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Beating Putin’s Game of Nuclear Chicken

As published by Just Security. Please click here.

By Douglas London, Lobo Expert

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent comments that his country was ready for nuclear war if needed, made in the runup to his dubious re-election this past weekend, were just the latest of such threats, direct and indirect, as he tries to redeem his full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago. But U.S. officials and observers risk overestimating his triggers and the readiness with which he might torch his own world, along with ours. That inadvertently accords him the space to press an aggressive agenda, despite his own weaknesses. The key to Putin is not in providing him off-ramps to save face or appealing to his vanity or by applying the West’s own standards of logic. Solving Putin requires accentuating the darkness rather than the light by exploiting his fears.

Russians have endured centuries of terror imposed by both foreign invaders and their own leaders. One need only see a Russian production of “The Nutcracker” or read Dostoyevsky to appreciate a dark outlook shaped by a history of devastating hardships and loss. Putin’s rule leverages that sense of victimization and constant fear of impending doom.

But he is forged by those very same scars. His own sense of paranoia and impending doom drives his choices and is further shaped by conditioning and experiences as a Cold War-era KGB veteran (and I have known my share). That molding accounts for Putin’s heightened sense of moral superiority and expectation of the worst from friend and foe alike. For Putin, no written agreement, much less a verbal deal, is ever permanent, but is rather underwritten by conditions, which are themselves always subject to change. And the ends very much justify the means.

Domestically, Putin worries most about his own army, an organic uprising, or the threat of betrayal by someone close to him. He was trained to distrust the military, against which the KGB dedicated an entire directorate, the Third, to monitor it for counterintelligence and political loyalty. The Russian leader therefore keeps the army on a tight leash and under the Federal Security Service (FSB)’s watchful eyes. But even so, he understands that those with the guns are always a threat. Putin’s indecisiveness and fear showed in his much-delayed reaction when once-loyal henchman Yevgeny Prigozhin moved his Wagner mercenary forces within 125 miles of Moscow, bringing the country to the verge of civil war.

Putin is well aware of his country’s own history of coups orchestrated from within and uprisings inspired by charismatic figures. He also watched in horror as Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi succumbed to a violent crowd that arose from the Arab Spring’s spontaneous outpouring of anger and hopelessness, a rather formative event for the Russian leader, as Kim Ghattas observed two years ago in  The Atlantic. “One can trace a straight line from the overthrow of Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi to today’s devastating war in Ukraine,” she wrote.

Attempts to Insulate Himself from Threats

Perhaps in his desperation to ensure nothing similar happens to him, Putin repeatedly engages in the hardly concealed elimination of political challengers such as Alexei Navalnyand Boris Nemstov, revenge killings as in the case of Prigozhin and the poisoning in the U.K. of FSB defector Alexander Litvinenko, and the 2016 creation of the politically loyal 200,000-400,000-strong Rosgvardia, a national guard that reports directly to him. And his isolation, micromanagement, and lack of delegation in a deliberately stovepiped bureaucracy aims to offset an insider threat.

Putin’s fears are reflected in the very way he rules. He manages Russia like the leader of a criminal syndicate, through the FSB and a small, tight circle of officers in its predecessor, the KGB, who are roughly the same age and share similar careers, life experiences, and ties to his hometown of St. Petersburg. The group, along with their children, have assumed Russia’s key government, security, energy sector, and banking positions, from where they oversee the country’s resources, launder their families’ financial gains, and are generationally bound to him.

Externally, his perception of threat is clear, simple, and historic: the West, as currently embodied by American leadership. Just as history offers Putin the experience of Western powers intervening in Russia’s civil war during the Bolshevik Revolution on behalf of the Russian White armies, Putin believes the United States and its allies were behind the ”color revolutions” that, by challenging his acolytes in power, challenged his control of former Soviet republics. Likewise, internally, Putin is convinced that U.S. democracy and development assistance that nurtured Russia’s early democratic structures by supporting civil society and normal political party building actually sought to ignite flames of opposition by supporting forces he worked so hard to contain.

Ironically, Putin has created his own current predicament. Russians have historically been willing to trade a degree of freedom for the stability and protection of a strongman. After restoring Russian pride, reinvigorating the economy, seemingly securing lifetime tenure, and extending Moscow’s influence after 20-plus years of rule, Putin’s gamble on Ukraine threatens to break that social contract and unleash the potential demons he most fears. As such, winning requires nothing less than subordinating Ukraine into a vassal state, fracturing NATO, and weakening American power, largely to shore up his flagging reputation at home.

And it’s that fear that accounts for Putin’s sporadic nuclear threats. Putin roars loudest when bluffing. In reality, he has proceeded with greater caution when holding a weak hand, as some experts suggested as he and his forces struggled early in his post-2022 invasion. Conversely, when he seems to be operating from a position of strength, he appears outwardly reasonable, benign, and conciliatory but actually acts more aggressively. This is reflected by the recent suspected murders of the imprisoned Navalny and of a Russian defector in Spain. French President Emmanuel Macron’s comments concerning the possible deployment of NATO troops to Ukraine clearly unsettled Putin, who had not rattled the nuclear saber for some months, concurrent with Russia’s battlefield progress.

Playing Into His Threats

Despite U.S. fears of triggering Putin into ending the world – or at least deploying a tactical nuke on the battlefield — he is more practical than he is often seen in the West. Putin is not the suicidal type, nor the type to fall on his own sword over abused pride so long as he is still in control. But he will press as far as he is allowed. So it does more harm than good to play into his bombastic threats by writing him off as mad or to temper responses to his acts of aggression rather than leveraging his fears. Delaying or rejecting Ukrainian requests for qualitatively advanced and long-range weapons for its defense only encourages Putin to believe his histrionics work and compels him to double down.

Therein lies the most realistic danger that Putin could be tempted to use tactical nuclear weapons: should his fortunate in Ukraine be reversed, it could become part of his calculus of escalating to deescalate, by leveraging Western fear of total nuclear war. And a threat by advancing Ukrainian forces to liberate Crimea might just test that threshold, allowing Putin to rationalize denying his enemy victory while still believing he would spare territorial Russia from further consequences. All the more reason to be crystal clear to him about the certain and extreme U.S. conventional military response, rather than counter-productively withholding aid to Ukraine.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russian oligarch and critic now on the Kremlin’s wantedlist, recently remarked similarly to journalists, observing that Putin was not suicidal. It’s not by chance that Russia in 2020 published its revised strategy allowing for a nuclear first use to counter a conventional existential threat. And more recent reports forewarn that Russia has developed plans to use tactical nuclear weapons against the United States and China in the early stages of a war to force an opponent to back down to avoid the prospect of apocalyptic escalation.

It’s essential that Putin not be allowed to normalize the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or the use of such rhetoric in a feat of escalation dominance. I suspect this might have been the message conveyed by CIA Director William Burns to Russian Foreign Intelligence Chief Sergei Naryshkin when they met in Ankara in November 2022. The United States needs to articulate the devastating costs Russia would face — at a minimum, the destruction of Russia’s armed forces in Ukraine and remaining naval assets in the Black Sea, through conventional means. But such words need to be supported with observable military preparations and corollary actions minimally concealed via covert action that raise the heat in Putin’s own backyard. The Ukrainians appear to be doing this with greater intensity themselves, through long-range strikes, sabotage operations, and support to armed Russian opposition groups.

The State of Play

For now, Putin is operating from relative strength, given recent Russian battlefield gains and myriad end runs around the West’s sanctions. That may reduce the prospect of reaching his threshold for turning to tactical nuclear devices. But that doesn’t mean he is winning. Ukraine is battered, but surviving, and NATO is bigger, stronger, and more unified than ever. And he does not have all the time in the world; Russians might have a high pain threshold, as Putin claims, but it’s not inexhaustible. According to a December U.S. intelligence assessment, Russia has lost 315,000 troops, 87 percent of the total ground troops it had before February 2022, with more losses to come as Putin uses human waves of poorly trained conscripts to overwhelm Ukrainian ammunition supplies. Further mobilizations will inevitably extend beyond the rural and Turkic-speaking communities now largely absorbing these losses.

Putin’s battlefield progress and Ukraine’s dwindling supplies also will likely lead Kyiv to continue its increased tempo of bringing the war home to Russians, with strikes and special operations against commercial and infrastructure targets that affect their everyday life and can’t be concealed. Doing so might further shorten Putin’s clock.

Economically, a December 2023 Rand study captures the war’s financial costs and projects Russia’s standard of living to decline throughout the remaining decade. And an Institute for the Study of War assessment found that Russia’s war machine has picked up momentum in concert with its increased industrial capacity and decreased Ukrainian resistance, but current Russian manufacturing capabilities and stored combat systems won’t last forever.

Leveraging Putin’s Fears

The United States can influence Putin’s calculus by leveraging his fears and departing from the strategy of proportionate responses that hands him the reins of escalation management. This is necessary to undermine Putin’s belief that his wielding of the nuclear cudgel is succeeding in disproportionately extending Russian power projection and national prestige beyond its conventional capabilities and that his rhetoric has deterred greater U.S. intervention.

Deterring Putin’s aggression requires tangible, predictable, and disproportionate costs. Examples would include arming Kyiv with the full menu of advanced and long-range weapons and aircraft whose use, unless circumstances require, would be limited to Russian-occupied Ukraine; cyber operations that target Russian energy infrastructure, defense-related industry, and banking; and more robust and creative influence campaigns — public and covert alike — that depict Putin as weak, cowardly, insensitive to casualties, and endangering the Russian ruble, which was at the crux of Russia’s still memorable and painful 1998 financial crisis.

Another tool would be unleashing the CIA to stir up trouble in Russia and its client states like Belarus, as former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Robert Gates said in a recent interview would be useful. The New York Times reported that the CIA has already played a critical role since at least 2016 – and to some degree earlier — in training, assisting, advising, and equipping covert Ukrainian intelligence-collection units and special operations teams. This provides the United States a well-established operational infrastructure of its own creation and trusted relationships with Ukrainian partners, in a program that could be further expanded with operations across Russia. After all, U.S. reticence and public declarations of unwillingness to support Ukrainian attacks beyond Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine have not exempted Washington from Putin’s blame game.

Managing Putin’s threats requires constant and consistent demonstrations of U.S. strength that make clear the disproportionate consequences Washington could levy, and that could reshape his calculus. Measures short of war that target Putin’s natural paranoia and undermine his façade of stability, prosperity, and strength will accentuate his vulnerability. And raising the costs of his stirring the pot abroad will put him on the defensive at home. Such actions will demonstrate that the United States is not willing to be held hostage to nuclear threats.

IMAGE: In this pool photograph distributed by Russia’s state agency Sputnik, Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to TV host and Director General of Rossiya Segodnya (RIA Novosti) news agency Dmitry Kiselyov at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 12, 2024. His comments included that Russia was “ready” to use nuclear weapons if it felt necessary, but “there has never been such a need.” (Photo by GAVRIIL GRIGOROV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)