by Douglas London October 18, 2022 justsecurity.org
The powerful explosion that crippled Vladimir Putin’s showcase bridge over the Kerch Strait linking Russia and Crimea increased pressure on the cornered Kremlin potentate to do something shocking, as he loses control on the battlefield and inside his royal court. But will he stop at the intensified missile bombardments that are hitting apartments and playgrounds in Kyiv and other civilian infrastructure across Ukraine?
Assessing whether Putin will resort to nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons – a question that took on new resonance as his regime has faltered even before the Kerch bridge attack — is no easy task. Policymakers would do well to remember three fundamentals that guide Putin’s decision-making: 1) he is the product of the 1970’s and 1980’s KGB and stood witness in then-East Germany in 1991, when the world as he knew it ceased to exist; 2) ego, survival, greed, and ambition direct his moral compass; and 3) he has come to believe his own propaganda.
As a Russian-speaking CIA operations officer who spent much of my career pursuing and countering Russian intelligence officers of Putin’s era, and those who would follow, I don’t expect his next steps will be guided by Clausewitz’s strategic military teachings, Sun Tzu’s enlightened pragmatism, or Machiavelli’s guidance for princes. Putin will pay little heed to the limited, practical, battlefield utility of nuclear or chemical weapons, or overly concern himself that prevailing winds might bring the fallout’s enduring harm to his own people. Putin’s logic is simple: It’s all about him, his court’s blind, obsequious obedience, and reasserting control. There are no rules, only consequences, that shape his calculus. In Putin’s mind, the rules of the post-World War II order were designed by an elitist West to restrain and humiliate his country (never mind that his country helped shape and long participated in that order and those rules), negating any obligation he has to respect them, or the words and treaties of his predecessors.
Putin will not look to his own military for counsel. There is no love lost between the Russian leader and his armed forces. A Cold War-era KGB officer, he was indoctrinated with profound mistrust in them. His micromanagement of Russia’s military campaign, disinterest in its catastrophic losses, and reliance instead on the Federal Security Service, or FSB, for his war in Chechnya and initial strategy in Ukraine, reflect this attitude.
The fact that Putin’s recent choice of General Sergei Surovikin as the first overall commander of the military campaign in Ukraine hails from Russia’s Air Force speaks more to this dynamic than the candidate’s brutal Syrian war record. We in the West might think it odd to appoint an Air Force officer for a campaign in which Russia’s manned aviation has been largely ineffective and its rocket forces and kamikaze drones — courtesy of Iran — are punishing civilian targets while producing limited military gains. But unlike Russian Army ground force commander Aleksandr Vladimirovich Dvornikov, another Russian general with a bloody reputation from Syria who was appointed in April to lead Russia’s fight in Ukraine only to be fired in June, the Air Force is a far less worrisome threat to Putin’s power. After all, tanks, soldiers, and guns are needed to storm the Kremlin, not planes, and the ground forces work for the Army, with problematic loyalty to an Air Force commander.
Preserving His Power as Dissent Increases
Indeed, if Putin is like others of his generation and profession — and his behavior suggests that he is — he will use nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons if he believes doing so is the only means to preserve his power as dissent increases within his own ranks and military options dwindle. For Putin, that translates into curbing Western support for Ukraine and demonstrating strength, control, and invincibility at home.
Even as the Soviet Union disappeared and the Russian Federation grew from its ashes, with dramatic societal and economic changes that altered its citizens’ lives for the better in the initial recovery from the devastating 1998 financial collapse, Russian intelligence officers emerging from the KGB’s demise behaved as if time had stopped in 1991. Their outlook and modus operandi were much the same as it had been during the Cold War. Russian agent recruitment operations still relied on, and indeed preferred, coercion and money to exploit the weaknesses and foibles of prey they believed easily intimidated, morally corrupted by progressive values, and inferior to themselves. Exploitable vulnerabilities and fear, Russian intelligence officers believed, offered better control over reporting sources than ideology.
It’s hardly coincidence. The KGB’s successors in the FSB and Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, were trained by the likes of Putin and his generation. And then Putin, the FSB’s first director, became the head of state and his many former associates, the “siloviki,” ran the country’s government agencies and commercial industries. Is it any wonder that their views and values concerning the treatment of agents would translate into their thoughts on dealing with nations?
To understand Putin, then, requires comprehending the mindset of a predatory intelligence officer. Putin is like a shark who must keep moving to survive. Only in his case, the reason Putin is an object constantly in motion is to outrun his failures, change the narrative in his favor, and keep adversaries at bay. He deals with misfortune by doubling down and redirecting energy into even more sensational initiatives. It is not in his nature to pause, reflect, and thoughtfully adjust to changing circumstances, or be influenced by experts he should respect. Rather, Putin prides himself on the ability to shift on the fly and go it alone, without ever showing weakness, let alone fear. Putin will therefore be inclined to charge ahead with whatever might overshadow his misfortunes and make others forget the burning houses left in his wake. But the more he blusters and threatens, the more we know Putin is struggling, weak, and threatened. A dangerous time, yes, but one that also offers opportunities for the West.
Calculating Losses and Prizes
Putin does not have to win in Ukraine to survive, but he can’t afford to lose. Even were he to suffer the humiliation of losing Ukraine’s eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, much of which he controlled for years even before this February’s all-out assault and which he recently claimed to “annex” as Russian territories in sham referendums, Putin can survive that. But he can’t survive losing Crimea, should Ukraine threaten to take it back. For Putin, Crimea is the prize. Its enduring retention played no small part in his decision to initiate this catastrophic adventure. To Putin, Crimea is Russia – hence the enormously expensive venture to connect it to Russia with the Kerch Strait bridge – and its “restoration” is too central to his own legitimacy and narrative.
The Biden administration’s 2022 Nuclear Posture Review remains classified. But reflections offered after its delivery to Congress by brief official statements, analysis, and speculation among arms control experts quoting lawmakers and anonymous sources who have seen the document suggest that the assessment it offers is consistent with those of previous administrations in acknowledging the likelihood that Putin is willing to “escalate to deescalate.” That is, he might be inclined to limited use of lower-yield, tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine to demonstrate that, as he publicly stated, “This is not a bluff.”
But that does not equate to a readiness for his own destruction.
Putin’s threats should be taken seriously. But given how his military has performed in Ukraine, he is not likely to seriously seek a conventional war with NATO that he realizes would end poorly for him. That’s the very reason Russia officially adopted its nuclear first-use policy after the Cold War: in case Russia feels it is losing drastically in a conventional war. Dangerously, though, Putin counts on the West’s lack of stomach to bear such costs themselves and assumes the West would not retaliate in kind, therefore allowing him then to deescalate. Reckless as that might sound to the United States and its allies, it actually reflects Putin’s intelligence officer’s mindset, and that’s where the West must focus – he’s unlikely to act without leaving an escape route; appearances and the image he portrays is a critical component of his actions that allows for false posturing to conceal weakness.
Particularly worrisome is Russian messaging to normalize and justify Putin’s prospective use of a nuclear weapon. He’s certainly considering it; it would, after all, be reasonable to entertain and assess the utility of all the tools at his disposal. And I would not count on what ought to be a more logical aversion – that using nuclear weapons could cause pervasive harm not only to Russia’s people but also to its economy, damage that could include losing China’s support and that of India. The logic that holds that Putin would not risk losing his own extravagant wealth or undermining the country’s economic fortunes that underpin his internal support is our logic, not his. My experience with Russian intelligence officers is that they prize power and position over wealth. The former guarantees the latter.
Moreover, the recent, Saudi-led decision by the OPEC-plus grouping that includes Russia to significantly reduce oil production, thus driving up prices and revenues for these exporters, illustrates how Putin is part of a somewhat reliable consortium of foreign leaders who likewise shun world opinion. The Persian Gulf monarchies in particular welcome cooperation with Russia, as it comes without what they see as patronizing Western political sermons about how they should govern.
Nothing But Predictable and Consistent
This makes Putin dangerous, but not reckless, or even mentally unbalanced, though that is precisely how he would seek to be viewed by fearful and uncertain adversaries. Indeed, Putin has been nothing but predictable and consistent, telegraphing for years his true intentions.
But even the most confident predatory intelligence officer will always allow for an escape route. Intelligence officers are trained to prepare for the worst in realizing their inability to control every variable. And therein lies the opportunity for the West, but one which comes with tough choices. And that choice is not to blink, to not merely maintain the pressure against him on all fronts, but to increase it. Putin’s off ramp should not be some face-saving deal the West must choreograph that he will be perceive as weakness and therefore raise the stakes. Rather, increase the quality and quantity of arms, training, and intelligence support to Ukraine to reclaim their territory and exact an untenable cost for Putin’s campaign; engage with dissident, opposition circles within Russia and extend a lifeboat to opportunists within Putin’s inner circle and those fearful of going down with him; and fortify NATO along Russia’s borders, particularly the Baltic States. But do all this prepared to confront and respond to Putin’s use of weapons of mass destruction, should he choose that path.
Today, Putin’s people are voting with their feet. The embarrassing optics are not lost on him. Neither is the reality of just how poorly Russian forces are faring against a vastly smaller force, though one armed with sophisticated Western weapons and unbreakable resolve. The Ukrainians are fighting what they believe is an existential struggle worth their lives. Russian soldiers are fighting just to survive and go home. If Putin did not know this when he began the campaign, he certainly realizes it now.
Also significant are the fissures growing among his own supporters. I believe there is credibility in rumors that Putin’s critically important ally, FSB Director Alexander Vasilyevich Bortnikov, is frustrated. How could he not be? Putin has made this career intelligence officer’s primary job of internal security and counterintelligence all the harder and added mightily to the already strained and demoralized FSB’s workload and burden.
In another sign of infighting among Putin’s court, Russian security forces recently arrested Alexey Slobodenyuk, media head for the Wagner mercenary group, which has been fighting for Moscow in Ukraine, as well as in Syria, Libya, and West Africa. Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and close Putin ally indicted in the United States for 2016 election meddling, recently admitted that he founded Wagner. And Slobodenyuk’s arrest follows blistering social media attacks against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that Prigozhin reportedly has been behind that reflects the infighting among Putin’s court.
U.S. Strategy for Response
Former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former CIA Director and retired Army General David Petraeus have both suggested a preexisting U.S. strategy for responding to limited Russian use of tactical nuclear weapons. (And from four decades of national security work, I can attest that the United States does indeed prepare for even the most improbable scenarios, and this possibility, unfortunately, was never farfetched.) They explain authoritatively how the United States would likely conventionally escalate in proportional response to deter further use rather than responding in kind. The United States and NATO need not resort to reciprocal nuclear or chemical use to achieve that deterrence goal — that is, to impair Putin’s ability to wage further war and to destabilize his grip on power.
While I appreciate the (albeit uncertain) value of the world coming together to further isolate Russia economically and politically should it use nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons – particularly if such use moves China away from Russia — that in and of itself is not going to dissuade Putin. But the prospect that a Western response begins with a conventional campaign that eliminates Putin’s forces in Ukraine would leave the Russian leader politically and militarily vulnerable. Such devastating losses would be felt across Russia and likewise deflate Putin’s veneer of strength, with blame falling squarely on his shoulders rather than unifying the Russian populace in suicidal nationalistic resolve. And Putin’s insiders and most reliable underlings, already fighting rather publicly among themselves, will be opportunistically revisiting their options or at least seeking distance from the Russian leader. After all, like Putin, many of them are siloviki, former intelligence officers who share the Russian leader’s personalized utilitarian perspective.
So the United States and its allies will need to begin working now – and apparently already are – to signal publicly and privately to the Kremlin that any use of nuclear weapons, whether tactical or not, in Ukraine or beyond, would be devastating to him personally. Words alone do little with Putin, so the United States and NATO would necessarily need to begin taking observable actions accompanied by diplomacy, messaging, and covert influence efforts that demonstrate preparations to conventionally destroy Putin’s forces in Ukraine if he resorted to nuclear first use. The challenge would be in doing so without instead validating his narrative of inevitable existential battle with the West, justifying his first use of nuclear weapons, and triggering a wider war between Russia and NATO that escalates into what had been, since the 1990’s at least, the unthinkable.
And that’s the unavoidable danger in high-stakes brinksmanship: a willingness to have one’s bluff called and gambling who blinks first. But to mitigate against Putin’s initiation of such a spiral and ultimately prevent Russian nuclear use, the US and its NATO allies must be prepared to climb that escalatory conventional ladder and respond, leaving no ambiguity with Putin of the consequences. In the event Putin is detected deploying tactical nuclear weapons into theater, this could include moving sufficient NATO combat air power along with Combat Controllers to guide weapons to their targets, other special forces operators, expanded U.S. air defense, and missile capable naval combatants and the like into theater, which would respond to Putin’s nuclear use by destroying his forces in Ukraine. But keeping the engagement localized, not extending even to Crimea, might reduce Putin’s obligation to escalate still further.
The unfortunate reality is that Putin can’t be stopped without significant costs, but allowing him to normalize the use of weapons of mass destruction would start the inevitable clock to a direct and possibly catastrophic US-Russian conflict. It is a strategy that could require yet further investment of American blood and treasure today in requiring Putin to face consequences designed to prevent a full-scale war and potential nuclear escalation, but costs that are necessary to preserve international peace and security in the long term.