The best way to counter Putin’s nuclear threats

A photo taken from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Feb. 19 shows a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile being launched from an airfield during military drills. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
A photo taken from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Feb. 19 shows a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile being launched from an airfield during military drills. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Is Vladimir Putin really going to use nuclear weapons as part of his effort to subjugate and break up Ukraine?

Some months ago, most observers dismissed this as highly unlikely. Putin had hinted at the possibility, but there were no concrete signs of preparation for nuclear use, and it seems to be irrational even beyond what we once knew of Putin.

Today there is reason to take the issue more seriously.

The speech that Putin gave on Sept. 30, during a ceremony marking the illegal annexation of large parts of Ukrainian territory, demonstrated a mind-set devoid of both rationality and reality. Gone were all but a couple of passing references to NATO expansion, and even Ukraine now figured only marginally. Putin painted a distinctly dark picture of a confrontation with a Satanic West intent on breaking up and destroying Russia itself. (And now, as if to underline his rage, his forces have staged a series of brutal missile attacks against largely civilian targets in Kyiv and elsewhere.)

If this is his mind-set, there is no reason to assume that he isn’t serious in his threat to use nuclear weapons. Official Russian doctrine allows the use of nuclear weapons when the very existence of the Russian state is under threat — and a Ukrainian effort to expel Russian forces from its territory can hardly be described in these terms — but Putin’s rhetoric now comes very close to framing the situation in existential terms. He has previously described the conflict as one of “life or death” for Russia.

Throughout the Cold War, NATO deterred the use of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union by threatening the use of nuclear weapons in response — a posture known as “mutually assured destruction”. Currently, however, the West seems to be signaling that any direct response will be non–nuclear. This is a highly sensible move in order to avoid escalation to all-out nuclear war, but at the same time, it runs the risk of weakening deterrence.

As a result, there is now a need to discuss how the wider effort to deter any use of nuclear weapons by Putin could be augmented. Here are the elements of a policy to achieve this.

First, it should be stated that any use of nuclear weapons should immediately make regime change in Russia the explicit aim of Western policy. And regime change should be explained as the removal from power of Putin — and all others directly implicated in the decision to use nuclear weapons — and ultimately making them personally responsible for this crime against humanity.

Second, it should be stated very clearly that any Russian nuclear attack — even if Putin were to take out a number of cities with tens of thousands dead — would in no way alter the fundamental policy of the West. Such an action would, on the contrary, strengthen the determination to make certain that Putin loses the war he has initiated. Ukraine NATO membership would be a part of the answer in this respect. It has already been granted candidate status for European Union membership.

Third, the West should seek to preemptively mobilize the broadest possible international support for this policy. To use nuclear weapons is to cross the reddest of red lines in our world of today, and we should start right now with efforts to seek support for the strongest possible measures against Russia if this happens.

Fourth, a special effort should be made to engage the wavering nations of China and India. It is highly likely that they would have strong objections to Putin using nuclear weapons, but they should be encouraged to make that clear to the Kremlin in advance, and preferably publicly as well. We should make it clear that continuing their policy of tolerating Russian behavior would no longer be an option if they wish to preserve ties with the West.

Fifth, there should be active and visible preparations for credible conventional strikes against important Russian assets. The country has numerous critical vulnerabilities — including base areas for its Black Sea and Baltic fleets or its Arctic liquefied natural gas facilities — and whether its cyberdefenses can withstand sustained attack remains unclear. Putting assets such as these at explicit risk could be part of a beefed-up policy of deterrence.

A policy along these lines should be devised with the explicit purpose of deterring Putin from continuing his slide into dangerous delusions and insane behavior by making clear to all those around him that any attempt by him to press the nuclear button would have catastrophic consequences for Russia — as well as for them personally.

But we have to be realistic. If worse comes to worst, we should be ready to carry out these policies. In such a situation, further elements would rapidly have to be added to the policy.

We are in a situation potentially more dangerous than the Cuban missile crisis. We are faced with a leader in the Kremlin who might actually mean what he says about this being a struggle for “life or death”. We must do our utmost to deter Moscow — and all those there in positions to influence events — from the ultimate insanity.

Carl Bildt is a former prime minister of Sweden and a contributing columnist for The Post.

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