The President and the Bomb

Joe Biden warns Russia about the existential risk of using nuclear weapons.

Joe Biden delivering remarks in Poughkeepsie, New York, on October 6, 2022
Joe Biden delivering remarks in Poughkeepsie, New York, on October 6, 2022 (Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty)

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Updated at 10:30 a.m. ET on October 8, 2022

President Biden has warned the Russians that the use of a nuclear weapon in Ukraine could lead to a wider nuclear conflict. He’s right to be worried—and he’s right to warn the Russians yet again not to take that fateful step.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

The Brightest Red Line

The president of the United States said last night that he is concerned about nuclear war. “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon,” he remarked, seemingly off-the-cuff, at a Democratic fundraiser. The reactions were what you’d expect: Strategists and foreign-policy experts tried to unpack his statements, while right-wing pundits declared that the old man is too unsteady for the job. Many Americans are, understandably, scared.

I have criticized Biden for intemperate remarks in the past. I gladly stipulate that I never want any president talking about nuclear war extemporaneously (and I wonder what moved the president to speak out this time). But I understand the message Biden is trying, in every possible venue, to send to Russia, and I’m glad that he’s trying to shake us—and Russian President Vladimir Putin—out of our complacency about this potentially cataclysmic issue.

What I suspect Biden knows, and what Americans and their allies should realize, is that Putin is almost certainly talking a lot about nuclear weapons because he wants to accustom the West to the idea that he has the right to use them. From the first day of the war, Putin has woven nuclear threats into both his offensive against Ukraine and his warnings to the West. Like other Russia-watchers, I think the chances that Putin will resort to nuclear use are low. But I have been worried about it since the moment Russia’s military started collapsing on the battlefield.

Now the Russian president is making sure to mention the use of “all means available” to defend Russian territory, and describing the nuclear bombing of Japan as a precedent—a clear implication that he is threatening to use tactical nuclear weapons, smaller bombs delivered over short distances. These arms, however, are “small” only relative to the massive weapons on bombers, submarines, and intercontinental missiles; even the tiniest of them can do immense damage, especially against civilian areas.

By raising the threat of tactical nuclear weapons, Putin is trying to play both sides of the nuclear game. He wants the rest of the world to internalize the idea that a small nuclear attack isn’t really all that different from any other kind of bombing, while still shattering the nuclear taboo, with all the anxiety that word provokes. He might see this as allowing him to use a nuclear weapon to achieve the trifecta of terrorizing the Ukrainians into surrender, holding the West at bay, and escaping the consequences of crossing the military world’s brightest red line.

Putin has played the same game with other breaches of international norms. He talks about doing something terrible, does it, and then assumes the rest of the world will absorb it all as a new reality and just live with it. It’s a gamble that has paid off for him in the past, especially when he seized Crimea.

Tactical nuclear use would be far riskier than the Crimean adventure. But Putin is not the only one who thinks the West might simply take it if Russia uses a nuclear weapon. When the writer Eric Schlosser interviewed former Secretary of Defense William Perry in The Atlantic just a few weeks ago, Schlosser noted that Russia has already engaged in various atrocities and that a very small nuclear weapon “might not seem too controversial.” Perry agreed: “I think there would be an international uproar, but I don’t think it would last long,” he said. “It might blow over in a week or two.”

I think that President Biden, however, is right that the first use of a nuclear weapon is only the beginning of a slide toward global disaster. The world would be different the moment Russia ushered in a new age of nuclear combat. And the uproar would not die, because television cameras would show the world what even a small nuclear attack looks like: Unless Putin chose to do something dramatic but militarily useless, such as an explosion out at sea, there would be ghastly burns, people dying of radiation sickness, and fires that would make the current images from Ukraine seem like the results of mere skirmishes.

Such an attack would demand a response. Despite Perry’s fears—and whatever Putin’s hopes—there is virtually no chance that the United States, NATO, the European Union, and even other nuclear powers such as India and China will simply shrug if Putin makes nuclear weapons just another form of usable ordnance. More to the point, Biden has already said to the Russians publicly and privately that America and its allies would impose “catastrophic consequences” on Russia and its military. I am reluctant to predict what those measures might look like, but they could functionally end Russia’s ability to make war in Ukraine and the Black Sea region.

At that point, Putin—if he is still in power—would either have to accept defeat, or escalate and throw the dice yet again. (And, as even Secretary Perry noted, the United States would have to “take off the gloves the second time around.”) Putin might then claim that the U.S. and NATO are presenting an existential threat to the Russian state, and go to a full nuclear alert that directly threatens all of Europe and North America.

The United States would have to respond and go to a similarly heightened status. Putin, as the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev put it during the Cuban missile crisis, will have tied the knot of war, and each side’s actions would then run the risk of pulling it tighter. Even the slightest miscalculation could lead to an apocalyptic outcome. The only option that avoids such a disaster is agreement to Putin’s terms, an immediate Ukrainian surrender, and general Western abandonment of East-Central Europe. This is likely what Putin expects, but it would be one more mistake from a Russian dictator who has underestimated his opponents and made horrendous miscalculations at every turn.

Putin is trying to normalize the use of nuclear weapons for imperial conquest. If he succeeds, he will not stop. The United States did not fight two world wars and the Cold War merely to bow to blackmail and accept the demands of a despot holding the entire global order of peace and security hostage with a nuclear bomb. It was Biden’s duty—as it would be for any American president—to say clearly and directly that the use of nuclear weapons runs apocalyptic risks.


Today’s News
  1. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to human-rights organizations in Russia and Ukraine, and to a Belarusian activist.
  2. The U.S. added 263,000 jobs in September, falling just short of expectations. The labor market remains strong.
  3. The Uvalde, Texas, school district suspended its entire district police force amid outrage over officers’ response to the school shooting in May.


Evening Read
Triptych Illustration and photos of a man in lingerie, a woman in a mask, and Frankenstein's monster.
(Everett Collection; The Atlantic)

The Unexpected Power of Seeing Yourself as a Villain

By Mary Retta

Monsters in horror films aren’t just scary, or dangerous. They also “make one’s skin creep,” the philosopher Noël Carroll wrote: “Characters regard them not only with fear but with loathing, with a combination of terror and disgust.” It’s no coincidence, then, that horror is strewn with characters who are openly, or coded as, queer and transgender—and that they’re almost always the dirty, lecherous, bloodthirsty villains, seldom the victims. Think of films such as The Silence of the Lambs and Psycho, with their suggestion that the gender confusion of their “cross-dressing” villain is the impetus for their violent desires.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
A musician in an elaborate fringed and sequined costume performs onstage
Karen O performing with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on October 1, 2022, at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, New York (Ellen Qbertplaya)

Read. Hill Station,” a short story by Madhuri Vijay about an unhappy marriage and an unfulfilled mother.

Or try one of these books that our writers read too late—and that you should read now.

Watch. One (or two, or five) of these 25 horror movies for every kind of viewer.

On TV, Abbott Elementary is a perfect comfort watch.

And don’t give up on SNL yet. Last week’s premiere signaled surprising potential for the new season.

Listen. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They’re the band that invented Millennials.

Play our daily crossword.


The news cycle once again thwarted my hopes of leaving you with something lighter on a Friday. So let me suggest to you some retro television comfort food that you can stream on Hulu or buy on iTunes. I have a great affection for Boston, the capital city of my state of birth, and I am a sucker for almost anything set there. When you think of Boston television, you think of Cheers, of course, or maybe Spenser: For Hire or Crossing Jordan.

But don’t overlook one of the quirkiest and best dramas ever set in Boston, St. Elsewhere. The fictional hospital St. Eligius was an impoverished dumping ground nicknamed “St. Elsewhere,” and the series was both a satisfying medical drama and a weird innovation in television. (One of the characters visits another character in hell during a near-death experience. That’s not your standard doctor show.) Some people didn’t like the finale; I loved it. And it’s hard to make a bad show with Denzel Washington, Alfre Woodard, and David Morse alongside veterans such as William Daniels and Norman Lloyd. So when you need to tune out the news, get on the Orange Line, turn on the show’s great theme song, and stop in at St. Eligius.


Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.

This article has been updated to reflect that Putin has not explicitly used the term “tactical nuclear weapons” regarding Ukraine, but rather has implied his willingness to use them.