Putin Presses the Nuclear Nerve Again
Russia’s latest moves are useless, stupid, and provocative.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin is once again trying to manipulate nuclear weapons to compensate for the ongoing Russian military disaster in Ukraine. These new Russian moves are dangerous but not a crisis.
First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:
Useless, Stupid, and Provocative
You can always tell when things are going badly on the battlefield for the Russians in Ukraine, because Vladimir Putin starts talking about nuclear weapons. For weeks, the Russians have been pounding the city of Bakhmut, but so far, Bakhmut remains in Ukrainian hands, despite repeated Russian—and Western—predictions that it would fall. (The Ukrainian high command recently said that the situation is “being stabilized,” which is mostly good news.) No matter what happens next, however, the cost to the Russians has been immense: Russian commanders are now reportedly using “human wave” tactics, sending poorly armed men into battle merely to absorb Ukrainian ammunition and die so that the next group of attackers can get closer to the lines.
Putin knows that there will be no triumphal breakthrough. Even if Bakhmut is eventually taken, the Russians will be planting a flag on a pile of their own corpses. And so, in his desperation to change the narrative both at home and abroad, Putin has returned to taking nuclear gambles. Putin told Russian television on March 25 that he intends to station Russian tactical nuclear weapons in neighboring Belarus, a country that borders both Ukraine and NATO. Yesterday, the Russian ambassador to Belarus doubled down on Putin’s threat, announcing that Russia plans to deploy those weapons in the western part of Belarus—near the border with its NATO neighbors.
This is both more and less than it seems, but first, we should review some definitions.
There is no particular technological characteristic to a “tactical” nuclear weapon. In practice, tactical nuclear weapons are usually intended for delivery at short range (roughly less than 500 kilometers) with smaller warheads, and they are aimed at battlefield objectives such as concentrations of enemy forces or bases in the rear. “Strategic” weapons, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles or strategic bombers, traverse far greater distances and are primarily aimed at enemy strategic nuclear weapons (such as silos, bomber bases, and submarine pens), infrastructure, industry, and, in the most horrific instance, the enemy’s cities. These major targets are meant to affect the overall outcome of the war.
Tactical weapons are considerably less powerful because they’re intended for use close to the line of battle, and they pack only a fraction of the punch of a strategic warhead. (Dropping a city-buster bomb on a battlefield will indeed kill the enemy, but it will also kill your own forces and flatten everything else for five or six miles in every direction.) These tactical nuclear arms can be as small as 10 or 20 kilotons, or even just one, but “small” is relative in the world of nuclear weapons; the bomb America dropped on Hiroshima was about 15 kilotons. (A kiloton is the explosive power equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT.) Even a small weapon can do a lot of damage, kill a lot of people, and poison a lot of land.
Putin didn’t specify which Russian systems he would station in Belarus. There are a few options: He could place short-range missiles near the Belarus border, or he could store tactical warheads for use on Russian bomber aircraft. Russian forces, obviously, would guard and crew these systems, rather than transferring them to Belarus.
Whatever he ends up doing, this announcement is a trifecta of Putinist foreign policy: It is useless, stupid, and provocative all at the same time.
It’s a useless gambit, because moving tactical nukes to Belarus doesn’t really buy Russia any military advantage. It’s possible that Putin is doing this to lash Belarus’s strongman, Alexander Lukashenko, more tightly to the mast of Russia’s sinking ship in Ukraine. It might justify placing elite Russian forces in Belarus territory for years to come, but Russia already has plenty of ability to deliver tactical strikes on Ukraine and NATO.
Putting nuclear weapons in Belarus is also strategically stupid, because it buys Putin more political trouble than it’s worth. Lukashenko has said he approves of the plan, but he almost certainly doesn’t want these things in his country, not only because it will emphasize that he’s merely one of Putin’s local gauleiters but also because it will create even more instability in Belarus itself. Lukashenko is hated by many of his own citizens, and he triumphed in the last election only by fraud and force. Making Belarus into a frontline nuclear target won’t help matters.
Perhaps even dumber is that Putin runs the risk of annoying the Chinese. The Russian president may be the stud duck in the Kremlin, but in Eurasia, he’s now a junior partner of the richer and more powerful Xi Jinping. As Mike McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, noted, the Belarus decision is a snub to Xi, who just issued a joint statement with Putin that included a call for “all nuclear powers” not to deploy their nuclear weapons beyond their national territories and to withdraw all nuclear weapons deployed abroad.
That passage was supposed to be a warning to the Americans. Putin, however, has stepped on that message by threatening to station nuclear arms outside of Russia for the first time since the end of the Cold War. (A Chinese diplomat on Monday gingerly deflected a question about the Belarus issue, referring to a previous statement by the five major nuclear powers that a nuclear war could never be won and must never be fought. That statement was also signed by Russia, so we might assume this answer was an indication of Chinese displeasure.)
Finally, Putin’s announcement is provocative, because it shows yet again how quickly the Russian leader will resort to nuclear threats. Putin, at this point, is likely frustrated that his mentions of nuclear arms no longer rattle Washington or Brussels, and he is trying to squeeze just a bit more juice out of the nuclear lemon by dragging another state into the fray.
Nuclear threats are never to be taken lightly, but for now, Putin’s announcement—and so far, it is only that, an announcement—is not a crisis that requires any direct response from anyone. (Well, the Chinese might like a word, but that’s Beijing’s problem.) U.S. and NATO intelligence analysts are, as always, continually watching to see whether Russia is taking concrete steps to use such weapons (for example, if they detect that warheads are being moved from storage to active units that could employ them), but so far, according to U.S. sources, none of that is happening.
Nevertheless, a foreign leader trying to extricate himself from a military disaster by making nuclear threats is more likely to make other foolish moves. As spring progresses, Russia’s position will likely become more dire, so we can expect Putin to try to press this raw nerve again and again—especially as the Russian body count continues to climb.
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By Marion Renault
Colleen Kennedy, a retired medical assistant, was prepared for the annihilation of chemotherapy and radiation treatment for stage-three lung cancer. She hadn’t expected the hiccup fits that started about halfway through her first treatment round. They left her gasping for air and sent pain ricocheting through her already tender body. At times, they triggered her gag reflex and made her throw up. After they subsided, she felt tired, sore, breathless—as if she’d just finished a tough workout. They were, Kennedy, now 54, told me, “nothing compared to what we would consider normal hiccups at all.” They lasted for nearly a year.
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There are two other stories from Russia in the past week, both of them indications of how badly the war is going.
The big story is the seizure of an American reporter by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). The Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich was detained in the city of Yekaterinburg on espionage charges, which the Journal denies. My guess, based on the timing, is that this could be retaliation for the charges filed in Washington against an alleged Russian military-intelligence operative who was apprehended earlier in Brazil. Grabbing Gershkovich is an even more extreme ploy than arresting the American basketball player Brittney Griner on drug charges: Accusing a high-profile journalist of spying doesn’t just mean that the Russians likely want another prisoner exchange; it could also indicate that they’re desperate to extinguish Western coverage of the situation in Russia.
The other story is an intriguing article by my friend Michael Weiss about a Ukrainian operation in which three Russian pilots were offered bribes to defect—with their jets. The deal later fell apart, but I called Weiss to ask just how far along this whole caper got. The Ukrainians found the Russian pilots through some open-source sleuthing and made the cash offers. The pilots were interested and gave up “a lot of information, including about their aircraft, bases, and routes.” Things apparently went sour, Weiss told me, when the wife of one pilot got cold feet and blew the whistle; another was betrayed by a girlfriend (who the Ukrainians, according to Weiss, think may have been in bed, so to speak, with the FSB). Unless these three men were already working with Russian security agents—which is unlikely—they’re in a world of trouble, which is why the Ukrainians, as Weiss reports, see the outcome as a win: They didn’t get the planes, but “we managed to eliminate all three war criminals without getting up from the table.”
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.