Is Putin Serious? Berlin and Washington Play Out Nuclear Scenarios
The bleaker things look on the battlefield in Ukraine, the more often Russia talks about nuclear bombs. Western governments still think it’s a bluff, but they are nonetheless examining possible scenarios.
Is this what a victorious army looks like? “Hooray,” cries a lone voice, sounding as though the man is trying to muster up some courage on this depressingly gray October day. The smell of alcohol lingers over the crowd at just before 11 a.m. outside the draft office in Balashikha, a drab suburb east of Moscow.
“Louder!” slurs a man, followed up by a rather lackadaisical reply. “My God,” groans a young reservist. “Where am I?” But most of the men remain silent as they wait to be sent to war. Or they try to comfort their crying wives and mothers. Scenes like the one in Balashikha are currently playing out in hundreds of different places in Russia.DER SPIEGEL 41/2022
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 41/2022 (October 8th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.SPIEGEL International
Because Vladimir Putin’s “special operation” in Ukraine has turned into a military disaster, the Russian president has ordered a mobilization. Men who already performed their military service years ago are being summoned to the front: fathers, cancer patients and even people who are half blind. Just a few days ago, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that mainly well-trained forces would be drafted. But the scene in Balashikha suggests something altogether different. Some of those gathered here still have the soft skin of youth, but other men have sunken cheeks and deep circles under their eyes, as if they have years of hard labor behind them.
It seems like a desperate array. When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, he promised a swift victory, a campaign in which Kyiv would fall quickly and the bygone glory of the Soviet empire would return. To the surprise of many in Russia, however, the war has largely revealed how dilapidated their own army is. Indeed, they are in retreat on numerous fronts. The situation has become so precarious for Putin that he has resorted to the ultimate threat: “When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people,” Putin said in announcing the mobilization two and a half weeks ago. “This is not a bluff.”
For now, at least, the last sentence is subject to doubt. If you talk to Western politicians and top officials, most assume that Putin’s nuclear threat is primarily that: a threat. So far, according to German government sources, the Russian president has not followed up his words with action, such as mounting warheads on missiles. That’s the U.S. government’s conclusion as well. Putin’s main goal is to divide the West, says Heather Conley, head of the German Marshall Fund, an influential Washington-based think tank. But will things stay that way?
Biden Speaks of Possible “Armageddon”
The West is dealing with a Kremlin ruler who is no longer fighting just for prestige and spheres of influence, but for his sheer survival. Putin will have to fear for his hold on power if he loses the war in Ukraine, which is part of what makes the current situation so dangerous. When former Chancellor Angela Merkel made one of her rare public appearances last week, she issued an urgent warning to take Putin’s threats seriously.
U.S. President Joe Biden went even further on Thursday and compared the current situation with the nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in Cuba 60 years ago. “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis,” he said at a fundraising event for the Democrats. Back then, the Soviet Union stationed missiles with nuclear warheads in Cuba that could reach the U.S. within minutes. American President John F. Kennedy defused the situation together with his adversary Nikita Khrushchev.
President Vladimir Putin during his speech last week during the celebrations over the annexations in Ukraine Foto: IMAGO/Maksim Blinov / IMAGO/SNA
That Biden is now talking publicly about “Armageddon” is the clearest signal yet from Washington about how seriously the U.S. government is taking the threat of nuclear escalation. He knows Putin pretty well, Biden said Thursday. And the Kremlin leader was not kidding when he talked about the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons, as well as chemical and biological weapons, as the Russian military struggles in Ukraine. “We are trying to figure out, what is Putin’s off-ramp?” Biden said in reference to escalation.
For the first time in years, scenarios are once again being played out in Washington, Berlin and Paris about how a nuclear catastrophe might play out. A vernacular is once again being used that seemed to have disappeared into the history books along with the Cold War: first strike, radioactive fallout, deterrence. Western military officials are also discussing how Putin might deploy his nuclear forces. In “war games” that are also being played out in strict secrecy at the German Defense Ministry in Berlin, strategists are largely ruling out an attack with strategic nuclear weapons capable of wiping out entire cities. The consensus is that an attack on that level would be a kamikaze mission for Putin. Experts also doubt whether the Russian military would carry out a kind of “Nero order” from the Kremlin without resisting.
The conceivable alternative would be for Putin to detonate a low-yield, tactical nuclear bomb in the Arctic or over the Black Sea. Or he could deploy one to take out a Ukrainian military base. Even if it didn’t turn the tide on the battlefield, such an operation could make it clear that Putin is determined to do anything – and strengthen the voices of those who are calling for negotiations with Putin at any price. In Germany, in particular, where part of the population has grown up with the fear of nuclear war, doubts could grow over whether Ukraine is important enough to take such an existential risk. Back in April, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned in an interview with DER SPIEGEL: “There cannot be a nuclear war.”
The threatening nuclear gestures are primarily directed at Europe and specifically at the Germans, believes Christoph Heusgen, Merkel’s former security policy adviser and the new head of the influential Munich Security Conference. “It’s part of Russia’s intimidation strategy.” From Heusgen’s point of view, it would be extremely dangerous if the Germans allowed themselves to be ruffled by the strategy. He says the greatest threat comes from Putin when he believes he can exploit the weakness of others and cross red lines with impunity.
Heusgen has been pushing for weeks for the Europeans, in a consortium of sorts, to supply Ukraine with modern Leopard 2 tanks, which Kyiv could use to push the Russian army back even further. So far, though, Scholz has refused, which hasn’t just triggered frustration withing Germany’s governing coalition, but also disgruntlement in Washington.
Americans Warn of “Catastrophic Consequences”
The Americans aren’t saying anything bad about the Germans publicly, but behind the scenes, they make no secret of their disappointment. The White House has been especially irritated by the fact that the Chancellery in Berlin has been acting as though the Americans are also skeptical about the delivery of battle tanks. “The White House is starting to get upset with Scholz for hanging the tank debate around our necks, even though we’ve made it perfectly clear that we’re not holding the Germans back,” a top U.S. official said a few days ago.
Russian soldiers at a recruitment center in Balashikha, just outside of Moscow Foto: Alexander Brodetskiy / DER SPIEGEL
Biden believes that only strength will keep Putin from going to extremes. Jake Sullivan, the U.S. president’s national security adviser, recently warned of “catastrophic consequences” if Putin were to actually use nuclear weapons. No active military official wants to speak openly about what those consequences might be. But among experts, a massive U.S. conventional strike is considered likely if Putin were to detonate a tactical nuclear weapon. Earlier this week, former CIA head David Petraeus described quite concretely what an American response might look like. The former general believes a devastating U.S. military strike on the Russians’ Black Sea fleet is conceivable. Military sources say there is also talk of further arming the Ukrainians with additional missile launchers or even medium-range missiles. If this went hand in hand with the provision of significantly more targeting information by U.S. intelligence agencies, the scenario goes, the Ukrainians could inflict even more painful casualties on the Russian invaders than they have so far.
Ben Hodges, who served as commander of the U.S. Army in Europe until a few years ago, foresees a massive U.S. conventional response. He says that the response would be precisely tailored to Russian action, but that it would be destructive enough to send a clear message to Moscow. In recent days, other military officials and experts have floated the specific idea of immediately destroying the launch site of the Russian nuclear missile. This threat alone, they believe, could have a deterrent effect. “Putin doesn’t push the nuclear button himself. The commander who does it knows that 10 minutes after he does so, he’s dead,” says Munich Security Conference head Heusgen.
No Direct Line Between Washington and Moscow
One important reason the Cold War didn’t turn into a hot war was that the U.S. and the Soviet Union threatened each other with nuclear apocalypse. “Mutual assured destruction,” or MAD for short, was, paradoxically, the world’s guarantee of survival for decades. After all, the first to press the button would be the second to die.
Today, that constellation is a bit more complicated. Ukraine isn’t a member of NATO and is thus not under the protection of the alliance’s mutual defense pact. But a retaliatory strike by the Americans after a Russian nuclear attack would make NATO a direct party to the war. No one can predict the spiral of escalation that might then be set in motion. Indeed, for the first time in 60 years, fears of nuclear annihilation are once again hanging over the world.
Back then, in October 1962, the world was on the verge of doom because the Soviet deployment in Cuba. The situation was so precarious that bomber pilots at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany slept overnight on the airfield so that they could take off within minutes and drop their nuclear bombs over Soviet cities. The situation was defused only because both U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev were willing to compromise – and, at the same time, Robert Kennedy, the U.S. president’s brother, engaged in secret diplomacy with Moscow to prevent the worst from happening.
Backed Up Against the Wall
By all accounts, there is no reliable connection between Putin and the White House. And unlike Khrushchev, the current Kremlin leader has his back to the wall. His army is losing on a broad front, with the Ukrainians advancing in the south of the country in the region around Kherson. Of the four Ukrainian regions that Russia has claimed, but does not fully control, Kherson is of particularly importance, both strategically and symbolically. For one, it is the only territorial capital Russia has captured since its invasion in February, and for another, it is the only bridgehead on the west bank of the Dnieper River. The fall of Kherson would be a devastating defeat for Putin. But it has become more likely after Ukrainian artillery damaged bridges along the Dnieper, largely cutting off Russian supply lines.
And it’s not only in the south, but also in the northeast of Ukraine that the Russian army has been forced to retreat. After hard fighting, Russia recently surrendered Lyman, an important railroad junction in the northern Donetsk region. Since then, Ukrainian troops have also been advancing toward the Luhansk region. These are defeats that cannot be glossed over – even with the best propaganda. At the beginning of April, the Kremlin was still trying to sugarcoat the withdrawal from the area around Kyiv as a “gesture of goodwill” and the army’s flight from Kharkiv in September as a “regrouping.” But now the Kremlin is running out of language to make the situation look better, and displeasure within the Putin regime is beginning to leak out.
Two men in particular have been particularly vocal in their critique of the Russian military’s leadership: Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov and military entrepreneur Yevgeny Prigozhin. Both are active in Ukraine: Kadyrov has deployed Chechen units of the National Guard, and Prigozhin controls the Wagner group. In a sense, they are both partners and competitors of the Russian Army.
Kadyrov raged that Alexander Lapin, the commander in charge of Lyman, is “a loser” and lamented that the heads of Russia’s general staff are covering up for him.
“All these jerk-offs should be sent to the front lines with sub-machine guns, barefoot,” Prigozhin affirmed.
Criticism of Russian Army Is Now Tolerated
Some have begun wondering whether Defense Minister Shoigu, with whom Putin has gone on vacation several times in the past, has fallen out of favor. Until recently, criticism of Shoigu was taboo because of his closeness to the president, and any criticism of him might come off as a critique of Putin himself. Now, Putin has even promoted army critic Kadyrov to the rank of colonel general. And although it doesn’t grant him greater influence, it does show that openly attacking the military’s top brass is now permitted among Putin’s elite.
The direct attack by Andrei Kartapolov, chairman of the Duma’s defense committee and Shoigu’s deputy, on the Defense Ministry did come as a surprise though. He said the military’s top brass had been more open about defeats against the Germans in 1941 than the army is today about its setbacks in Ukraine.
Many in the West fear that Putin may end up feeling he has no other choice but to use a nuclear strike to prevent defeat. That he could escalate the situation out of weakness.
The seriousness with which the Americans are taking the threat is evident in their public warning to the Ukrainians not to push things too far: The New York Times reported this week that “parts of the Ukrainian government” are believed to be behind the assassination attempt on Darya Dugina, the daughter of Alexander Dugin, the mastermind of Russian ultra-nationalists and an ardent supporter of the attack on Ukraine. Washington obviously wants to make it clear to Kyiv that it shouldn’t give Moscow any reason to make further threats.
The rhetoric being thrown around in Moscow is growing wilder by the day. Is it to prepare the ground for action? Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s deputy on the Russian Security Council and a lover of pithy slogans, has discussed the use of “the worst weapon” against Ukraine on his Telegram channel. He concluded that NATO would simply accept it. “They will swallow the use of any weapon in the current conflict,” he wrote. Talking heads on Russian state television also speak frequently and with seeming pleasure about the nuclear option. At times in the tone of a macabre joke, like when presenter Olga Skabeyeva quipped that the Queen’s funeral, attended by dozens of Western leaders including Biden, would have made a worthwhile target for a nuclear missile. At others as a gloomy doomsday scenario: Either the Donbas remains under Russian control or there will be a nuclear war, as stated by Margarita Simonjan, the head of the propaganda channel RT.
Nuclear Weapons Wouldn’t Help Putin Militarily
One argument against the use of nuclear weapons is that Putin has by no means exhausted his non-nuclear escalation options. For example, he could expand his “partial mobilization.” He could also try to force recalcitrant dictator Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus to participate in the war. He could also move to destroy Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure. Sergei Mironov, the head of an opposition party loyal to the Kremlin, declared in the Duma this week, “let’s destroy the entire infrastructure,” including power plants and bridges. Putin could also attack the government quarter in Kyiv with precision weapons.
Furthermore, an attack in Ukraine with tactical nuclear weapons probably wouldn’t turn the tide militarily. It would primarily be intended to intimidate – to force Kyiv to the negotiating table, for example. But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has no intention of negotiating with Putin, and has even legally underpinned that refusal with a decree.
It is part of the logic of military conflicts that they can no longer be controlled even by those who set them in motion. One of the most dangerous moments of the Cuban missile crisis was the day a Soviet missile shot down an American U-2 reconnaissance plane over Cuba, an attack that had not been authorized by Khrushchev. What if Putin himself becomes a driven by his pseudo-religious rhetoric?
When he celebrated the annexation of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions to Russia last Friday in the Kremlin’s gleaming white St. George’s Hall, the enemy was no longer NATO or the alleged “Nazis” in Kyiv, it was much older. Putin portrayed the war as an eternal clash of civilizations, an end-time battle of the Russian world against Western “Satanists.” Isn’t every means permissible in such a battle?
Can China Bring Putin To His Senses?
Some in the West are betting that China can bring the Russian president to his senses. “If nuclear war breaks out, the whole world will be the victim,” says Victor Gao, vice president of the Center for China and Globalization, a think tank in Beijing that is linked to the ruling party. “China rejects any use of nuclear weapons.” When asked how the China could help prevent such a scenario, Gao said: “I assure you that the channels of communication between China and Russia are open. China will continue to exercise quiet diplomacy.”
President Putin together with Chinese leader Xi Jinping Foto: Sergei Bobylev / picture alliance/dpa/Pool Sputnik Kremlin/AP
Putin visited Beijing a few weeks before the start of the Ukraine war. At the summit with state and party leader Xi Jinping, the two countries assured each other of their “friendship that has no limits.” It is still unclear to this day whether Putin took the opportunity to inform Xi of the impending invasion. Beijing, for its part, disputes that it was ever informed. What is certain is that the war has put Xi in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand, he needs Russia in his power struggle with the United States. On the other, Xi isn’t keen to sit in the same boat with a loser like Putin. The Kremlin leader is providing the best example right now of a potentate choking on his own appetite for power.
“I haven’t heard anyone defend the Russian invasion,” says Scott Kennedy of the U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Kennedy is the first senior U.S. policy analyst to have traveled to China since the pandemic began, and he has held many policy meetings there over the past two weeks. Asked about Beijing’s relationship with Moscow, the people he spoke to in China mostly stayed silent, he says. “I think this silence is an interesting sign that they are conflicted and have gotten themselves into a difficult place.”
Putin himself indicated in mid-September that China was less than enthusiastic about the war. “We highly value the balanced position of our Chinese friends when it comes to the Ukraine crisis,” he said during a meeting with Xi in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. He said he understood that Beijing had “questions and concerns.” It was as if Putin had been forced to publicly castigate himself. Xi preferred to forgo the celebratory dinner with his “best friend” Putin. The Chinese leader was reportedly worried about COVID. That, at least, was the excuse given.