Putin’s Nuclear Threats and the Commitment Trap

September 30, 2022 | 8:00 am
Jake Sullivan on CBS's Face the NationCBS News/Still from YouTube
Stephen Young
Senior Washington Representative

Last weekend, President Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan went on the Sunday talk shows to convey the message that there would be “catastrophic” consequences for Russia if President Vladimir Putin used nuclear weapons. Very intentionally, Sullivan did not specify exactly what the response would be, nor did Biden when he was interviewed the weekend before. 

However, according to press reports and officials I have spoken with, Biden very much wants to avoid a US nuclear response to a Russian nuclear attack. That is the correct approach. As I have noted elsewhere, the only war with Russia the United States will lose is a nuclear war.

Unfortunately, some Pentagon officials – anonymously – have said they are “not sure” that declaring catastrophic consequences without suggesting nuclear war is enough to deter Putin. One expressed a desire for a “blunt hammer.” In short, making a nuclear threat at least as explicit as Putin’s is apparently what is “required” to maintain deterrence. 

That is a horrifying thought. In the name of security, we have to threaten the one thing we absolutely do not want to do? And Putin, who has risked almost everything in Ukraine, will have to decide whether to take the plunge and risk absolutely everything? 

This is how we fall into the commitment trap. If Putin “goes nuclear” after the United States has issued its own nuclear threat, then Biden would essentially be forced to respond in kind. If he does not go nuclear, the United States loses credibility and could never again effectively issue threats of any kind. US allies would feel deserted, and the United States would be forever “weak.”  

However, if the US does respond in kind, no one can have confidence that Putin will not escalate even further, leading us down the path to a full-scale nuclear war. An unending cycle of escalation leading to global annihilation is all too possible. 

A world where nuclear threats become normal is not one I want to live in, and I imagine I am not alone in that feeling. The risks are too high. Indeed, when it comes to a nuclear conflict, we can’t have confidence in anything, except perhaps the statement that Russia, the United States, China, France and the United Kingdom made earlier this year: a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

Fortunately, I believe that the anonymous Pentagon official is wrong. What would be more terrifying to Putin – the idea that everyone in the world could die in a nuclear war, or the possibility that the United States and NATO could deal catastrophic damage to Russia without nuclear weapons, leaving Russia not only destroyed but also a complete pariah state, without an ally in the world?  

That, to me, is Putin’s nightmare scenario. Russia may still exist, but it has no power, no friends, no military capability except its nuclear weapons. 

Make no mistake, that is still a terrifying possibility. Putin could still blow up the world out of spite. But it would not be from an out-of-control nuclear escalation cycle that the United States helped create. In the meantime, the United States can and should continue to make clear to Russia that going nuclear will make them a pariah state and have terrible consequences, but there is no need for Biden to issue nuclear threats. That is our best chance to reduce the likelihood of nuclear war.

A final point: Ukraine has made the risk of nuclear war higher than it is been in decades. If humanity manages to survive this crisis, world leaders must turn their focus to the elimination of nuclear weapons. That is the only path to ensure our long-term survival. If they don’t, at some point our luck will run out and a crisis will go nuclear, with unimaginable consequences. We and our descendants deserve a brighter future, and we can achieve it if we all work together toward that goal.