How The Biden Administration Is Inviting A Putin Nuke
Abandoning deterrence at the worst possible moment
Has the Biden Administration created a scenario that dramatically increases the likelihood Vladimir Putin will use a nuke to win the war? Dan Goure in The National Interest:
Russian nuclear doctrine explicitly states that if conventional aggression against Russia threatens the existence of the nation, this would justify the use of nuclear weapons. The definition of how far a conventional attack would have to proceed in order to cross this threshold has never been clear. Putin framed such an existential threat in his speech announcing partial mobilization. He reiterated his claim that the West’s goal in supporting Ukraine is to destroy Russia and threaten all Russian people. Putin made it clear that it is permissible for Moscow to employ nuclear weapons in order to protect the nation’s territorial integrity which would now include the seized portions of Ukraine:
I would like to remind those who make such statements regarding Russia that our country has different types of weapons as well, and some of them are more modern than the weapons NATO countries have. In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.
The citizens of Russia can rest assured that the territorial integrity of our Motherland, our independence and freedom will be defended—I repeat—by all the systems available to us. Those who are using nuclear blackmail against us should know that the weathervane can turn around.
What will NATO and the West do if Russia responds to Ukraine’s successful conventional offensive with a nuclear weapon? It is virtually certain that NATO would not respond with an equivalent nuclear move. Anyone who has played in high-level U.S. or NATO wargames over the last several decades, as I have, in which the other side used nuclear weapons against us has come away with the realization that it is extremely difficult to get Washington—much less the NATO alliance—to respond in kind, even if U.S. forces or NATO troops are the target of such an attack. Unless the attack is massive, the teams representing the U.S. government and NATO countries almost always opt for an intensified conventional campaign or back down.
Were Putin to use a nuclear weapon against Ukraine, Western options would be even more limited. Ukraine is not a NATO member and is not protected by the alliance’s nuclear umbrella. Western leaders would find responding with the use of a nuclear weapon unfathomable. As one experienced former U.S. government official and nuclear arms control negotiator opined regarding how Washington would respond to a Russian nuclear detonation: “I do not believe the United States would take an escalatory step. Certainly, it would not respond with nuclear weapons.” You can bet that Putin knows this.
Western leaders, most prominently U.S. president Joe Biden, have promised to respond to Russia’s use of nuclear weapons by doubling down on their support for Ukraine, providing it with more and better conventional weapons, expanding economic sanctions on Russia, and trying to enlist the global community to make Russia a pariah state. This was Biden’s warning in his recent speech to the UN General Assembly. In essence, the West would seek to continue with precisely the strategy that led to Putin’s use of nuclear weapons in the first place. This is the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over again expecting a different result.
The provision of additional Western military gear to Ukraine, including more HIMARS launchers, long-range missiles, advanced drones, heavy armor, and even F-16 fighters, will ensure that Ukraine can hold off the Russian army. But it will not end the war.
In fact, the likely Western response would play right into Putin’s hands. His initial nuclear use would be met with a less than proportionate response, demonstrating Western weakness. Moscow would have gotten away with using a nuclear weapon, shown that deterrence was meaningless, and set itself up to use nuclear weapons again in the future. Putin’s fortunes at home would certainly improve. He would claim to be the Russian leader that stood up to the West and got away with employing a nuclear weapon to defend the Motherland.
Joshua Treviño with more on Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl and how we got here:
Let’s add our own gloss to this. What Kahl proposed, successfully, was the following:
America should validate the Russian premise in failing to respond to nuclear use against America with an American nuclear response — which is to say, America should abandon traditional nuclear deterrence.
America should invalidate the Russian premise by intensifying and expanding the conventional operations that led to Russian nuclear use.
America should “rally the entire world against Russia.”
Kaplan does not mention, and there is no public record of, any consideration of Russian interpretation of these premises. Those interpretations might reasonably be, in the hothouse of a wartime scenario:
Russia can use nuclear weapons with the assurance of no American nuclear response.
Russia can continue to use nuclear weapons until the desired deescalation-via-escalation is achieved.
None of this is hypothetical: what Kahl achieved in this prior-Administration wargame is now the basis for actual American nuclear policy. In the present crisis, therefore, we see the following:
The Biden Administration has already provided the Kremlin with the first of those two assurances: Russian nuclear-weapons use will not be met by an American nuclear response.
The Biden Administration has not provided the Russians with an assurance that they may continue to use nuclear weapons after initial failure to achieve deescalation. However, as covered in yesterday’s Armas, it has unilaterally deescalated in its own public statements of threatened consequences for Russia, and so we would have to regard a Russian conclusion that it may persist as rational.
The Biden Administration has already “[rallied] the entire world against Russia,” and the threat of more is effectively null.
Now let’s pause here and reiterate that though Kahl plausibly incepted this turn in thinking in American nuclear policy, which took root under Obama and now finds wartime fulfillment under Biden, he is not the singular villain of the piece. Wishcasting has been a perennial feature of American national-security thinking for the past generation — from the Iraq war to the Iran deal to nearly all Mexico policy and beyond — and this is merely among its many iterations. However, it is quite plausibly the most consequential iteration. As we are forced to think about nuclear war in Europe for the first time in decades, we ought to remember why we must.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Transom to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.