President Biden is an old man. This is not something American officials and those close to the White House are usually keen to signal but this week — as Russia made repeated thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons over Ukraine — they were. The commander-in-chief has vivid memories of the Korean War. The man making the calls in the situation room came of age during the Cuban Missile crisis. All of which is suddenly rather helpful as the Kremlin hints at nuclear brinkmanship.
American officials are currently working out how to respond if Russia, its armies forced into retreat, its mobilisation sparking panic and unrest, decides to break the taboo on nuclear weapons use that has held since 1945 in desperation. This will not start, at least, like the 1984 cult Cold War film Threads, with a thermonuclear first strike bringing out the near annihilation of civilisation across the northern hemisphere. Instead, officials in the National Security Council are discussing what to do if Vladimir Putin starts small — in an attempt to terrify Ukraine and the West not to defeat him.
In one scenario under discussion the Kremlin might explode a nuclear weapon over the ocean, the desert or some other uninhabited target — as the ultimate shock and awe. In another he might use so-called tactical nuclear weapons — a smaller but still stunningly powerful weapon of mass destruction — to eliminate advancing Ukrainian armies. Biden has even brought in nuclear historians to help him think through a nightmare where Putin detonated a bomb over a small Ukrainian city to effectively go: this is the Ukrainian Hiroshima, surrender now or face the Ukrainian Nagasaki.
Western intelligence is stepping up its detection operations. But it is what the Russian officials themselves are saying which is alarming them the most. “I’m not bluffing,” said Putin last week, threatening to use “all means available to us” and “various weapons of destruction”. Even more starkly, Dmitry Medvedev, one of his most senior and increasingly barking lieutenants, wrote: “let us imagine that Russia is forced to use the most formidable weapon against the Ukrainian regime [...] My guess is Nato would not intervene directly even in such a scenario.”
Russia-Ukraine Crisis - In pictures
This is what these Russian officials are pretty explicitly warning the West. That if Moscow decides to annex the conquered regions of eastern and southern Ukraine — where it has just staged fake “referendums” on joining Russia — and President Zelensky’s troops are poised to recapture them it will use nuclear weapons to defend what it has declared against all other countries’ wishes — part of its own so-called territory.
The Kremlin began this war thinking it could capture Kyiv in days, imagining it would mark the rebirth of a new Russian Empire. That could not be further from the mood they are in today. Putin’s inner circle think the war has turned against them and defeat poses an existential threat, not only to the regime or their power status but even the multi-ethnic Russian Federation in its current form. The unpopular military mobilisation taking place across the country’s 11 time zones is an act of confused desperation, ripping up two decades of an implicit deal the Kremlin had with its people: we’ll stay out of your lives if you stay out of politics.
How close is Putin to pressing the button? Nobody in Washington knows. A lot will depend on whether Russia can stabilise its frontlines. But American officials are not dismissing it as a bluff. This is because even a tiny mushroom cloud would leave Biden in an impossible position. If he forces Ukraine to abandon its territories after an atomic blast it sets a terrifying precedent that Putin or anyone else can conquer what they want as long as they go nuclear.
This is why the United States is now directly and publicly warning the Russians that any use of nuclear weapons will mean “catastrophic consequences for Russia,” in the words of the President’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. The hope is these warnings — perhaps a blockade of Russia, or a direct American conventional attack on the unit launching the weapons — will be enough to deter them. Meaning we don’t have to face the self-evident risk of this spiralling into all-out war. However, the uncomfortable truth is that if Biden really wants to scare Putin out of this he will have to do one thing he doesn’t like: work as closely as he can with China’s Xi Jinping. You will need two superpowers to dissuade the Kremlin if Putin really panics.