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Putin's Nuclear Paradigm

Cold War doctrines no longer explain Russia’s behavior.

KAZAKHSTAN-CICA-SUMMIT-RUSSIA-AZERBAIJAN-DIPLOMACY
(Photo by VYACHESLAV PROKOFYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

Conventional strategic nuclear thinking suggests Putin would never use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. But what if he is following a new paradigm?

First, let's find the most important place on earth. Stick your finger on a world map, now move south, good, little to the right, too much, back a bit. There. Did you end up on Ukraine? Why not? It appears for the first time in almost eight decades, the world is ready to go to nuclear war over some place, and that place is the Ukraine.

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The signs of escalation are clear. Someone decided to murder one of Putin's closest advisors' daughter—maybe they were after the advisor himself—to send their message. Someone else decided to blow up the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that might supply a frigid winter's worth of energy to Europe, a major act of war against NATO member Germany who will now be forced to stay within the U.S.-dictated boycott boundaries, and any country bringing energy around the edges will have to pay tribute to Poland for using the pipeline that runs through its territory. Another attack damaged a vital bridge in the Crimea. It is not hard to figure out who likely perpetuated each act; asking cui bono, who benefits? provides the most likely answer in both cases.

If it were Shakespeare, the big event of Act III begging for center stage is a nuclear detonation. We've seen the set-up, twice, as the world has been told the Russians might allow a Ukrainian nuclear plant to go critical and irradiate a swath of central Europe, including NATO-ally Poland. This act would be the functional equivalent, we're told, of a bomb, but would maybe allow Putin to wiggle out of the consequences of violating the nuclear weapons taboo. Could that happen? What will happen next?

We have difficulty trying to see the future in part because we are using the wrong paradigm, that is, the Cold War nuclear vision that kept a precarious peace for over 40 years. The Cold War paradigm was based on the MAD doctrine, mutually assured destruction, the idea that if one side released a nuclear weapon the other would match it, followed by an escalation that would need to be matched, until both Moscow and New York glowed in the dark. Entire dramatic scenarios, such as those in the movie Failsafe (and, no doubt, real-world SIOP Defcon 1), were based on such a tit-for-tat.

It was the absolute belief by both parties that they would never be able to contain a conventional spat from going nuclear that calmed the Cuban Missile Crisis (plus some deft diplomacy). America's other too-close-for-comfort nuclear-considered scenarios saw something similar. General MacArthur, who wanted to use nukes against the Chinese in Korea, had to stare down the barrel of the Soviet strategic rocket forces. Any idea of ending the Vietnam War with nuclear weapons was a similar no-go. Israel practices a version of MAD, making it clear that if Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are destroyed, the nation’s nuclear arsenal will be unleashed against the perpetrators and maybe everyone else in the neighborhood. No one gets out alive. Everyone loses big.

It is the MAD paradigm that allows the U.S. to escalate the Ukrainian war by supplying more, and more sophisticated, weapons, as well as intelligence and logistics. The U.S. admits CIA elements are on the ground in Ukraine, and the number of special forces pretending to be "volunteers" is unknowable but no less real.

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Each step up the weaponry ladder (such as supplying first-line main battle tanks, perhaps via the Poles) raises the real risk of a Ukrainian offensive that crosses a Russian red line in the form of a real or stated border. Russia is likely to brush off the loss of its greater invasion as the cost of doing business, but is much less likely to give back areas in the Donbas and other regions taken long ago and considered by Moscow as its own annexed territory.

Ukrainian president Zelensky is no doubt aware of the Bay of Pigs, the incursion into Cuba by American-trained mercenaries in 1961. The scheme at the Pentagon was to set the mercenaries up, see them slaughtered on the beach, and use that as the excuse to force a reluctant President Kennedy to commit significant U.S. airpower to save them. Once that line was crossed, the U.S. would have to send in more and more support, doubling-down, until in the end a real live invasion was underway.

Zelensky must know that if he does the same, crossing into Russian or "Russian" territory, he has a very good chance of bringing in the overt battlefield support from America he desperately wants to, in his mind, secure a win by taking back land once considered lost. What follows, in this line of thinking? U.S. airpower will turn the tide, with Putin afraid to escalate to nukes as promised for fear of MAD. That's the old way of thinking, Cold War-style.

But MAD is not Putin's Paradigm. The loose way Putin and his advisors talk about using nukes suggests they may be playing a new, different game than the one that played out during the Cold War. Putin is using the threat of nukes not to back the U.S. off completely but to hold the U.S. back from escalating conventionally. In that case, the tit-for-tat is not ICBMs targeted on Moscow, but U.S. close-air support scared back inside NATO lines by a tactical nuclear detonation outside Mariupol. Putin feels safe from nuclear retaliation because he is banking on Joe Biden playing by Cold War rules (don't use nukes in Ukraine for fear of total nuclear war a few steps downstream) while Putin is using nukes to keep the U.S. at bay.

We need a new way of thinking about nuclear weapons when an adversary threatens nuclear attack as a deterrent against conventional attack. Imagine this scenario: around 2006, when the U.S. was starting to realize it was losing in Iraq, the Russians began openly assisting Al Qaeda on the ground, and threatened to provide air cover for Al Qaeda forces. An American nuclear threat might have been enough to scare away the Russians. This idea was not unknown in the Cold War, and was known as the stability-instability paradox. The horror of nuclear war meant it was less likely one superpower would mess with the small-scale wars of the other. It was why President Barack Obama did nothing when the Russians invaded Crimea.

Not so for Ukraine, where Biden invoked another old Cold War paradigm, the domino theory. If Biden responds to Putin's Paradigm with more conventional forces, the classic response, he enhances the likelihood of nuclear exchange. With Putin discarding MAD and the peace it kept during the Cold War and beyond, we now have what one pundit calls the first predatory nuclear weapon state shaking its nuclear stick to scare away a greater conventional response.

In essence, nuclear threats and the use of small nukes enables larger-scale conventional wars. How will Biden respond at fateful nightfall? Does he understand the paradigm? The non-nuclear future of central Europe depends on his actions.

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