On April 20, Russia test-fired a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile, accompanied by President Putin boasting that the ICBM had no equivalents anywhere in the world and would make adversaries “think twice” before making threats against Russia.*
This is just the latest of a number of nuclear threats which have been made by President Putin during the current armed conflict with Ukraine, and which have elevated the risk of nuclear weapons actually being used. Below is a follow-on “plain-talking” Open Letter from Aaron Tovish, NoFirstUse Global Committee member, to President Putin calling for sanity to reduce the risks of nuclear war.
*It is notable that the United States recently cancelled an ICBM test to avoid any misunderstandings.
Dear President Putin,
In November, NoFirstUse Global began circulating an Open Letter for endorsements. A preview of it was sent to you. As further encouragement for people to sign on, I wrote a piece entitled, “Dear NWS leaders, don’t even THINK about starting a nuclear war.”
In January, I was not alone in welcoming (although not without some misgivings) a first-ever, joint statement by the five leaders of NPT Nuclear-Weapon States Parties affirming, among other things, that “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Last I checked, you are the leader of Russia.
Well, 52 days later, here you are threatening nuclear war if anyone tries to thwart your subjugation of Ukraine. Such erratic behavior has some people wondering whether you have taken leave of your senses.
Not me. I call your bluff!
You are NOT thinking of starting a nuclear war. You are PRETENDING to be thinking about starting a nuclear war, because you want your adversaries to THINK you might start a nuclear war.
I say, be careful about what you want, you might get it. In other words, your pretense could have unintended consequences.
But first, what is it that betrays your bluff? That it has been all so very highly orchestrated.
— The most blatant part was vehemently denial preparations to invade Ukraine.
— Then the perfectly timed joint military exercises with Belarus, announced already in December (as well as a referendum opening up the prospect of nuclear weapons being stationed permanently in Belarus).
— The build-up culminates just after a large nuclear forces exercise.
— Then, as part of the announcement of the “special military operation, a very thinly veiled nuclear threat accompanied by the tortured argument that the “very existence of the State” is at stake – the exact words in Russia’s nuclear-weapon policy which allow for first-use.
— Three days later, comes your announcement that Russian forces are being placed on a “special regime of combat duty.”, because – surprise, surprise – “top officials from leading NATO members made aggressive statements regarding our country.”
— And then the final flourish, a second nuclear forces exercise, this time featuring hypersonic missiles.
Perhaps you figured, “What the heck, why not give them a scare?” You hoped to put NATO on its back foot. Indeed, many people have been intimidated. But Biden’s low-key, non-response must be very unsettling. He’s not buying it. He has thought through the utility of threatening to start nuclear war and concluded it’s a non-starter. If he has come to that conclusion, a carefully-calculating fellow such as yourself would have come to the same conclusion.
Now, the only way to make the bluff work is to convince Biden and company that you have lost your marbles and are actually itching to drive the world into the nuclear abyss, like Samson bringing the temple down not only upon his enemies’ heads but also upon his own. To that end, you have in the past made some pretty off-the-wall remarks; to paraphrase: “What use is the world if Russia isn’t in it?” and, “We Russians will go to heaven, and all the others will go in the other direction.” The problem is that such posturing is out of character for you. Nonetheless, some have fallen for it, arguing that you have suddenly changed.
So here we get to the first of several downsides when it comes to pretending to be thinking of initiating nuclear war: You have to play-act that you are a madman, and stay in role. For those around you who know it is an act, it may not be so unsettling, although it does force them to go along with the pretense. (And face questions about what they are doing to keep you away from the nuclear button?) But for those not in the know, not least the Russian public, it must be very unnerving to contemplate that the leader of a nuclear superpower has become unhinged.
More importantly, while you can be reasonably confident that Biden will not publicly expose your bluff, there is a risk that it will be openly called by another party. The basic problem is the vagueness of the red line. You are already tolerating truly massive arms transfers to Ukraine. It is only natural that delivery convoys would become targets after entering Ukraine, so your threat to attack them has impressed no one. But what if Ukrainian Air Force pilots go to Poland and fly Warsaw-Pact-era MIGs, appropriately decked out with Ukrainian insignia, back to Ukraine? Of course, your air forces will try to shoot them down over Ukraine, but you will not nuke Poland.
So, if the red line, like the horizon, constantly recedes, what remains of your bluff?
Equally concerning, and even more unpredictable, would be an unintended incident that calls your bluff. While one can imagine any number of such scenarios; unfortunately, the most likely one is the one which no one has anticipated. Recall the Russian submarine being depth charged at the tailend of the Cuban Missile crisis. You are at the mercy of the fog of war.
So, I must ask, are you prepared to be exposed as a bluffer?
Your predicament is compounded by the poor performance of your armed forces in the face of stiff Ukrainian resistance. Your generals probably convinced you that they would make quick work of Ukraine – as long as NATO didn’t become heavily involved. But now, the longer the resistance persists, the more likely it is that your bluff will be called. But it seems you are only digging yourself in deeper.
Your propagandists are attempting to make the threat of first-use more “justified” by falsely claiming that there is chemical and biological weapon activity going on in Ukraine which poses a threat to Russia. In the nuclear policy mentioned above, Russia also reserves the right to nuclear first-use if attacked by any other weapon of mass destruction. The West interprets this fake news as a prelude to a false flag incident. And thus, the “risk” that Russia just might start firing off nuclear weapons is further reinforced.
In essence your bluff is in danger of being called and, instead of folding, you raise your bet.
But pretty soon you are going to run out of room for maneuver. Take my advice, at this point, your best hope for avoiding self-inflicted humiliation is to ensure that the peace talks yield a face-saving result – ASAP. It would also be wise to send a clear signal of de-escalation.
Finally, taking a cue from China, you could adopt a no-first-use policy – NO exceptions. Biden would be only glad too glad to follow suit. Together you could make sure that the new restraint is reflected in your nuclear force postures. There is no reason Russia couldn’t live with that; indeed, it may be the only way to ensure that we all live to see the establishment of a nuclear weapon free world.
With all due respect, Aaron Tovish
Graphic: “Putin Intercontinental Missile launcher upper stage” by Henandz Krauchanka / Pohodka