Is Armageddon coming?
Last night (10/6/2022), President Biden spoke at a fundraiser and said this (via the AP):
“[Putin was] not joking when he talks about the use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons,” Biden said. “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
The White House lost no time walking that back:
Europe's national leaders were also publicly averse to the president's comment. The AP reported,
Asked about Biden’s remarks, French President Emmanuel Macron said it was crucial to speak with care on the nuclear threat.
“I have always refused to engage in political fiction, and especially ... when speaking of nuclear weapons,” Macron said at a EU summit in Prague. “On this issue, we must be very careful.”
Indeed. However, it is true that Vladimir Putin has said more than once that using nuclear weapons is not off the table.
Putin has repeatedly alluded to using his country’s vast nuclear arsenal, including last month when he announced plans to conscript Russian men to serve in Ukraine.
“I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction ... and when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal,” Putin said. “It’s not a bluff.”
Understand that Putin has already said many times that the ethnic-Russian parts of eastern Ukraine (Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson) are part of Russia itself. Russian forces continue to occupy those regions but are facing increasingly effective actions by Ukraine's armed forces. Putin has been clear that these regions are not and have never been legitimately part of Ukraine but have always been Russian. So when Putin refers to the "territorial integrity of our country," he is absolutely including those regions as part of "our country." Putin has been repetitively clear that annexing the four territories is nonnegotiable, adding that Russian would defend them “with all the forces and means at our disposal.”
Does that include using nukes? Well, Putin did not explicitly say using nukes is on the table. But he certainly never even remotely ruled them out; if using "all the forces and means at our disposal" does not include them, what does it mean? As well, Putin said in a speech on Red Square at the end of September that the nuclear threshold in the Ukraine war had already been crossed! He said specifically that the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Japan in 1945 had “created a precedent.”
But there is (we hope) a long way to go from "we can" to "we will." And surely this interview with retired US Army four-star general and former head of the CIA, David Petraeus, is mere coincidence. US would destroy Russian forces if Putin uses nukes: former CIA head Petraeus:
The retired four-star general spelled out in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday what he believed would happen if the Kremlin warmonger used nuclear weapons.
“We would respond by leading a NATO — a collective — effort that would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black Sea,” he said.
Petraeus said Russia’s use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine would not trigger NATO’s Article 5, which calls for collective defense of member states, because Ukraine is not part of the alliance.
But he said that if Putin were to use nuclear weapons, the high probability that radiation from the strike would affect a member of the alliance could possibly be construed as an attack against NATO and fall under Article 5.
Remember that Petraeus is not speaking for the Biden administration. We hope.
American and NATO options
So: how can we respond if the Russians use a nuclear weapon in Ukraine? Bear in mind that there is no "good" response to a Russian nuke in UKR. Petraeus laid out a massive NATO response, which if done would have a very high probability of beginning a general war with Russia.
Worse, Petraeus did not go to the step after:
- Step One: Russia nukes Ukraine.
- Two: Massive retaliation as Petraeus describes.
- Three: Russia admits defeat and withdraws its forces from Ukraine and promises to be nice from now on. Right?
- Or Three: Russia attacks American bases in the Mediterranean and its submarines target US Navy vessels. Or some other elevation of the conflict, including more nukes.
Russia can nuke Ukraine. NATO can respond as NATO decides. After that, the crystal ball is not merely cloudy, it simply no longer exists. I am reminded of what Otto von Bismarck supposedly said, that to start a war is like entering a dark room blindfolded to look for a black cat that is not even there.
What if Russia's nuke kills no one?
Petraeus also seems to assume that a Russian atomic attack would be highly destructive and cause massive casualties. If I was Putin and decided to use a nuke, I would make sure it damaged nothing and killed no one. Yes, this can be done, easily in fact. And then I would warn that if my diktats were not obeyed, the follow-up would be very severe.
During my US Army career as a field artillery officer, the artillery had several types of atomic warheads, ranging from the 155mm and 8-inch howitzers to Lance tactical and Pershing II strategic missiles. These atomic warheads and projectiles had yields ranging from close to the Hiroshima bomb all the way down to one for which the Minimum Safe Distance (MSD) for unwarned, exposed personnel was only 650 meters - or 0.4 mile! I was trained as a nuclear target analyst and I worked attack profiles for all these warheads against a wide variety of target types.
So what do we do if Russia pops a less-than 1 kiloton warhead in the middle of nowhere in UKR for which the MSD is very, very low and no village is within it by a large margin? Atomic weapons kill or destroy in two ways: the blast, of course, and radiation. Lethal radiation includes gamma rays, neutron emissions (fairly low in a conventionally-designed warhead), and infrared, or heat. For a very low yield warhead, as I said, these all become negligible after only several hundred meters.
As for atomic fallout, that occurs only if the detonation's fireball touches the surface of the earth. My references always included the radius of the fireball from point of detonation, so fallout is fully avoidable. In fact, US policy has forbidden fallout for at least 50 years. Absent fallout, you still get what is called downwind radiation hazard, but the effects of this are more attenuated than of fallout (although DWR is not negligible by any means). And I am pretty sure that Petraeus was referring to that as the "radiation hazard."
So, after such a detonation, the Russians have irradiated a small area of dirt in UKR with zero to few persons killed or affected and practically no infrastructure damage. Obviously, Putin would be signaling to show that a second attack will be more powerful and harshly located. And UKR and NATO would have to take that demonstration shot very seriously.
|This is a very small atomic explosion|
But do we wipe out Russia's Black Sea fleet for that? Bomb Russian troops in Ukraine? That simply invites Putin to unleash his arsenal against US forces in Europe, at minimum. Then what do we do? The only next step for us would be general war against Russia, for which the nuclear threshold has already crossed.
I hate to say it, but Putin holds the cards here. Why? National Review's Michael Brendan Dougherty points out the inexplicable lack of depth in Petraeus' answer:
So, the top minds in the administration and one of the most respected generals of his generation believe that if Russia uses a tactical nuke in Ukraine, NATO forces could suddenly join the war as full belligerents, proceed to annihilate the entire Russian military and/or launch a missile strike into the heart of Moscow to kill Putin — and Russia would not “expand” the conflict from there?
I’m sorry, but that is crazy and dangerous. No nuclear power would refuse to escalate as another one attempted to obliterate its armed forces and government. (Notice as well that General Petraeus does not say the president will go to Congress to seek a declaration of war — in his mind, the president apparently just gives the order.)
What Putin should consider
All that said, can Putin successfully even order such a strike? Contrary to what most Americans think (including, inexcusably, some members of Congress), the US president does not have sole authority to order a nuclear strike. The president must originate the order, but there are carefully-constructed and very deliberate checks and balances in place that are not optional and in fact are required for the launch to take place. I had two assignments where I (and others) decrypted Nuclear Control Orders and I know how the system works.
I find it almost impossible to believe that even Putin can simply tell his chief of the general staff to fire a nuke at Ukraine, even such as I have described above, and it simply gets done, no questions asked. And Putin of course knows that and knows equally well that to force the issue could lead to a coup. And even if the launch did take place, Russian domestic unrest would certainly be massive, widespread, and violent.
Another consideration is that no government in the rest of the world will take Putin's side on this. As the Spectator reported Oct. 8 (link is paywalled),
At September’s summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand, both India’s Narendra Modi and China’s Xi Jinping left him in no doubt as to their concerns about the war and its wider impact. According to British diplomatic sources, Beijing has been warning Moscow against breaking the nuclear taboo. ... More directly, the Indian foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, explicitly said that the ‘nuclear issue’ was “of particular anxiety.”
Around the world and certainly in Europe, Russians could (and many would) be dragged from their homes or attacked on the streets and killed; scores of their embassies could be gutted.
Even if Putin could successfully give the launch order, I do not think he could politically survive that aftermath. And perhaps not physically survive.
But of course, I do not know all this, I just think that it is true and deeply hope that it is. As for now, pray for Vladimir Putin. Yes, I mean that seriously. And pray for our own president and NATO's leaders.
Walter Russell Mead writes in the WSJ that President Biden must make public commitments "to respond with overwhelming force to Russian nuclear attacks."
Also in the WSJ, "Vladimir Putin has gotten himself into an increasingly ridiculous situation, holding a gun to his own head and saying, 'Meet my demands or the idiot gets it'."
A correspondent friend writes,
A demonstration nuke by Putin would be counterproductive for him. It would signal more to come, but would also command a NATO response. If he's going to nuke something he'd best nuke it for effect to begin with. I doubt he'll nuke anything for a couple of reasons, the first being the uncertainty of a western response, and the second being how little it gains him for the losses he'd sustain diplomatically. Putin does not have the forces to occupy Ukraine now, and nuking it gives him no more forces to follow up with. The mobilization of 300k men is not going well, and who expected otherwise?
We've an interest in not letting this become a war between Russia and NATO. Right now it's an existential war only for Ukraine. Turning it into an existential war for Russia would be a dynamic change too profound.
It is also relevant that the only reason those four Ukrainian provinces are majority Russian is because Stalin forcefully (and murderously) ejected native Ukrainians from them to move Russians in. That the regions are inherently Russian is a lie that Putin willingly embraces (if he even knows it is a lie at all).