Putin’s blackmail is dangerous; its success would be even worse.
Anton Petrus / Getty; Getty; Anthony Gerace
On the morning of December 5, 2022, a large explosion occurred at Engels Air Base, about 500 miles southeast of Moscow. The airfield is one of the two principal bases in Russia that host long-range strategic bombers. TU-160 Blackjacks have been taking off from Engels for the past 10 months, carrying cruise missiles and firing them at cities in Ukraine. The explosion was caused by a Ukrainian drone, and it reportedly damaged two TU-95 Bears, enormous turbo-prop bombers that have been a symbol of the Kremlin’s airpower since the early 1950s. Most of the reporting on the drone attack focused on the boldness of it, the failure of Russian air defenses, and the impact on Russian morale. But the attack had a broader significance that went largely unnoticed.
About four miles from the runway at Engels where the explosion occurred, a pair of underground bunkers is likely to contain nuclear warheads, with a capacity to store hundreds of them. Blackjacks and Bears were designed during the Cold War for nuclear strikes on NATO countries, and they still play that role in Russian war plans. The drone attack on Engels was a milestone in military history: the world’s first aerial assault on a nuclear base. There was little chance of a nuclear detonation, even from a direct hit on the heavily fortified bunkers. Nevertheless, the presence of nuclear warheads at a base routinely used by Russian bombers for attacks on Ukraine is a reminder of how dangerous this war remains. On December 26, Engels was struck by another Ukrainian drone, which killed three servicemen.
The invasion of Ukraine has been accompanied from the outset by Russian threats to use nuclear weapons. A few days after the war began, President Vladimir Putin complained that “NATO countries are making aggressive statements about our country” and warned that, as a result, Russia’s nuclear forces would be moved to “a special regime of combat duty.” No apparent change in operational readiness followed that warning. But in state-controlled news media, the almost-daily threats to use nuclear weapons have become central to Russian propaganda, seeking to inspire fear in NATO countries, discourage NATO forces from entering the war, and limit the supply of military assistance to Ukraine.
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This Russian propaganda has been amplified and endorsed by an unusual assortment of people in the United States, including the Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Democratic Socialists of America, and the Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs. The propaganda absolves Russia, blames the United States for the war, and has four main tenets: first, that a long-standing American effort to bring Ukraine into NATO poses a grave threat to Russian security. Second, that American shipments of weapons to Ukraine have prolonged the fighting and caused needless suffering among civilians. Third, that American support for Ukraine is just a pretext for seeking the destruction of Russia. And, finally, that American policies could soon prove responsible for causing an all-out nuclear war.
Those arguments are based on lies. They are being spread to justify Russia’s unprecedented use of nuclear blackmail to seize territory from a neighboring state. Concerns about a possible nuclear exchange have thus far deterred the United States and NATO from providing Ukraine with the tanks, aircraft, and long-range missiles that might change the course of the war. If nuclear threats or the actual use of nuclear weapons leads to the defeat of Ukraine, Russia may use them to coerce other states. Tactics once considered immoral and unthinkable might become commonplace. Nuclear weapons would no longer be regarded solely as a deterrent of last resort; the nine countries that possess them would gain even greater influence; countries that lack them would seek to obtain them; and the global risk of devastating wars would increase exponentially.
That is why the greatest nuclear threat we face is a Russian victory in Ukraine.
Russia has about 6,000 nuclear weapons, more than any other country, and for years Putin has portrayed them as a source of national pride. His warnings about their possible use during the war in Ukraine have been coy and often contradictory. “If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened,” Putin said in September, “we will without doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people—this is not a bluff.” His vow to rely on nuclear weapons only as a defensive measure conveys an underlying threat: An attempt to regain Ukrainian land annexed by Russia and deemed by Putin to be part of “our country” might prompt a nuclear response. He also asserted that the United States and NATO are the ones engaging in “nuclear blackmail,” and that “those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weathervane can turn and point towards them.” In October, he claimed that Ukraine was planning to launch a nuclear strike on itself—by detonating a warhead filled with radioactive waste—as part of a false-flag operation to make Russia seem responsible. In December, Putin said that the risk of a nuclear war was increasing but suggested once again that the real danger did not come from Russia. “We have not gone crazy,” he said. “We are aware what nuclear weapons are … We are not going to brandish these weapons like a razor, running around the world.”
Although Putin’s comments have been subtle and open to multiple interpretations, the propaganda outlets that he controls have been neither. For almost a year, they have continually threatened and celebrated the possibility of nuclear war. This division of labor allows Putin to appear statesmanlike while his underlings stoke fear and normalize the idea of using nuclear weapons to commit the mass murder of civilians. Julia Davis, a columnist for The Daily Beast, and Francis Scarr, a BBC correspondent, have performed an immense public service: supplying translations of the vicious, apocalyptic, often unhinged rants that have become the norm on Russian television. “Either we lose in Ukraine, or the Third World War starts,” Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of Russia Today and a close ally of Putin’s, said in April. “I think World War III is more realistic, knowing us, knowing our leader … That all this will end with a nuclear strike seems more probable to me.” At various times, Simonyan has discussed nuclear attacks on Ukraine, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States, arguing that death would be better than succumbing to “the monstrous organism known as the collective Western world.”
Vladimir Solovyov, another popular broadcaster who is close to Putin, routinely expresses a preference for nuclear annihilation over a Russian defeat. The invitation of Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, to the White House and the U.S. Capitol in December made Solovyov especially angry. “We’ll either win, or humanity will cease to exist, because the Lord won’t stand for the triumph of warriors of the Antichrist,” he said, repeating the new propaganda line that Ukrainians aren’t just Nazis; they’re satanists. “We are Russians. God is with us,” he concluded. Despite his professed hatred for ungodly Western decadence, before the invasion of Ukraine Solovyov owned villas overlooking Lake Como, in Italy.
Russia’s popular culture is now marked by a level of nuclear fanaticism previously associated with North Korea. Nothing like it existed during the Cold War. At a November rally, staged with Kremlin approval, demonstrators marched through the streets of central Moscow, led by a mock-up of an RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, and sang the Queen song “We Will Rock You” with new lyrics calling for the destruction of Washington, D.C. Denis Maidenov, a popular singer-songwriter who serves in the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s Parliament, released a slick music video on December 17 featuring a military choir, footage of the Sarmat, and adulatory lyrics about the missile’s prowess: “It’ll scatter our enemies into dust in an instant / It’s ready to carry out the sentence … For the Sarmat there’s only pleasure / To trouble NATO’s dreams!”
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As well as encouraging public reverence for nuclear weapons, Putin has promoted the worship of such weapons within Russia’s military. In a deeply unsettling book, Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy (2019), Dimitry Adamsky, a professor at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at Reichman University, in Israel, describes Putin’s multiyear effort to spread the mystical teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church among the personnel who handle nuclear weapons, as a means of fostering patriotism, discipline, and obedience. “Each leg of the nuclear triad has its patron saint,” Adamsky notes, “and their icons hang on the walls of the consecrated headquarters and command posts.” Putin’s linkage of Russian Orthodoxy with Russian nuclear strategy helps legitimize plans to slaughter the nation’s enemies. In 2018, Putin declared that Russia would not start a nuclear war against NATO but would ultimately win if one began: “We as martyrs would go to paradise, while they will simply perish because they won’t even have time to repent their sins.”
According to Kremlin propaganda, the expansion of NATO poses a serious military threat that justifies both the modernization of Russia’s nuclear arsenal and the invasion of Ukraine. When the Soviet Union came apart, in December 1991, NATO was composed of 16 member states. Today it has 30—almost half of them former Soviet allies or republics—and two more states, Sweden and Finland, are awaiting final approval for membership. The psychological impact upon the Kremlin of new lines on the map, shifting alliances, and the loss of empire is understandable. But the argument that, for the past three decades, NATO has been expanding in order to attack or invade Russia is absurd.
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During the autumn of 1991, as the Soviet Union neared collapse, President George H. W. Bush sought to reduce the danger of nuclear war and assure Moscow that NATO was a purely defensive alliance. Bush declared that the United States would not only remove all of its short-range, ground-launched nuclear weapons from Europe but would bring them back to the United States and destroy them. These “tactical” weapons were intended for use on the battlefield. In addition, Bush promised that all nuclear weapons would be removed from American warships and attack submarines. These major reductions would be made unilaterally by the United States, without any requirement that Moscow do the same. The Bush administration announced further unilateral cuts to NATO’s nuclear arsenal a few months later. One scholar has called President Bush’s efforts to reassure Moscow “the most sweeping nuclear arms reductions in history.”
In 1991, NATO forces had more than 3,000 tactical nuclear weapons. Today NATO has about 100, all of them gravity bombs that would take many hours, if not days, to be fitted into aircraft. Although the Kremlin promised in 1991 to make similar cuts, it never did. Today Russia has about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, a great many of them recently modernized and carried by cruise missiles.
The reductions in NATO’s conventional forces since the end of the Cold War have been even more dramatic. In 1990, the United States had about 5,000 tanks based in Germany. Today it has none. The last 22 American tanks were withdrawn from Germany in 2013. The German army had more than 7,000 tanks at the end of the Cold War; today it has about 225—hardly a fearsome invading force. (Russia has already lost perhaps 10 times that number of tanks in Ukraine.) Although the Baltic States are members of NATO, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia pose even less of a threat to Russia. Their armies don’t possess a single tank.
NATO countries have not been secretly plotting for decades to invade and destroy Russia. On the contrary, they have provided Russia with trillions of dollars in direct investment, technology transfers, and payments for oil, gas, and other natural resources. Thanks mainly to expanded trade with the West, Russia now has a large middle class for the first time in its history, and average monthly income has increased since 1992 from about $25 to $1,206. But Kremlin policies have also created in Russia the world’s most unequal economy, with some 500 oligarchs controlling more wealth than the total assets of about 99 percent of the adult population there. Russia’s renewed imperial ambitions and glorification of nuclear weapons are useful to the Kremlin as a distraction from persistent economic hardships. According to a 2018 study by Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service, about one-fifth of the nation’s households still lack indoor plumbing. About one-quarter don’t have indoor toilets. In rural areas of Russia, things are even worse: Perhaps two-thirds of the households lack indoor toilets and about half still must use outhouses.
After the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the atomic bomb, warned that nuclear weapons were “not too hard to make” and “very cheap if anyone wants to make them.” Oppenheimer feared that many countries might build them and that nuclear warfare would endanger the future of humanity. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy worried that the following decade might see the emergence of as many as 15 to 25 countries with nuclear weapons. In a nationally televised speech, he said: “I ask you to stop and think for a moment what it would mean to have nuclear weapons in so many hands, in the hands of countries large and small, stable and unstable, responsible and irresponsible, scattered throughout the world.”
With strong support from the United States and the Soviet Union, the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was introduced in 1968 and took effect two years later. The NPT has been signed by 191 countries. The treaty allows five of them—the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, and France—to possess nuclear weapons. But it also requires those five to pursue full nuclear disarmament. In return for access to peaceful nuclear energy, the NPT’s other signatories have agreed not to obtain nuclear weapons. Three countries (India, Pakistan, North Korea) have openly built nuclear weapons in defiance of the treaty’s spirit; one has covertly done so (Israel); four have surrendered their nuclear weapons (South Africa, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine); and 15 have started, then discontinued, nuclear-weapons programs. Through some extraordinary mix of skillful diplomacy and sheer luck, the worst fears of Oppenheimer and Kennedy have not yet come to pass. All of that could swiftly change, however, if nuclear threats, attacks, or blackmail enable Russia to gain any benefit from invading Ukraine.
Japan has tons of bomb-grade plutonium, left over from its atomic-energy program, and could build a small nuclear arsenal within a year. South Korea could do the same in perhaps two years, and on January 11, its president raised the possibility that his country might need to “possess its own nukes.” Japan and South Korea now face nuclear threats from North Korea and China. More than 70 percent of South Koreans think their country should obtain nuclear weapons, and Japan has decided to double the size of its military budget. Taiwan could have its own nuclear weapons within a few years of deciding to build them. Saudi Arabia could also obtain them quickly. At a conference in Abu Dhabi this December, the Saudi foreign minister made clear that “if Iran gets an operational nuclear weapon, all bets are off.” And if Saudi Arabia gets nuclear weapons, Turkey, Egypt, and Algeria might build them soon too.
On a number of occasions during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union came perilously close to a nuclear conflict that neither side wanted—a conflict that could have killed hundreds of millions of people. It is remarkable that no city has been destroyed by an atomic blast since Nagasaki in 1945. The spread of nuclear weapons to more countries, amid today’s rising nationalism and bitter ethnic hatreds, would no doubt increase the likelihood of mushroom clouds rising over the rubble of cities.
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A Russian defeat in Ukraine would strengthen the nonproliferation treaty. Ukrainian success on the battlefield has been achieved with conventional weapons aimed at military targets—not with nuclear weapons causing mass civilian casualties. If the nation possessing the most nuclear weapons in the world is unable to gain victory, the importance of having nuclear weapons will be greatly diminished. And the need to abolish nuclear weapons will be even more obvious. Theories of nuclear deterrence are based on the behavior of rational actors; they offer little protection against leaders who are delusional, suicidal, or religious fanatics. The threat of nuclear annihilation will never vanish until the day when nuclear weapons are stigmatized and abolished.
You don’t have to look far from Russia to find a clear-eyed view of Putin’s intentions. While isolationists and academic socialists in the United States blame the invasion of Ukraine on America’s hegemonic desire for NATO expansion, the social-democratic government of Finland holds a different view. The Finns have a unique, firsthand perspective on Russian imperialism and colonialism. Finland was ruled by Sweden until 1809, when it was conquered by Russia and became part of the Russian empire. Efforts to “Russify” the Finns proved unsuccessful, a strong national identity emerged, and Finland gained independence in 1917. “The Great Patriotic War,” as World War II is called in Russia, began not with the Soviet Union heroically leading the fight against Nazi Germany but with the Kremlin supplying oil to Hitler’s war machine and the Red Army invading Poland and then Finland. Despite being vastly outnumbered and outgunned, the Finns imposed heavy casualties on the Soviets, gained international support, and managed to end the conflict retaining almost all of their territory. Finland remained neutral during the Cold War and built up a formidable army purely for self-defense. It can now mobilize about 1 million soldiers and reservists—nearly one-fifth of the population.
Sauli Niinisto, the president of Finland, maintained a cordial relationship with Putin until recently, speaking with him more than 40 times in person or over the phone during the past decade. And Finland long served as a discreet intermediary between the White House and the Kremlin. But the invasion of Ukraine shattered any illusion that Russia could be a trustworthy neighbor. Finland’s break from its tradition of neutrality and its application to join NATO mark a radical turn in the nation’s history. And it has more military significance than Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO. Russia and Finland share a border that’s almost 800 miles long. St. Petersburg is closer to the Finnish border than it is to Moscow. Finland’s membership in NATO will help the alliance dominate the Baltic Sea, threaten Russia’s crucial nuclear bases on the Kola Peninsula, and transform the strategic balance in the Arctic. And yet Russia hasn’t described Finland’s desire to join NATO as an existential threat that merits nuclear annihilation. The Finns know the Russians too well to be intimidated by that bluff.
A proper conclusion of the war in Ukraine will require many complex issues to be resolved: war crimes, reparations, prisoner-of-war exchanges, the return of children kidnapped by Russia. The Ukrainian government, not the United States or NATO, will have to decide how to proceed. But the basis of a just settlement is simple. When a reporter asked Sanna Marin, the prime minister of Finland, whether Russia should be given an “off-ramp” to avoid its humiliation and prevent nuclear war, she didn’t fully understand the question at first. The term “off-ramp” seemed unfamiliar to Marin. A way out of the conflict, the reporter explained. “A way out of the conflict?” Marin asked. “The way out of the conflict is for Russia to leave Ukraine. That’s the way out of the conflict. Thank you.” Then she turned, smiled, and walked away.