In the Brezhnev era of Vladimir Putin’s youth, May 9 was an occasion for Soviet militarism, a celebration of weapons and might. It could be forgotten, at least for a moment, that Leonid Brezhnev’s war of choice would be fought and lost in Afghanistan less than two decades after he began the May 9 celebrations, much as what is likely Mr. Putin’s last war is today being fought and lost in Ukraine.
During both conflicts, people in the West worried, understandably, about nuclear war.
Today’s Russia issues an unending stream of nuclear threats. In the West today, unlike during the Cold War, these are discussed in psychological rather than strategic terms. How does Mr. Putin feel? How do we feel?
Americans’ fear of escalation delayed the supply of weapons that could have allowed Ukraine to win last year. One after the other, the weapons systems deemed escalatory have now been delivered, with no negative consequences. But the cost of delay can be observed in the Ukrainian territories that Russia still controls: the death pits, the torture chambers and the empty homes of kidnapped children. Tens of thousands of soldiers on both sides have unnecessarily died.
In nearly 15 months of war, despite Russian nuclear propaganda and Western anxiety, there has been no use of nuclear weapons. This is an absence worthy of an explanation. Those who predicted escalation if Ukrainians resisted, if the West supplied weapons or if Russia suffered defeat have thus far been wrong. Strategic thinkers point to deterrence and note that nuclear use would not in fact bring a Russian victory. It would ensure a dramatic Western response and make Russian leaders pariahs. But there is a deeper explanation: Russia’s nuclear talk is itself the weapon.
It rests on false assumptions. Russian nuclear propaganda assumes that the bully always wins. But the bully does not always win. Russian propagandists want us to think that nuclear powers can never lose wars, on the logic that they could always deploy nuclear weapons to win. This is an ahistorical fantasy. Nuclear weapons did not bring the French victory in Algeria, nor did they preserve the British Empire. The Soviet Union lost its war in Afghanistan. America lost in Vietnam and in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Israel failed to win in Lebanon. Nuclear powers lose wars with some regularity.
Some Americans have proposed a nuclear scenario in which Russians will have to use nuclear weapons to head off defeat. But Russia has been defeated in Ukraine, on its own terms, again and again. What it has proved is its ability to change those terms after each defeat. Russia failed to achieve the explicit aim of the “special military operation” to overthrow Ukraine’s democratic government. There will be no greater humiliation than that. The defeat at Kyiv was followed by further defeats at Kharkiv and Kherson. Each loss led to cover stories from Russia’s state propagandists and their believers, to talk of good-will gestures, strategic withdrawals and so on. The escalation has been in the propagandists’ workload.
Russia can lose without being cornered. It has 11 time zones of space for retreating soldiers and plenty of practice in propaganda refashionings. Indeed, Russian leaders have already indicated what they will do if they believe that they are losing: change the terms of reference and change the subject in Russian media. Mr. Putin’s kleptocratic state as a whole and its dependencies such as the Wagner mercenary army are public relations projects with a military arm. The assumption in Russian politics is that rhetoric overcomes reality. And the rhetorical preparations for defeat have been made.
Beneath Mr. Putin’s vague bellicosity is the idea that Russia wins if it avoids (in his words) “strategic defeat” imposed by NATO. Almost no matter what happens, it will be easy for him to define the war in Ukraine as a strategic victory. Since the Kremlin claims that it is fighting NATO, all Mr. Putin has to say is that Russia stopped NATO from crossing into Russia. The commander of Wagner wrote recently, in this spirit, that Russia can end the “special military operation” at any time and just claim that its goals have been achieved, so long as Russia does not retreat from any more occupied Ukrainian territory.
By taking nuclear blackmail seriously, we have actually increased the overall unpredictability of nuclear war. If nuclear blackmail enables a Russian victory, the consequences will be incalculably awful. If any country with nuclear weapons can do whatever it likes, then law means nothing, no international order is possible and catastrophe beckons at every turn. Countries without nuclear weapons will have to build them, on the logic that they will need nuclear deterrence in the future. Nuclear proliferation would make nuclear war much more likely in the future.
When we understand that nuclear talk is itself the weapon, we can act to make the situation less risky. The way forward to strategic thinking is to free ourselves from our own anxieties and consider the Russian ones. The Russians talk about nuclear weapons not because they mean to use them but because they believe a large nuclear arsenal makes them a superpower. Nuclear talk makes them feel powerful. They see nuclear bullying as their prerogative and believe that others should automatically yield at the first mention of their weapons. The Ukrainians have not allowed this to affect their tactics.
If Russia detonated a weapon, it would lose that jealously guarded treasure of superpower status. Such an act would constitute an admission that its army has been beaten — a tremendous loss of face. Worse still, neighbors would build (or build up) their own nuclear arsenals. That would deprive Russia of superpower status in the minds of the Russians themselves. That is, for the Russian leadership, the one intolerable outcome of this war. In my view, the greatest risk of a Russian nuclear action would therefore be one that Moscow would blame on Ukraine, such as the deliberate destruction of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant.
War is unpredictable. Military history is full of surprises. Mr. Putin has undertaken a war of atrocity, and further atrocities are certain as long as the war continues. Russia created not only needless suffering but also needless risk when it invaded Ukraine. We have to work within that world of risk and horror and evaluate it calmly. No option is without hazards; our responsibility is to reduce them. When Russians talk about nuclear war, the safest response is to ensure their very conventional defeat.
Timothy Snyder, the Levin professor of history at Yale, studied nuclear arms control before shifting to Eastern European history. He is the author, among other books, of “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.”
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