For Putin, a nuclear escalation would not be a way to pluck victory from the jaws of defeat, but to pluck survival – political or even physical – from the jaws of oblivion. Unlike Democratic leaders, he has no way to gracefully retire after all the damage he’s done. As the Tsars’ quack historian, he knows his end could be messy.
Because of this, he may be dusting off a Russian doctrine that Western analysts are calling “escalation to de-escalation.” It means going nuclear in order not to lose a conventional (non-nuclear) war. Putin would detonate one or more “tactical” (as opposed to “strategic”) nuclear weapons. These are weak explosions large enough to eliminate a Ukrainian army position or logistics center – but too “small” to wipe out an entire city.
By dropping such a bomb, Putin would signal his willingness to use more. His motivation would be to force Ukraine to surrender and the West to withdraw from the conflict – but without demanding automatic retaliation from the US. Putin wants his enemies to step down so he can declare victory and remain in power.
It goes without saying that such an act of desperation would mark the darkest turn in human history since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not only would it kill, maim, and traumatize countless innocent people—Putin is already doing it—but it would also cause enduring terror around the world.
Putin’s escalation would break the Cold War-era taboo against the use of nuclear weapons for purposes other than deterrence. If he gets away with it, other rogue nuclear states would reach out for them. This in turn would force countries that have renounced nuclear weapons in the name of non-proliferation or disarmament – like Ukraine in the 1990s – to build up their own arsenals. Arms control would be dead. Nuclear warfare, whether intentional or accidental, would become more likely in more and more places, from West to South and East Asia.
So what should US President Joe Biden do? He obviously has to deter Putin and at the same time prepare a response if Putin escalates. But these are two aspects of the same choice: the implicit response also acts as a deterrent.
Matthew Kroenig of the Atlantic Council, a think tank, has summarized some of the options. One response to a limited Russian nuclear strike is to double, triple, or quadruple whatever measures the West has already taken against Putin’s regime, and to completely cut off Russia from the Western world. Rather than cave in, the West would also send more weapons to Ukraine and more forces, including nuclear weapons, to NATO’s Eastern Front.
Such a deliberately limited response would aim to stop a spiral of escalation before it begins. The problem is that Putin may not find this answer scary enough to be deterred. He’s already a pariah, and the Russians are already suffering sanctions. If he fears the end of his own reign or his own life – and that’s, remember, the scenario we’re considering – he’d go all out anyway.
Another problem is that a cautious response would seem totally inappropriate to Ukrainians and the rest of the world. Kiev’s friends would lose heart. Dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un would conclude that one can go ballistic and survive.
So Biden’s answer has to be more muscular. He has two military options. One is to respond in kind by also displaying a low-yield tactical nuclear bomb — say, in the Arctic Ocean or in remote Siberia. His mushroom cloud would be intended as a stop sign for Putin. It would also reassure Ukrainians and the world that the US will respond to the escalation tit for tat – that it will enforce the nuclear taboo.
The problem is that this would turn the confrontation into an apocalyptic stare, potentially leading to a series of tactical detonations. And Russia, which is about par with the US in strategic nuclear weapons, has about ten times as many tactical warheads to play with. The scenarios become unpredictable, especially when human error is taken into account. Armageddon threatened.
The better military option is therefore a conventional US attack on Russian forces. The target could be the very base that launched the nuclear strike. Or it could be Russian troops in Ukraine.
This would send a signal to Ukraine and the world that any violation of the nuclear taboo will be punished. And the message to Putin would be that he cannot escalate to de-escalate because the West will step in to defeat him.
The downside, of course, is that this amounts to a direct clash between Russia and NATO and therefore carries the risk of a third world war, with Armageddon still a scenario at the end. Putin may conclude that the US is not ready to retaliate with nuclear weapons and launch more nuclear strikes.
This raises another question Biden must answer: once he has decided how he would respond to various levels of nuclear escalation, how should he communicate that — to Putin, allies, enemies, and the public?
If he wants to maximize the chilling value of his communications, he will be clear, specific, and public—If Putin does X, we do Y. The problem with this is that Biden would lose all flexibility if Putin did anything other than X.
The better option — which Biden appears to have chosen — is to be deliberately vague in public. The downside is that this leaves even the Ukrainians in the dark. The upside is that Putin has to assume the worst.
There is another possibility. Getting back to our premise: Putin does not want to go nuclear, but will if he fears his own survival is threatened. In the event of a nuclear escalation, the US could make plans for regime change – that is, take out Putin and his inner circle. In that case, it would be best not to be vague but to be specific, and not public but private – to Putin.
If there is a glimmer of hope in these dark times, it shone in Uzbekistan last week when Putin met with leaders of India and China, Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping. Both countries are nuclear powers. India is non-aligned, China is nominally behind Putin. But both have expressed “concern” to Putin about his war.
Regardless of the enmity between Beijing and Washington, regardless of the other conflicts, the specter of nuclear war must and can unite the world against the threat. Biden, Xi, and every other world leader could subtly put their differences aside and send this message to Putin: You go nuclear and we’ll get you out.
More from the Bloomberg Opinion:
Putin, his rat and six ways the war in Ukraine could end: Andreas Kluth
• Frustrated and snubbed, Putin is running out of options: Clara Ferreira Marques
Why Putin Can’t Tap into Fascism’s Greatest Resource: Leonid Bershidsky
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for the Bloomberg Opinion and reports on European politics. The former editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and author of The Economist is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.
For more stories like this, visit bloomberg.com/opinion