You can understand the conventional reasoning behind Putin’s decision not to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine by asking: Why should he?
Biden claims that Putin is insane, a madman, and that he was pushed into a corner with imminent defeat in Ukraine. This, Biden says, increases the chance of regime change.
Nothing could be further from reality. Putin does not face “defeat” in Ukraine. He can trade territory and retreat to the Donbas and other stable pre-invasion lines with little more than eggs on his face. Kabul 1989 and 2021 will show you what defeat looks like.
Putin is not responsible for any Russian public opinion. His pals in power, the so called oligarchs have, with the exception of a few yachts, plunder heavily from sanctions which have pushed up the prices for Russian energy exports.
A nuclear escalation should be avoided because it could bring the U.S. and some NATO “boots on ground” further into the Ukrainian warzone, which is something Putin would be afraid of. It could even lead to a complete “defeat” of Ukraine, depending on the force used.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union and terrorism in Iraq, the U.S. has been planning to fight Russia on the Ukrainian plains for over 70 years. The 19th Artillery duels which characterize the current conflict will be replaced by endless U.S. precision aerial strikes. Imagine American A-10s or B-52s literally at the edge of space, breaking into long Russian columns. Putin doesn’t want to fight NATO over large chunks of Ukraine. He prefers to do so by proxy.
These arguments being dismissed, we can now look at the battlefield to see what role a nuclear escalation might play. Putin has four options when looking back at the history of nuclear weapons use (only by the United States).
One would be a demonstration nuclear weapon, such as a low-yield, sea-level blast outside Odessa that rattles windows and shuts off lights but does little damage. Demonstrations, which were used by the U.S. to end the Second World War, effectively proved that they lack resolve and not that they are committed nuclear war. The mere use of the nuclear weapon will likely draw the U.S. into conflict with Russia.
A second option would be to launch a nuclear strike against large numbers of Ukrainian troops. Putin could also use nuclear weapons to irradiate the area he wants to conquer. It would be a huge boom that clears a path without the U.S. as an aftereffect. It is not necessary to go nuclear, when conventional weapons can achieve the same result.
Third would be a leadership-decapitation strike based on good intelligence that would eliminate President Zelensky. This one presumes a) near-perfect intel (see the Americans’ failure trying the same gag at the start of two Gulf Wars, shock and awe, which missed Saddam despite all of the resources of the United States), b) that the same could not be accomplished with massed artillery, and most importantly c) that Zelensky is really the one-man Washington-Churchill-Patton the Western media portrays him as–in other words, that his loss would have the impact the Western media believes it would. The gambit may backfire if a Zelensky deputy emerges from the ashes to demand revenge.
The destruction of a Ukrainian town would be the last. This would cause mass civilian casualties and create nuclear terror. It forced a quick surrender, just like the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Other Japanese cities would have fallen if they hadn’t surrendered quickly enough. The Second World War, despite the Tokyo firebombing (never mind Coventry or Dresden), proved America that nuclear weapons can raise terror levels. Although skin melted in Coventry was the same as Hiroshima’s, we still remember Hiroshima. This would not be intended in Ukraine as a Strangelovian swap but as a tactical escalation.
World opinion is the problem with option 4, the nuclear destruction Kiev or Lviv of its western suburbs (to end the supply chain that supplies arms through Poland), as it stands today. The world was tired of war and other atrocities by the time that the U.S. had destroyed two Japanese cities. The U.S. was able to use nuclear weapons to end the war between the Nanjing massacre, the Holocaust and the firebombings only when it was accompanied by horrific violence.
In 2022, there are no such factors. Putin was the aggressor of this battle, and there is no Auschwitz here. Putin may be less dependent on the world’s opinion than other leaders, but he still depends to a certain extent. He is dependent on India and China, but most importantly, China, to be able to purchase and resell his oil. A nuclear attack on Ukrainian civilians would be the best thing to drive Germany to sucking it up.
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Biden made it clear that any use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine would be “completely unacceptable”, and would “entail severe consequences.” However, his administration has been vague about the consequences. It is crucial to pressure Putin to make concessions and not double down. For example, a nuclear-demonstration explosion by Russia could see the U.S. sink another Russian ship in the Black Sea. This could be the end of the tit-fortat. A more aggressive American response, such as carpet bombing a Russian division in the field, might only push the Russians to attempt again and make the score even better.
Biden should in any case not respond to nukes by threatening nukes. Biden should be aware that he was born during the Cold War and should not talk loosely about nuclear weapons like Putin. It is reassuring to know that those who see the greatest potential for nuclear combat are the mainstream media. They hope to generate clicks off the rise in tensions and not the two men who believe nothing about Ukraine is worth it.
Every war-game scenario in which one side calls “stop” does not end there. The lizard brains take control and one thing leads to the next. Until someone in Washington or Moscow wonders if they will live to see their children go to school Monday morning. Already, we are playing a lower-level version of chicken with the Russians from Ukraine. We shouldn’t look for the first to swerve.