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Sunday, April 7, 2024

Putin’s Nuclear Threat Sets the West on Edge

The first images out of Russia’s fresh invasion of Ukraine appeared to herald a fairly traditional land war: tanks battling, artillery firing, and planes swooping low over cities. But even as Western leaders moved to craft a strong response to Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked aggression, they did so warily, conscious that the dramatic escalation in Eastern Europe could spill over into two new domains with much larger implications for the world beyond: cyberspace and nuclear weaponry.

In his speech early Thursday morning, Moscow time, Putin announced what he called a “special military operation” and issued a stark warning against Western intervention. “No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history” he said, in remarks officially translated by the Kremlin that seemed to leave little doubt as to the threat of nuclear retaliation.

The comments immediately resonated as the most direct nuclear peril the world has faced since President Donald Trump threatened North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with “fire and fury” amid an exchange of bellicose rhetoric in 2017. It is even more worrisome given Russia’s unprovoked invasion, Putin’s devil-may-care attitude toward international opprobrium, and the very real danger of intended and unintended escalation between Russia and the West in the days ahead. The world’s two major nuclear superpowers have not engaged in serious nuclear saber-rattling in decades, and Russia’s previous cyberattacks against Ukraine have spilled over, causing billions of dollars' worth of damage to Western networks and companies.

While the nuclear threat has largely receded from public consciousness in the more than quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, the US and Russia still have thousands of nuclear weapons; both have around 6,500 in their current inventory, although a smaller fraction are kept at the ready in silos, bombers, and submarines. Far from a vestigial relic of the Cold War, nuclear weapons are a more present threat today than they have been at any other time in the 21st century.

The US and Russia have both spent billions upgrading their nuclear weapons in recent years, and nearly 90 percent of Russia’s nuclear stockpile has been modernized, including the development of new weapons and the installation of new cruise-missile systems on its bombers. The Trump administration also withdrew from the 30-year-old Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019 after citing Russia’s attempts to develop and field such a midrange missile, known as the SSC-8. Moreover, Russia's nuclear capability is more opaque to the US than it has been in years, after the Trump administration pulled the US out of Open Skies, a long-supported treaty that allowed for special unarmed surveillance overflights to monitor adversaries’ nuclear readiness.

Amid its build-up of military forces in recent weeks along Ukraine’s borders, Putin specifically cited a fictitious story that Ukraine was trying to reestablish its own nuclear capabilities, which it gave up in the 1990s amid Western efforts to secure the vast arsenals abandoned by the collapse of the Soviet Union. “If Ukraine acquires weapons of mass destruction, the situation in the world and in Europe will drastically change, especially for us, for Russia,” Putin said Tuesday. “We cannot but react to this real danger, all the more so since, let me repeat, Ukraine’s Western patrons may help it acquire these weapons to create yet another threat to our country.”

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Whereas in those years ,and especially in the early years after 9/11, many experts warned of “loose nukes,” the idea of a weapon falling into the hands of a terror group, today experts mostly point to highly secure nation-state-controlled weapons as the primary global nuclear threat.

Organizations like the Ploughshares Fund have warned loudly in recent years that the threat of accidental escalation is greater than the public believes. “We tend to underestimate the risk of accidental nuclear war,” Jason Matheny, who headed the Intelligence Community’s internal technical skunkworks, told me in 2020. “Most of what I learned about nuclear weapons systems makes me more worried [about an accidental war], not less worried.” Indeed, leaders in both the US and Soviet Union would historically blink when faced with the intricate details and war plans of the world’s “doomsday machines” rather than risk an escalation that could spiral into a nuclear exchange. Even in US war games, officials found the sheer moral magnitude of a launch order more than they could manage.

That’s partly because the Cold War taught decisionmakers that they often had less exquisite intelligence in the moment than they thought. It was decades, for instance, before the US realized that amid the Cuban Missile Crisis the Soviet Union had placed tactical nuclear weapons on the Caribbean island and authorized their use in the event of an invasion. Similarly, a Soviet submarine armed with nuclear-tipped torpedoes came close to fighting back when confronted by US naval vessels enforcing the blockade. The Cold War is littered with computer errors, misinterpreted military alerts, radar false alarms, and other fraught moments that narrowly averted nuclear exchanges. Such moments didn’t end with the Cold War either. In 1995, Russian president Boris Yeltsin was alerted to an incoming US missile strike that turned out to be just a harmless Norwegian rocket launch.

But even as the number of weapons on ready-alert have dropped by nearly 80 percent from the height of the Cold War, the US president is still followed everywhere by a military aide who carries the “nuclear football,” the storied briefcase that contains the nation’s nuclear war plans. Much less has ever been known about the Russian system of nuclear command-and-control (known in Pentagon circles as NC3, for nuclear command, control, and communications), and there are special reasons from history to worry about any lingering Soviet mindset. Washington Post reporter David Hoffman documented in his book The Dead Hand how the Soviet Union invented a system to launch an automatic retaliatory strike in the wake of a surprise attack. Such a system was satirized in the movie Dr. Strangelove, though part of the satire was the fact it seemed such a system was so outlandish.

Putin, for his part, is regularly accompanied by a Russian version of that nuclear football, known as the Cheget and named after a mountain in the Caucasus. At this point, through his many terms atop Russia, Putin has spent more time in charge of a world-ending nuclear arsenal than any human in history.

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Given his knowledge and experience in leading and reviving Russia’s nuclear ambitions, Putin’s willingness to so casually invoke an apparent nuclear threat this week made it all the more extraordinary and chilling to Western governments, who must weigh every action in the weeks ahead—whether military, diplomatic, economic, or cyber—to gauge whether it would lead to escalation.

Putin’s threat also indicates why it seems likely that any offensive escalation in the conflict ahead—whether from the West or from Russia in response to diplomatic and economic sanctions that NATO nations were quick to hand down Thursday—will likely be constrained to cyberspace, a domain that offers its own fraught questions about command and control and possible spillover effects.

Those questions, themselves, were front and center in Washington on Thursday, as White House officials aggressively shot down an NBC report that outlined possible cyberattacks the US would consider against Russia if it escalated amid a future Western response.

That fundamental uncertainty of how the coming weeks may unfold and what escalation may come felt palpable in reports from Washington and Europe alike, even as officials marveled at the reawakening of seemingly long-buried threats. “Russia has attacked Ukraine,” NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday morning. “We now have war in Europe on a scale and of a type we thought was left to history.”


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