On the third day of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin called a meeting with Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of the Russian Armed Forces, and Sergei Shoigu, the minister of defense. Seated at the opposite end of an extraordinarily long table, Putin ordered them to “transfer the deterrence forces of the Russian army”—which include its nuclear weapons—“to a special mode of combat duty.” The directive was aired on Russian national television. As Putin made his announcement, both Gerasimov and Shoigu looked surprised and uneasy.

The scene is the latest in a series of episodes in which Putin commands or demeans his own senior officials, and it illustrates an unfortunate reality. Over the last decade, Putin has turned his government into a personalist regime: a system in which he monopolizes meaningful authority. Today, unlike during Putin’s first decade in power, there are virtually no dissenting voices within his small circle of advisers, nor are there any insiders who challenge his leadership. Instead, Russia’s major political figures are now all yes men who tell Putin what he wants to hear and hide inconvenient facts. Putin lives in a bubble of isolation and disinformation, which has reenforced his paranoid fear of NATO, his desire to revive the Russian empire, and his delusions of Russian military prowess.

The reckless invasion of Ukraine—an operation designed to quickly topple the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that instead turned into a protracted war, united NATO, and tanked the Russian economy—is perhaps the clearest illustration of disastrous decision-making in Putin’s personalist dictatorship. But Putin’s “combat duty” order is another example, and it is alarming. So far, the evidence suggests that Putin is using his threats and innuendo not in preparation for nuclear use in the invasion but rather to frighten Ukraine and NATO. Yet personalist autocracies are more erratic than other political systems. Leaders can make major decisions on a whim, without consultation, or with vengeful fury. U.S. and NATO leaders should recognize that the world is facing the gravest global nuclear risk since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. To navigate around the dangers, they must understand how personalist regimes make decisions, and learn how to respond.

BULLY WITH THE BOMB

Nuclear deterrence is an inherently risky strategy; to be credible, governments must develop plans and practice procedures for nuclear use. But it is more dangerous in some regimes than others. In democracies, the executive must determine nuclear policy with legislatures—and sometimes courts. In juntas, the leader must share some power with other military officers. In one-party autocracies, multiple elites help set regime policy. When nuclear bombs are controlled by personalist dictators, however, there are few constraints on their decisions—the weapons are theirs.

External actions are unlikely to stop a personalist leader from reckless nuclear behavior. They generally do not fear the consequences of international isolation, such as sanctions, since they can use state resources to insulate themselves from the effects. Putin, for example, has accumulated billions of dollars from the Russian economy and distributed it among cronies in tax havens around the world, making it hard to seize. Just days before the Ukraine invasion, his personal yacht abruptly left Germany for the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad to avoid Western seizure. Personalist leaders are also unlikely to hear even well-meaning dissent from their advisers—for example, reminders that nuclear strikes have an existential risk—since the cost of challenging the leader can be severe. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, for instance, has killed advisers whom he deemed insufficiently loyal. Finally, personalist dictators readily flout international norms. Kim ordered his half brother’s assassination with a nerve agent in Kuala Lumpur. Putin probably ordered the poisoning of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in rural England in 2018. In 2006, he likely directed the murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London.

Thankfully, personalist dictators are not suicidal, and like other types of leaders, they treat nuclear weapons mostly as a means of deterrence. Despite heavy bluster, Kim has never actually used his arsenal, and Putin has not, thus far, threatened to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, Russia’s actual combatant. Instead, he has directed his threats at NATO, and his scenarios for use all involve responding to alliance members initiating combat with Russian forces—something that the West has explicitly ruled out.

Personalist dictators are not suicidal.

Putin has certainly ratcheted up overall tensions by rescheduling two routine, strategic nuclear force exercises so that they coincided with the invasion. But Putin ran nuclear drills at the start of Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014, only to subsequently deescalate. Putin later said that his government was “ready for the worst-case scenario.” But he then added that nuclear escalation was “not needed in the given situation” and that the country’s nuclear deterrence forces “are constantly on combat alert anyway.”

Putin, however, is more isolated now than he was in 2014. His inner circle of advisers is shrinking, and he has been largely cut off from the international community. CIA Director William Burns told Congress on March 8 that Putin is “stewing in a combustible combination of grievance and ambition” and “it’s proven not career-enhancing for people to question or challenge his judgment.” None of this inspires faith that, as time goes on, Putin will climb down the escalation ladder.

LIKE A MADMAN

Putin is not the first world leader to make nuclear threats while simultaneously raising questions about his sanity. In 1969, faced with a grinding, unsuccessful conflict in Vietnam, President Richard Nixon ordered a secret nuclear alert designed to make adversaries believe he was erratic and unstable. "I call it ‘the madman theory,’” Nixon told his chief of staff. “I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I've reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war.”

It was a bold and reckless gambit, so much so that Nixon’s secretary of defense tried to stonewall the order in hopes that the president would calm down and roll it back. But Nixon, backed by his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, was insistent. Soon, the Pentagon sent additional U.S. submarines out to sea and placed nuclear bombs on B-52s, putting them on ground alert at military bases. Most provocatively, the military flew 18 nuclear-armed B-52s to the Soviet border and back. Two of the aircraft accidently flew so close to each other that a classified Strategic Air Command report later called the operation unsafe.

In response, Moscow (and the North Vietnamese) simply ignored Nixon’s madman tactics, apparently recognizing them for what they were: a bluff. When the Soviets offered to start arms control negotiations, the Americans immediately agreed. Nixon’s nuclear alert ended not with a bang, but a whimper.

Putin discussing nuclear deterrence with Shoigu and Gerasimov in Moscow, February 2022
Putin meeting with Shoigu and Gerasimov in Moscow, February 2022
Aleksey Nikolskyi / Sputnik via Reuters

So far, the Biden administration has displayed similarly admirable responsibility and restraint in its response to Putin’s own madman posturing. The White House has told Americans that they "see no reasons to change our own alert levels,” and it has not loaded bombs onto planes. In early March, to avoid any provocation or mistaken false warning, the Department of Defense even postponed a previously scheduled intercontinental ballistic missile test launch.

Putin, however, shows no signs of backing down. The Ukrainians are fighting back with courage and determination, and as long as the war continues, the use of nuclear weapons will be a real possibility.

It may even be possible after the invasion itself ends. Consider, for example, what would follow a Russian “victory.” Even if Russia succeeds in occupying all of Ukraine and establishing a puppet regime, the Ukrainians will fight on, and the war will continue as a bloody insurgency. The United States and NATO would likely smuggle arms to Ukrainian fighters, as Washington did to the mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Putin might then order Russian forces to invade and destroy NATO bases in neighboring countries in order to stop the resupply operations. The targeted country might then invoke Article 5, resulting in a war between NATO and Russia that could easily turn nuclear.

As long as the war continues, the use of nuclear weapons will be a real possibility.

Or consider what happens if Putin orders genuine escalatory nuclear alert measures, such as taking tactical nuclear weapons out of storage igloos and loading them onto short-range missiles. Nuclear safety rules are often compromised during emergencies—to fulfill Nixon’s 1969 alert, for instance, one military base had untrained personnel load bombs onto planes—and it is not unthinkable that in its rush, the Russian military could accidentally detonate a weapon. There is also a small chance that Putin could order a nuclear “demonstration strike” and detonate a weapon at sea, for example, where it would not kill anyone. (Such a strike seems incompatible with Putin’s demeanor, however, as it would signal irresolution rather than determination.)

Finally, it is possible that the Russian president could use nuclear weapons inside Ukraine. If Ukrainians bravely hold out in their major urban areas, fighting block to block and killing thousands upon thousands of Russian soldiers, Putin could order the military to drop a single nuclear bomb on a Ukrainian city to try to coerce the Zelensky government into immediately surrendering. This scenario is frightening, but it is not fanciful. It is, after all, effectively what the United States did to Japan in 1945. 

The world can only hope that in this situation, senior Russian officers would tell Putin that such a strike would be illegal, a violation of the Geneva Conventions, and refuse to comply. Some national security officials are Putin’s cronies, like Shoigu, but the military leadership is more independent. The United States must do what it can to reenforce any reluctance by the Russian military to cross the nuclear threshold.

DANGER ZONE

The world is now experiencing a new cold war, and like with the last one, avoiding nuclear conflict will be tricky. Indeed, it may be even harder today than it was in the Soviet Union’s heyday, when power was at least shared among leading officials in the Communist Party. Deterrence does not require pristine rationality, but it does require institutional checks and balances that can restrain leaders who become unhinged. And right now, there is no clear, internal obstacle that prevents Putin from using the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

So how can the United States avoid full-blown nuclear warfare? First, Washington should remind the Russian military that any nuclear use against a Ukrainian city will be treated as a war crime and that they, not just Putin, will be treated as war criminals. The Russian military may not mind targeting civilians, as it has shown in its operations in Chechnya, Syria, and Ukraine. But its leaders do care about protecting themselves. They may think twice about agreeing to drop nuclear bombs if they know that they may one day find themselves permanently imprisoned for their actions.

But the United States must also prepare for how to respond if Putin uses a nuclear weapon against any NATO nation. That means developing credible but de-escalatory response plans. The Obama administration began to do this in 2016, when it ran a top secret, high-level wargame charting out what could happen if Russia launched a single nuclear missile at a NATO airbase in the Baltics. One group of Obama deputies ordered a severe conventional retaliatory strike against Russian military forces, presumably against the base that launched the nuclear attack. A second set of senior Obama officials, however, preferred to respond to the Russian nuclear strike by launching a U.S. nuclear weapon attack against military targets in Belarus—even though Belarus had not participated in Russia’s strike. The deputies had the better strategy, one that was firm but less likely to provoke thermonuclear catastrophe.

The United States must prepare for how to respond if Putin uses a nuclear weapon.

Finally, Putin has proved himself to be an unstable and disastrous leader for Russia. The United States and the rest of the West must say that loudly and often. Zelensky famously said at the start of the war that he needs “ammunition, not a ride.” Putin needs a ride. The U.S. and NATO should call for new leaders to rule in Russia.

Given that Putin leads a personalist regime, it is difficult to see who in Russia might shunt him aside. But history provides at least a glimmer of hope. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, perhaps the closest the world has come to nuclear war, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev acted erratically. He lied to the United States about placing missiles in Cuba, bungled the placement operation’s secrecy, and then precipitously pulled the missiles out, fearing a U.S. invasion of Cuba. Not long after, Khrushchev was overthrown by Politburo members—in no small part because of his unsettled decision-making.  

If body bags pile up in Moscow and Russians face increasing economic hardship, Putin could find that his leadership is suddenly far less stable. The loyalty of his inner circle might fray, Russia’s oligarchs could unify and rise up, the Russian people could take to the streets, and the Russian military might decide that it needs to end a devastating war. Putin could then be forced to retire, like Khrushchev, to a dacha in the countryside. That would be a good start to the end of the second cold war.

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  • SCOTT D. SAGAN is the Caroline S.G. Munro Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.
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