Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to deploy nuclear weapons with nuclear-capable launchers to Belarus caught the attention of media commentators and military experts this week. This announcement comes on the heels of Putin’s three-day meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Moscow, after which a number of agreements were reached by the two heads of state on political, military, and economic cooperation going forward. Russia and China are now explicitly and jointly working to create a new world order in which the United States is marginalized and, from their perspective, a unipolar world dominated by the United States is supplanted by a multipolar system more conducive to Chinese and Russian objectives.
The apparent counterpoint, between the hubris at the level of high politics and the Russian decision to station nuclear weapons outside the borders of the Russian Federation, could not be more revealing. The golden handshakes between Xi and Putin should have provided Russia with a renewed sense of confidence relative to its political and military objectives. Instead, Putin moved some of his military pawns on the chessboard as a form of nuclear signaling and messaging. This move is not a sign of confidence, but of uncertainty and desperation. It is also dangerous.
After more than a year of fighting in Ukraine, Russian military forces have been unable to close the deal. An initial blitzkrieg fell short of taking Kiev or inducing the government of President Vladimir Zelenskyy to capitulate. Russia’s military operations in eastern and southern Ukraine have resulted in bloody stalemates and minimal advances. Russian casualties have been enormous and the troops dispirited. In addition, Russia’s various factions of siloviki are at loggerheads, including obvious rivalries between the mercenary Wagner Group and regular army forces. Increased draft levees have led many young men of military age to flee the country. Meanwhile, Putin’s gamble has united and revived NATO as a political alliance and increased its military capabilities relative to those of Russia. Adding Finland (and possibly Sweden) to NATO membership only compounds this faux pas.
On the other hand, economic sanctions have impacted negatively Russia’s economy far less than NATO had expected or hoped, and majorities of the Russian public still support the war against Ukraine. In addition, it is reasonable to suppose that Russian political and military leaders anticipate that a long war against Ukraine favors Russia, on account of the latter’s larger population and greater resources. Russian military thinking recognizes a distinction between wars of annihilation, in which a decisive victory is obtained by one rapid and overpowering military operation, and a war of attrition, in which two sides attempt to wear one another out of manpower, resources, and will over an extended period of time. And this distinction might apply to the war in Ukraine, were we still living in the twentieth century.
But we are not. The culture of the twenty-first century is driven by the Internet and its globalization of information. Like everything else, this culture spills over into decisions about war and peace. Heads of state and commanders are pressured by a twenty-four-hour news cycle to provide omnipresent gratification and reassuring symbolism, especially if they are accountable to voters in a democracy. But even if not, the image of defeat or stalemate on the battlefield will be projected for the world audience to see, and to the humiliation of leaders even as narcissistic as those in Russia’s high command. “Winning” a war of attrition, if the cost in blood and treasure is too high, comes with an embedded political risk. The nostalgia among Russians for Stalin, grotesque as it seems to westerners, is not a desire for a return to the gulags and mass executions of that era. It is, instead, a remembrance of victory in the Great Fatherland War and the pinnacle of Soviet power that resulted from it.
Even Putin must realize that Russia faces an urgent necessity to show results in the battlespace, and reports of a large Russian offensive against Ukraine planned for later this spring are repeatedly appearing in news sources. On the other hand, the Ukrainians are also planning counteroffensives in the east and south, and the United States, together with its NATO allies, has promised to deliver more advanced weaponry to Kiev, including modern tanks and personnel carriers, longer-range missiles, drones, and intelligence support for battlefield operations. Some critics of the Biden administration lament that more advanced weapons should have been sent to Ukraine sooner, but newer systems require training time for operators and an accelerated production line for heavy metal items. Thus far, Ukrainians’ battlefield agility, determination, and skilled use of intelligence and command-control-communications systems have checked Russia’s superior numbers and plodding commanders.
Russia thus cannot assume that it has forever to wear out motivated Ukrainian forces, and Putin’s willingness to deploy tactical nuclear weapons outside of Russia (but, presumably, under Russian control), together with his prior threats of nuclear first use, cannot be dismissed as misguided messaging only. It tells us that, if Russia faces serious battlefield reversals to the extent that fundamental objectives are lost and Ukraine appears close to regaining all of its former territories, a misguided Russian decision in favor of “limited” nuclear first use is possible. Russia might take this decision, not only as a means of compensation for a conventional war that is not going well, but also on the assumption that the first nuclear weapon fired in anger since the bombing of Nagasaki would have unprecedented shock value. It might, according to some Russian thinking, stun the Ukrainian high command, divide NATO politically, create mass public fear across Europe and North America, and push the world toward acquiescence to Russian terms for a peace settlement.
On the other hand, as Clausewitz warned, the character of war changes from one era to another, based on changes in technology and tactics, but the nature of war does not. One aspect of the nature of war is that escalation is inherent in the process of fighting. Left to its own devices, and undisciplined by wiser political control from heads of state, fighting has a natural tendency to expand in destructiveness. So a NATO reaction to a Russian nuclear first use might not be acquiescence, but retaliation. Even a ”demonstrative” nuclear shot by Russia—say, by exploding a weapon at a high enough altitude to create a widespread electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that damages critical space-based military assets and/or disrupted terrestrial communications and control systems—could fail to achieve its desired effects. Instead of stunning NATO into backing down, it might enrage public and elite opinion further against Russia.
In addition to the possibility that Russia’s decision to deploy some of its nuclear weapons in Belarus is a mistaken message based on faulty reasoning, it also raises technical issues. If these weapons are intended as deterrents, they may also be seen as attractive targets for Ukrainian commando operations or dissident Belarus opponents of the Lukashenko regime. Moreover, suppose dissatisfied Russian field commanders or their mercenary cronies decide to hijack the weapons from storage sites and use them to demand ransom. In theory, only the president of Russia and his top military commanders can authorize nuclear release, but in practice, the chain of command is only as strong as its weakest link. History shows that stranger things happen within militaries that are on the cusp of defeat and disintegration. Could a cabal of praetorians in Moscow combined with duplicitous field operators in Belarus create chaos in the midst of a fraught field of battle, or in the face of an impending Russian strategic defeat?
Stephen Cimbala is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Penn State, Brandywine.
Lawrence Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and former Assistant Secretary of Defense.