Think about it. We have not faced the promise of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. We’ve got a guy I know fairly well. His name is Vladimir Putin. I spent a fair amount of time with him. He is not joking when he talks about tactical and nuclear weapons, or biological or chemical weapons, because his military is, you might say, significantly underperforming. And it is part of the Russian doctrine that they will not. If the Motherland is threatened, they’ll use whatever force they need including nuclear weapons. I don’t think there is any such thing as an ability to use a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon. What we’re trying to figure out: what? What is Putin’s off ramp? Where? Where does he find a way out? Where does he find himself in a position that he not only does not lose face, but lose [sic] significant power with Russia?
Let’s deconstruct the president’s semi-coherent rambling. Putin is not joking. True. Tactical and nuclear weapons. He clearly meant tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. And it is part of the Russian doctrine that they will not. An incomplete sentence. Nuclear weapons used if the Motherland is threatened. Threatened, hardly; attacked, surely. Use of a tactical nuclear weapon will trigger Armageddon. Absurd. No imaginable Allied response to a single hostile nuclear use will automatically trigger an escalation that leads to an all-out nuclear exchange annihilating hundreds of millions. Putin’s off-ramp? To date his off-ramp is a Russian victory.
Who Holds the Nuclear Triggers? Before proceeding further, we must examine nuclear command authority, recently the subject of a , The Finger on the Button: The Authority to Use Nuclear Weapons in Nuclear-Armed States. The study examined how each of the nine states who are members of the “nuclear club” handles nuclear command authority. (One nation, Israel, has never publicly acknowledged that it has nuclear weapons.)
The study fits nuclear command structures into two models, delegative and assertive — with states at times shifting between the two, depending upon time-urgency and the state of civil-military relations. The dichotomy is between a delegation-oriented “always” model, that emphasizes rapid decisions and certitude that orders to fire will be carried out; and a restraint-oriented “never” model, that incorporates strong intermediate safeguards supreme commanders or executives cannot unilaterally bypass.
Features of the “never” command structure include one or more of several checks: two-person missile launch codes, or dual (local and remote) codes — called in the U.S. lexicon (PALs); authentication, establishing that the person giving the order is entitled to do so; controlling or verifying authority between initial order and final launch (PALs); and twin, distinct chains of command, one for launchers and once for warheads. Target selection falls within the chain of command structure as well, partly delegated but reserved in part for the supreme commander.
American procedures implicitly follow the “never” model. The president, per the (), is commander of America’s armed forces. The chain of command runs through the secretary of defense, and then gives “line” (operational) authority to the senior commanders of each of the services. Officially, if the president orders nuclear use, the order must be carried out. In reality, no order for nuclear use will automatically be carried out.
Thus, during Richard Nixon’s final days, after the impeachment vote by the House Judiciary Committee, his resignation became inevitable. He faced certain impeachment by the full House and subsequent conviction by the Senate if he refused to resign. Then-secretaries of state (Henry Kissinger) and defense (James Schlesinger) Nixon’s deep depression and rage at his impending fate. So they alerted the White House staffers that any presidential order to launch nuclear weapons be forwarded to them before sending out the order; further, they had the White House staff covertly remove the nuclear “football” satchel carrying the specific launch codes and instructions, and transfer the satchel to still–vice president Gerald Ford, before Ford was formally sworn in as president.
Nor can Congress realistically be called upon. Its power to declare war () does not extend to implementation. And, in the event of a surprise nuclear strike, prior consultation is clearly impossible. Ronald Reagan put it perfectly:
The Russians sometimes kept submarines off our East Coast with nuclear missiles that could turn the White House into a pile of radioactive rubble within six or eight minutes. Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on a radar scope and decide whether to unleash Armageddon! How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?
It should be noted that the Russians would never take out the White House without launching a massive “bolt from the blue” nuclear strike against America’s strategic nuclear triad (bombers, submarines, and missiles), to limit destruction of the Soviet strategic nuclear arsenal.
Broadly speaking, the Russian Federation also follows the “never” model, with multiple safeguards between initial authorization (by Putin), and actual launch release; the two-person launch code rule is followed. Russia also has “Doomsday” devices that can be activated if supreme command has been killed and there are confirmed detonations on Russian soil.
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) dedicated a recent “WTH podcast” on the subject of over Ukraine. It featured Frederick Kagan, director of AEI’s . Kagan cites Putin’s reliance upon ,” a managerial concept in which human decision-makers set boundaries to the extent of the input they receive, keyed to their own ability to absorb and process information. This means Putin is basing decisions on assumptions about factual reality which may be errant. But, fortunately, “Putin is not Hitler [he is not] interested in bringing the world down in flames around him.” The chance of Armageddon is thus “vanishingly improbable.”
As to the tendency of Western leaders to mirror-image their adversaries, Kagan states: “… Putin has to know that he can’t win … and that he can’t escalate and then we can talk about off-ramps.”
U.S. Military Readiness Shortfalls. Former naval commander Jerry Hendrix writes that we are — military pilot-speak for a condition where a plane is caught between conflicting forces of gravity, engine thrust, and airspeed, and thus stalls and plummets. We are than at any time in the past generation, without the robust defense industrial base needed to quickly ramp up production. The U.S. has not yet sent Patriot missile defense systems to Ukraine, because our forces still are not fully protected from missiles. In 2020, there were in Iraq to protect our troops when Iran launched ballistic missiles at two U.S. military bases, in retaliation for our airstrike taking out Iran terror mastermind Qassem Soleimani. As a result, more than 100 soldiers suffered traumatic brain injuries.
Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962 local Russian commanders on the island (with land-based missiles and aircraft), as well as in submarines (with torpedoes only, as Russian subs did not carry ballistic missiles in 1962), had received delegated launch authority. Worse, dictator Fidel Castro had some ability to bypass those commanders, commandeer the missiles, and launch them. Conversely, JFK convened , a panel of top present and former civil and military officials, to guide his presidential decisions.
A 1990 book, Khrushchev Remembers: The Glasnost Tapes, presented hitherto undiscovered recollections of the Soviet premier, who died in 1971. Of the Crisis, he described Castro as “a young and hotheaded man,” and JFK as “a clever and flexible man.” Of Castro’s fervent desire he said:
Castro suggested that in order to prevent our nuclear missiles from being destroyed, we should launch a pre-emptive strike against the United States. He concluded that an attack was unavoidable, and that this attack had to be pre-empted.… [It] became clear to us that Fidel totally failed to understand our purpose.… We had installed the missiles not for the purpose of attacking the United States, but to keep the United States from attacking Cuba. [A Soviet/Cuban first strike] would immediately be [met by] a counterblow — both against Cuba and our own country.
Columnist George Will in 1962 Khrushchev could simply have openly proclaimed an alliance with Cuba, and then placed Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) there as the U.S. had done with Turkey (already a member of NATO). In August 1962 JFK had considered unilaterally withdrawing the IRBMs from Turkey, as they were obsolete. Late-summer 1962 saw the U.S. detect emplacement of Soviet SAMs in Cuba, but we did not detect the assets they were deployed to protect. No technology safeguards could have prevented tactical commanders from firing the missiles in Cuba, or the nuclear torpedo nearly launched at an American naval vessel. Putin today is a greater risk-taker than was Khrushchev, who immediately realized he’d pushed too far and worked with JFK to end the Crisis. During the Crisis, the U.S. declared a Defcon 2 alert, the second highest of America’s .
Yom Kippur War Crisis. In October 1973 the United States went to Defcon 3 alert status over a confrontation between the U.S. Sixth Fleet and Russian warships during the Yom Kippur War. In November 1973, shortly after the 1973 crisis had ended, Richard Nixon told members of Congress: “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes, 70 million people will be dead.” The Washington, D.C.–Moscow set up in 1963 — and first used during the 1967 Six-Day Mideast War — proved invaluable in 1973, by enabling direct communication between U.S. and Soviet leaders that was unavailable in 1962.
How Should We Respond to a Putin Nuclear Use? Former NATO supreme commander Gen. Wesley Clark Russia has over 2,000 tactical N-warheads. Russian war doctrine is now “escalate to de-escalate.” NATO has 100 tactical nukes, delivered by aircraft. Cold War exercises showed that tactical nukes, even used in “pulses” of 10 kiloton weapons, are difficult to use effectively against maneuvering forces. Yet in 2020 the Navy retrofitted a missile on one of its Fleet Ballistic Missile submarines, the USS Tennessee (), with a low-yield (less than 5 kilotons) ; several other FBM subs are slated for similar missile retrofit. This move recognizes that the U.S. needs anew what in the early 1970s then–defense secretary James Schlesinger called : intermediate tactical nuclear options between a conventional conflict and an all-out strategic nuclear exchange.
Schlesinger, who served as SecDef under presidents Nixon and Ford, cited Nixon’s 1970 statement on the need for limited retaliation options:
Should a president, in the event of a nuclear attack, be left with the single option of ordering the mass destruction of enemy civilians, in the face of the certainty that it would be followed by the mass slaughter of Americans? Should the concept of assured destruction be narrowly defined, and should it be the only measure of our ability to deter the variety of threats we may face?
At NRO, Michael Brendan Dougherty coupling Ukraine to NATO means defending 2,300 more miles of border, and may force NATO to escalate if Russia uses a nuke; he warned that even a wide-scale conventional strike would likely trigger nuclear retaliation:
The emotional shock of a broken nuclear taboo would send policy-makers reeling.… Markets might respond to the use of a tactical nuke by cratering. The nuke itself would explode only on Ukraine, but the economic fallout would reach everyone. Tens of thousands … would begin fleeing major cities. Social disorder could begin to break out beyond Ukraine as people scrambled for groceries and gas.
Eight Key Takeaways. (1) Putin faces strong internal opposition, especially as to any use of nukes; (2) Russian internal corruption will sap the morale of troops, both front and rear echelons; (3) Moscow does not want a nuclear conflict; (4) The (unfunny) joker in the deck was an enraged Fidel; (5) That’s why Khrushchev went public to broadcast to JFK; (6) This later gave birth to the U.S. Moscow Hot Line; (7) Moscow’s nuclear command/control is now much like ours; (8) No single person on either side can order and execute a rogue launch.
Add one incredible statistic: Ukraine has destroyed an estimated 80 percent of Russia’s nuclear-armed SS-26 This was done without the full range of missile defense systems Ukraine requested.. These are Russia’s most fearsome short-range ballistic missile systems. Deployed near Ukraine, they are mobile, hypersonic, and deadly accurate.
Will He or Won’t He? By definition, absolute certitude never exists as to the course of future events. But I believe it highly unlikely that Moscow would assent to its first-ever military use of nukes. As noted above, the Russian chain of command goes from the top through several intermediate layers. Even if all senior staff is present at a planning meeting, the actual launch location will be hundreds of miles elsewhere. Also, as noted earlier, there is a two-key launch procedure similar to ours, with both keys turned in a couple seconds, far enough apart so one person can turn both.
Also, a nuclear first strike on US/NATO soil certainly would trigger a retaliatory strike on Russian soil; any nuclear response would make escalation to an all-out nuclear exchange highly likely. I’m confident that the senior leaders would turn on a dime against Vlad the Mad, if he ordered a first-strike; Moscow’s leaders bought into a quick takedown of Ukraine’s leadership, surely with no thought whatsoever of possible resort to nukes.
In seeking to persuade Russia to stand down, a two-tiered approach likely would work best: Public appeals should be directed to Moscow, whose top leaders are deeply divided. But appeals to Putin should be private, so as not to publicly engage his personal pride and frustration.
Bottom Line: Will We Ever Learn? Western countries are forever declaring holidays from history and peace dividends; our adversaries do neither. In a 1949 exchange with CIA director Walter Bedell Smith, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin said: “We do not want war any more than the West does, but we are less interested than the West in peace, and therein lies the strength of our position.”
We are learning the hard way that projecting our beliefs upon our adversaries is a recipe for unpleasant surprise. Is a limited nuclear war possible? Contrary to Western arms control theology, our adversaries think it is. And, if one or more adversaries think limited war is possible, at minimum it would alter the risk calculus during a crisis; in a worst case, it could lead an adversary to use nuclear weapons in an effort to force us to capitulate. Which is why we once again face the dilemma of limited nuclear war in Ukraine. And why we once again face the angst of nuclear blackmail.
The nuclear blackmail national security dilemma was best framed by the late, great French political philosopher, Raymond Aron, in 1956:
Let us have the courage to admit that the fear of war is often the tyrant’s opportunity, that the absence of war, that is, of open conflict between legally organized political units, is not enough to exclude violence between individuals and groups. Perhaps we shall look back with nostalgia to the days of “conventional wars” when, faced with the horror of guerrilla war and the atomic holocaust, the peoples of the world submit to a detestable order provided it dispels the agonies of individual insecurity and collective suicide.
Leaving us with an “all or nothing at all” nuclear posture that arms control advocates would have us adhere to would morally paralyze our leaders during a nuclear crisis. It would, however, not morally paralyze our adversaries. We would find ourselves faced with stark choices posed by an “Apocalyptic Trinity”: the moral horror of committing nuclear genocide; the civilizational death of committing mass societal suicide; and the freedom-destroying humiliation of surrendering to the dictates of totalitarian powers.
For reasons presented above, the chance that Russia will go nuclear in Ukraine is as close to zero as it can get. A “detestable” European order that leaves Ukraine under Russian domination would inevitably encourage other adversaries to use nuclear blackmail, and pursuit of “detestable” regional orders in the Pacific and Mideast theaters. America’s nuclear umbrella of would collapse, and what remains of Pax Americana anchoring the world order would be replaced by anarchic sauve qui peut — “save himself who can.”
John Wohlstetter is author of Sleepwalking With the Bomb (Discovery Institute Press, 2d. ed. 2014).