The West Is Enabling Putin’s Nuclear Threats

Most of the time, when heads of state talk about nuclear war, they speak in careful, measured tones, acknowledging the gravity of the nuclear taboo and the consequences of breaking it. The Russian president takes a different approach. Speaking at his annual foreign-policy conference a few years ago, Vladimir Putin reflected, without smiling, on the consequences of a nuclear war. “We will go to heaven as martyrs,” he said, “and they will just drop dead.”

At the same conference last month, a regime insider, Fyodor Lukyanov, asked him about this remark: “You said that we would all go to heaven, but we’re in no hurry to get there, right?” Putin did not answer. The seconds ticked by. Lukyanov said, “You’ve stopped to think. That’s disconcerting.” Putin responded, “I did it on purpose to make you worry a little.”

I did it on purpose to make you worry a little? Why does he want anyone to worry? Because fear is not just a feeling or an ephemeral emotion; it is a physical sensation. It can grip your stomach, freeze your limbs, make your heart beat faster. Fear can distort the way you think and act. Because it can be so paralyzing, human beings have always tried to make other human beings feel fear. If you can make your enemies afraid, they will not oppose you, because they cannot oppose you. You can then win the argument, the battle, or the war without ever having to fight.

[Uri Friedman: Will Putin use nuclear weapons? Watch these indicators]

Putin is a KGB officer who knows about the manipulation of emotions, fear most of all. For two decades, he has sought to evoke fear inside Russia. Unlike his Soviet predecessors, he doesn’t shoot or arrest millions of people. Instead, he uses targeted violence, specially designed to create fear. When the investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in her Moscow stairwell, and when the businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sent to prison for a decade, other journalists and other businessmen got the message. When the opposition politicians Boris Nemtsov and Alexei Navalny were murdered and poisoned, respectively, those incidents sent a message too. This isn’t mass terror, but it is just as effective. Fear keeps Putin in power by rendering people too frightened to report news, protest government actions, or conduct independent business or even independent activity of any kind.

Putin also seeks to create fear in the outside world, especially the democratic world. He does this, above all, by bantering about nuclear weapons, at conferences and everywhere else. Indeed, this has been a central subject of his public commentary, and of Russian propaganda more broadly, for many years. Pictures of mushroom clouds appear regularly on the evening news. Threats of nuclear strikes against Ukraine have been made repeatedly, as far back as 2014. Russia’s armed forces practice nuclear strikes as a routine part of military exercises. Back in 2009, they played out a war game that included dropping a nuclear bomb on Poland. This constant, repetitive nuclear signaling, which long predates the current war, has a purpose: to make NATO countries afraid to defend Poland, afraid to defend Ukraine, and afraid to provoke or anger Russia in any way at all.

In the past few weeks, Putin and those who echo Putin have been seeking to pump up fear once again. Russian television journalists now regularly allude to nuclear war in the same half-serious, half-sinister tone, coolly referring to World War III as “realistic” and saying “It is what it is,” because “we’re all going to die someday.” The Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, has called his American, British, and French counterparts to accuse the Ukrainians of preparing a nuclear attack despite the fact that they don’t have nuclear weapons—immediately triggering the suspicion that he is planning one himself. Russian nuclear threats are now habitually echoed and amplified by proxies as disparate as the British politician Jeremy Corbyn and the tech billionaire Elon Musk, growing louder with each Ukrainian military victory. Unsurprisingly, the anxiety created by these repeated threats has already shaped American and European policy toward Ukraine, exactly as it was supposed to do.

Fear certainly explains why we in the West have given Ukraine some weapons but not others. Why no airplanes?  Why no advanced tanks? Because the White House, the German government, and other governments are afraid that one of these weapons would cross an invisible red line and inspire a nuclear retaliation by Russia. Fear also shapes tactics. Why don’t the Ukrainians more often target the military bases or infrastructure on Russian territory that are being used to attack them? Because Ukraine’s Western partners have asked its leaders not to do so, for fear, again, of escalation.

Fear also causes us to treat nonnuclear acts of mass violence and terror as if they are less important, less frightening, less deserving of a response. Right now, Russia is targeting Ukrainian utilities, openly seeking to deprive millions of Ukrainians of electricity and water. This policy could lead to mass evacuations, even mass death, maybe even on the same scale as a tactical nuclear weapon. The Ukrainians have accused the Russians of preparing to dynamite a dam that, if burst, would flood Kherson and other settlements. If a small terrorist or extremist group were even hinting at a similarly devastating blow, people in the West would already be arguing about how to force them to stop. But because this is Russia, and because these are just conventional weapons, we don’t think in terms of retaliation or response. We feel relieved, somehow, that people will die because they have frozen in unheated apartments or drowned in an artificial flood, and not from nuclear fallout.

Yet even as we feel this fear, even as we act on this fear, even as we let this fear shape our perceptions of the war, we still have no idea whether our anxious responses are effective. We don’t know whether our refusal to transfer sophisticated tanks to Ukraine is preventing nuclear war. We don’t know whether loaning an F-16 would lead to Armageddon. We don’t know whether holding back the longest-range ammunition is stopping Putin from dropping a tactical nuclear weapon or any other kind of weapon.

[Eric Schlosser: What if Russia uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine?]

On the contrary, some of these decisions may have had precisely the opposite impact. Our self-imposed limitations may well have encouraged Putin to believe that American support for Ukraine is limited and will soon end. Our insistence that Ukraine not harm Russia or Russians in its own defense might explain why he keeps fighting. Perhaps our nuclear anxiety actually encourages him to carry out nonnuclear mass atrocities; he does so because he believes he will not face any consequences, because we will not escalate.

Given the growing popularity of the word restraint, we must consider how that concept might not only prolong the war but lead to a nuclear catastrophe. What if calls for peace actually reinforce Putin’s deep belief, one he has expressed many times, that the West is weak and degenerate? Before the war, Western shipments of weapons to Ukraine were limited because of similar fears. No one wanted to provoke Russia by offering the Ukrainians anything too sophisticated. In retrospect, this caution was disastrous. It meant that Putin thought the West would not come to Ukraine’s aid; it left Ukraine less prepared than it could have been. Had we armed Ukraine, we might have prevented the many tragedies that have unfolded on occupied territory. Had we helped make Ukraine into a difficult target, the invasion might never have taken place at all.

I can’t prove this to be true, of course, because no one can. We can’t consult a rule book, published military doctrine, or any other document to explain these issues, because Russia has no institutions governing the use of nuclear weapons, indeed no institutions that can check or balance the president. In a one-man dictatorship, the decision whether to use nuclear weapons lies in that one man’s head. Because no one else lives inside that head, no one else knows what would really provoke him or where his red lines really are.

The only guide we have is the past, and given Putin’s behavior in the past, we should at least consider the possibility that by arming Ukraine, by supporting Ukraine, we will also prevent the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Notwithstanding his bravado about martyrdom, if Putin genuinely believes that a Russian nuclear attack will carry “catastrophic consequences,” to use National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s language, then he is much less likely to carry one out. The less fear we show, the more Putin himself will be afraid.

The Ukrainians are already ahead of us. One Ukrainian friend recently told me that she is having the windows on her house changed to make them more airtight—just in case. But she isn’t moving. She has learned not to let fear deform her decisions, and we should learn the same. Here is the only thing we know: As long as Putin believes that the use of nuclear weapons won’t win the war—as long as he believes that to do so would call down an unprecedented international and Western response, perhaps including the destruction of his navy, of his communications system, of his economic model—then he won’t use them.

He has to believe that a nuclear strike would be the beginning of the end of his regime. And we have to believe it too.

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