Only one other country in the world, the United States, has the same nuclear capability (1,644 deployed warheads and 1,964 in reserve). But no U.S. president has ever made such a threat. Until this week, no Russian or Soviet leader had ever uttered such frightening words.
As codified in the New START pact signed in 2010, the United States and Russia committed to maintaining mutually assured destruction (MAD). Neither country can win a nuclear war. Both countries, as well as much of the world, would be completely destroyed by a nuclear exchange. Only a madman would entertain launching a nuclear attack against either the United States or Russia.
Putin’s threat reveals his frustration and desperation. In invading Ukraine, he has miscalculated. After 22 years in power, he is now profoundly isolated, surrounded only by yes men who have cut him off from accurate knowledge about the resilience of the Ukrainian people, the resolve of the West, the low morale for this war within his army and the unpopularity within Russian society of the senseless invasion. The initial attack has not gone according to plan. Now Putin feels cornered and compelled to double down: both in the conduct of the war and in words. His recent emotional statements suggest instability. Rational leaders do not hint at launching a nuclear holocaust.
Putin has a long history of engaging in highly risky behavior: authorizing assassination attacks across Europe; ordering an invasion with alleged war crimes in Syria; interfering in repeated U.S. and European elections; poisoning political opponents in Russia with chemical weapons; and invading Georgia once and Ukraine now twice, followed by annexation and recognition of regions of these two countries as independent entities. More than ever, his decision-making is marked by this willingness to take risks and his arrogant dismissal of advice.
On the international stage, Putin thinks he has only one peer, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and one central enemy, President Biden. Earlier in his career, he maintained warm relations with several Western leaders, including German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and even President George W. Bush for a time. Aside from Xi, he respects no other international leader today. He is alone — and evidently listens to no one.
It is the job of intelligence officers to assess probabilities about security outcomes, including nuclear war. My guess is that those estimates are still very low. But even if they are at 0.1 percent, the job of policymakers is to shape and decrease these probabilities. The horrific consequences of being wrong about nuclear warfare are too great to not do everything to reduce its likelihood.
First, Biden was right to respond to Putin’s threats by declining to raise the alert status of U.S. nuclear forces. He and European leaders should continue this policy of restraint. It serves no purpose to match Putin’s maniacal threats with others that would only increase international panic.
Second, every nuclear power in the world must reach out privately to Moscow to seek clarification about Russia’s position. In January, the five major nuclear powers signed a new declaration that affirmed “nuclear weapons … should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war” and also avowed “none of our nuclear weapons are targeted at each other or at any other State.” Every leader who signed this declaration, especially Xi, should call Putin to confirm his commitment to this document.
Given the disturbing and likely falsified referendum in Belarus this week reversing the country’s non-nuclear status, these leaders should also remind Putin of Russia’s commitments to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In parallel, and maybe more importantly, Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley should call his counterpart, Chief of the Russian General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov, to seek the same reassurances. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin should do the same with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Third, Biden must signal to Putin — again, privately — that the United States and the West would be prepared to relax sanctions if Putin withdraws his soldiers from Ukraine. If Putin continues his slaughter of innocent civilians or arrests and kills President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government, this offer ought to be withdrawn. But, today, Putin should be offered a way out of the corner in which he has trapped himself.
Tragically, Putin’s increasingly unhinged discourse, coupled with inhumane war tactics, suggests that he has little interest in off-ramps regarding his war in Ukraine. Let’s hope he can still be persuaded to back down from future threats of using nuclear weapons.