Biden’s Loose Lips Make the Nuclear Threat Worse

The president’s rhetoric will encourage Putin to test American resolve.

An illustration featuring an image of Joe Biden and a nuclear symbol
Getty / The Atlantic

President Joe Biden is right to be concerned about Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats. As Russia’s military flounders in Ukraine, it is replacing military commanders with the architects of Russia’s campaigns in Syria, dropping even the pretense of targeting militarily significant objectives, expanding its war aims, and hinting darkly about using nuclear weapons against both Ukraine and its Western supporters.

But by loudly agonizing over the issue in public settings, Biden isn’t helping. The president has previously expressed fears of becoming enmeshed in World War III. Last week at a private gathering of Democratic donors, he likened the current risk to the Cuban missile crisis and fretted that the world faces Armageddon. The worst way to have a discussion with the American people and the world about the risks that Russia poses is to fret about them—at an elite partisan fundraiser, no less—in ways that are bound to leak out. Instead, Biden should give a national address explaining American interests in preserving an international order where states come to the aid of countries attacked by predators (as President George H. W. Bush did in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait), valorizing the Ukrainians’ courage, laying out why they deserve our help, articulating but not melodramatizing the danger, and preparing the American public for what will be needed if Russia does use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, our European allies, or even the U.S.

States are likely to use nuclear weapons when they believe their conventional military forces cannot achieve their war aims. Russia’s recent defeats in Ukraine may be raising such doubts. At the end of the Cold War, NATO reduced its holdings of tactical nuclear weapons—that is, lower-yield bombs without intercontinental delivery systems—by 90 percent, hoping to set a virtuous example for Russia. Russia has retained a tactical nuclear stockpile 10 times the size of America’s, by one estimate, and in theory could employ it against Ukraine.

To be sure, current conditions offer Russia few military targets against which nuclear weapons would confer any battlefield advantage. Ukraine has not amassed large concentrations of soldiers whom Russia could try to kill in such a strike. It has not established dense defensive lines that a nuclear detonation might crater and breach. Ukrainian military operations depend on no one port or airfield that Russia might be tempted to attack with a weapon of mass destruction. But as his army is being driven out of Ukrainian territory, Putin might plausibly try to use a nuclear weapon on Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, to claim that Russia’s “special military operation” succeeded in removing President Volodymyr Zelensky from office.

Russian operations have already crossed the significant moral threshold from military targets to purposeful and punitive attacks on civilians (which are illegal under the Geneva Conventions). Putin responded to the Ukrainian attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge, a militarily significant target, by firing missiles at Kyiv. The Russian military leaders who are now being promoted—such as General Sergey Surovikin, who made his name in his country’s brutal bombing campaign in Syria—are likely to advocate further barbarity against noncombatants and perhaps even nuclear-weapons use.

Even so, Biden’s comparisons of the current war to the Cuban missile crisis are wrong as history. The Cuban missile crisis was a standoff in which the Soviet Union moved to station nuclear weapons in an allied state abutting the U.S. As the political scientist Marc Trachtenberg has shown, it was the final act of earlier Berlin crises. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not a direct U.S.-Soviet confrontation; the better analogies are proxy wars in third countries during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

President Biden’s public expressions of anxiety are also wrong as strategy, because they reward Russia for making nuclear threats. Although the Biden administration has so far admirably insisted that Putin’s threats won’t diminish our support for Ukraine, the president’s recent rhetoric will encourage Putin to test his resolve. It will also raise the possibility that, to give Putin a chance to de-escalate, the U.S. will press Ukraine to settle for less than restoration of its internationally recognized territory. Among other debacles, the rushed departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan last year suggests that, even against conventionally armed enemies, America’s commitment to its allies is less than ironclad.

Worse yet, Biden’s public anxiety telegraphs to every aspiring authoritarian the value of having nuclear weapons. That, in turn, poses a distinct problem for the U.S. Because of its superior conventional forces, which can win wars without resorting to nuclear bombs, America is a major beneficiary of the nuclear taboo. Still, the entire world is safer with fewer nuclear-armed powers, and showing dictators that nuclear threats are the way to tie Washington up in emotional knots will only undermine global security.

The right response to Putin’s nuclear threats is the one that Ukrainians—who are the people likeliest to be victims of Russia’s nuclear use—have already given: This will not change the outcome of the war. That message signals our commitment and diminishes the power of nuclear threats.

Biden ought also to make explicit what the United States will do if it detects Russian preparations to use a nuclear weapon. At a minimum, the U.S. should make public what it knows and should provide Ukrainians with all the intelligence and military assistance necessary for them to preempt such an attack. If that stance fails to prevent it, NATO nations should send military nuclear-cleanup teams immediately to Ukraine to help deal with the consequences, accelerate weapons deliveries to Ukraine, bury any hesitation about Ukraine striking Russian territory, and pledge that Americans will hunt down and bring to justice everyone involved in the policy decision and execution of the orders.

If Biden takes these public positions, he still may not prevent Russia from using nuclear weapons, any more than threats of sanctions and unusually specific warnings about Russia’s intentions dissuaded Russia from invading Ukraine earlier this year. But by overtly and credibly committing the U.S. to explicit responses, Biden will strengthen deterrence. The best way to avoid nuclear Armageddon is to make sure that Russia does not miscalculate our intentions.