one man and his nuclear arsenal—or even the missteps or miscalculations that fallible, emotional, semi-rational human beings make when moving quickly in crisis.
Our current predicament should, in fact, open our eyes wider still to the more profound problem of a similar susceptibility in the United States and other nuclear-armed countries—and to how few checks there truly are on leaders who decide to use the world’s most destructive weapons.
The reactions to Putin’s threats remind me of 2017, when Donald Trump started unleashing nuclear threats against North Korea, and many Americans began to understand the U.S. president’s expansive power to use nuclear weapons. Be it with Putin now, Trump then, or a Watergate-addled Richard Nixon in the 1970s, the delicate nature of the world’s framework for deterring nuclear war typically dawns on people only when leaders of nuclear states start acting in extraordinary and seemingly reckless ways, even though the underlying condition of vulnerability is always present.
“The entire system of nuclear deterrence is and always has been incredibly dangerous and fragile,” Eryn MacDonald, a global-security analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told me. “We tend not to notice this—or, perhaps, are more able to push this knowledge far enough into the background to ignore how disturbing it is—until there is a crisis that brings the absurdity of the whole system into focus.”
We don’t know a lot about how exactly the authority to launch nuclear weapons works in Russia. This opacity is deliberate. All nuclear command-and-control systems, including America’s, have a “first rule of Fight Club”-like aspect to them: You don’t talk much about them, to keep your enemies guessing. But Pavel Podvig, an expert on Russian nuclear forces (who, even armed with all his knowledge, speaks about some of his assessments in terms of guesswork), has concluded that the Russian president can probably order the use of nuclear weapons on his own, even if the country’s policies aren’t necessarily designed that way.
The Russian system, which dates back to the 1970s and was crafted with Soviet-era collective, centralized decision making in mind, calls for the defense minister and the chief of the military’s general staff to be looped in on any orders by the country’s leader to use nuclear weapons, giving them an opportunity to influence the decision. (Experts think each of these figures possesses a Cheget, Russia’s rough equivalent of the American “nuclear football,” though whether all three briefcases are needed to transmit a nuclear-launch order is unclear.) If, as some speculate he might in the course of the conflict in Ukraine, Putin were to reach for his tactical nuclear weapons—a lower-yield, shorter-range variety that can be deployed on the battlefield—he would need to remove them from storage and prepare them for use in a relatively protracted process that would ostensibly involve more consultations.
But given the degree to which Putin has recently concentrated power, it appears that no actor in the Russian system would actually be able to veto a presidential decision to use nuclear weapons. Podvig told me that any Russian plan to employ nuclear weapons would likely have to first be developed by military officials, who would thus “have a chance to offer their opinion [and] raise objections.” Nevertheless, he added, “ultimately they are there to carry out orders, not to dispute them.”
Were Russia to come under attack, its system calls for solid confirmation of such an offensive to initiate retaliatory nuclear strikes, he explained, “but when it comes to a deliberate [Russian] first strike [with nuclear weapons], most safeguards could be circumvented.”
The U.S. nuclear-launch system has its own ambiguities, but one element is clearer than in Russia’s system: The American president has sole authority to order the use of nuclear weapons, without any need to consult with or obtain the assent of top military or civilian advisers.
It’s a reality rarely dwelled upon, even by those whose job is to dwell on it. In 2017, in the throes of Trump’s vows to rain down “fire and fury” on Kim Jong Un, I tuned in as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held the first congressional hearing on the subject in 41 years. I was shocked by how many members of Congress’s premier foreign-affairs committee seemed to be just getting up to speed on the commander in chief’s exclusive power in matters of nuclear war.
This concentrated executive authority—which contrasts with more collective decision making in nuclear states such as India and Pakistan, where nuclear-use powers are vested in councils—is in large part a legacy of the Cold War. During that period, the U.S. government chose to categorize nuclear weapons differently than other weapons and put them under the circumscribed civilian control of the country’s democratically elected political leader. The approach was informed by a prolonged nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union that placed a premium on enabling quick decisions, because an American leader might have only minutes to retaliate against a surprise nuclear assault.
Still, in both Russia and the United States, despite what Trump might have led us to believe, the proverbial “nuclear button” is a myth; even with the immense executive authority to launch nuclear weapons in each country, any such presidential order would necessarily need to pass through other individuals with varying degrees of agency. But based on what we know of the Russian and American systems, does Joe Biden actually have fewer checks on his power to wage nuclear war than Putin does?
The response when I posed that question to MacDonald and Podvig: It’s complicated.
In theory, they explained, the Russian system for launching nuclear weapons has more checks, because it seems to technically require the consent of others beyond just the president. But in practice, given Putin’s firm grip on power, the president’s underlings are unlikely to object to his order and liable to be easily replaced if they have the audacity to do so.
In the United States, by contrast, the obstacles to a president firing these weapons are theoretically fewer but practically perhaps greater than in Russia. Nuclear-strike options require legal review before they're presented to the U.S. president, for example, and those executing an order at least have the option of resisting a command they deem unlawful.
Whatever “the actual arrangements and safeguards” in both countries, Podvig noted, “ultimately, a determined commander in chief would be able to execute a first [nuclear] strike.”
MacDonald argued that certain policy reforms could reduce the risks associated with the world’s system of nuclear deterrence. She pointed to two proposals among the many that have been floated. One option would be to mandate that more people be involved in decisions to use nuclear weapons. (In recent years, the trend in nuclear states appears to be going in the opposite direction—toward greater centralization of launch authority in the chief executive.) Another would be to take the hotly debated step of declaring that the United States will never be the first actor to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. (Other nuclear experts such as my Atlantic Council colleague Matthew Kroenig have argued that adopting this policy would undermine deterrence and introduce different dangers, such as emboldening U.S. adversaries to use conventional force against the United States and its allies without concern about nuclear retaliation from Washington.)
Although Russia is highly unlikely to adopt a “no first use” policy at the moment, MacDonald acknowledged that “even a unilateral U.S. declaration would still reduce the risk of a misunderstanding or miscommunication causing a conventional conflict to escalate to a nuclear exchange.”
In my reporting on nuclear-weapons issues over the years, I have often found myself racing down rabbit holes of research and reckoning with the immense spectrum of possibilities only to emerge stupefied, wondering how anyone can be talking or writing about anything else. This might be why most people don’t talk about it much. And then, every so often, dramatic developments in the world have a way of awakening us from our collective slumber.
As Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the Nobel Peace Prize–winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, told me during the “fire and fury” era, “If you’re uncomfortable with nuclear weapons under Donald Trump, you’re probably uncomfortable with nuclear weapons, because it means you recognize that [deterrence] won’t always hold up and things can go wrong.”
“Once you start thinking ‘this person is appropriate for this weapon but not that person,’” she said, “then maybe it’s the weapon that’s the problem.”