Despite throwing the full force of Russian might against Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin still hasn’t toppled the country. His troops have run out of fuel, gone short on supplies, and some soldiers have even left the battlefield rather than kill their brother Slavs. Instead of dividing NATO and capturing Kyiv, Putin has united the world behind an unlikely Ukrainian hero, the former-comic-turned-president Volodymyr Zelensky.
Being caught in a checkmate is an unconscionable position for the judo-loving masterspy. Unable to change the dynamics on the battlefield or accept defeat, he is likely mulling his nuclear trump card option.
Indeed, on April 15, Zelensky announced that the world should “be ready” for the possibility that Putin will use nuclear weapons in Ukraine — a concern shared by CIA Director William Burns. On Wednesday, Russia tested a new intercontinental missile, nicknamed Satan II, which, Putin said, should “force all who are trying to threaten our country in the heat of frenzied, aggressive rhetoric to think twice.”
Back during the Yugoslavian War, Putin and his Russian General Staff first developed a “limited nuclear war” plan called the “escalate-to-de-escalate” strategy. By crossing the nuclear threshold, the theory goes, Russia would shock the adversary into abandoning the fight and settling for peace.
If Putin were to deploy such a weapon in Ukraine, it would likely be a sub-kiloton warhead that would produce a blast roughly a third of the size of Hiroshima with a small atomic fall out. By detonating a “small” nuke in Ukraine — rather than the kind of Armageddon-inflicting ICBMs that Russia and the United States continue to point at each other — the Russian strongman believes he could stave off intervention from the West.
Russia would not dare target the American homeland with nuclear strikes, unless they assess that the United States plans to decapitate the Moscow regime.
And yet, Russia holds the trump card in that fight: the world’s most formidable arsenal of nuclear weapons, with a ten-to-one advantage over the US in tactical atomic stockpile. Scariest of all, Moscow has a Doomsday Device, called Perimeter — and dubbed “Dead Hand” by the West — which reportedly can destroy the US homeland in 30 minutes.
This highly complex system is designed for a retaliatory strike, following an initial attack on Russia by the US. Designed by the Soviets at the height of the Cold War, if switched on, it would launch Russia’s entire nuclear arsenal directly at this country. The system remains semi-dormant until activated by a high-ranking official in a crisis.
If activated, it can still launch even if the Russian regime is wiped out and Putin or his alternates are unable to authorize a nuclear strike through a standard process. After the initial multi-step verification that communication links to Putin’s war room are not working, in about 15-60 minutes, the autonomous computerized system would send signals to nuclear weapons silos, directing all remaining Russian nuclear missiles to launch.
Now, Putin is ratcheting up his rhetoric, using the unspoken threat of Dead Hand against the US. When he first attacked Ukraine on Feb. 24, he warned that the countries who intervened would face “consequences you have never seen.” Three days later, he raised the status of Russia’s nuclear forces to “special combat readiness,” the nuclear posture that Moscow maintains today.
On March 22, after a CNN journalist asked Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov whether Russia would resort to using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Peskov answered that Russia’s nuclear capability can be used in the event of an “existential threat.” Some analysts at the time understood that the probability of this happening was low because Ukraine is massively outmatched by Russia’s military.
But on March 28, two days after Joe Biden declared in Poland that Putin “cannot remain in power,” Peskov told PBS that Russia and the West “have entered the phase of total war.” He accused countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia, of “leading war” against Russia “in trade, in economy,” in “seizing properties,” in “seizing funds,” in “blocking financial relations.” Whether a gaffe or a Freudian slip, Biden’s call for a regime change in Russia, in the middle of an active armed conflict, checked off Moscow’s “existential threat” requirement for the use of nuclear weapons.
Now finding himself cornered in an unwinnable position, Putin is invoking the concepts of “total war” and an “existential threat” to keep the US and NATO out of the conflict. Meanwhile, the May 9 anniversary of Russia’s defeat of Nazi Germany approaches, a date that is driving Putin to launch an even greater offensive to declare victory in Ukraine.
All the while, he knows that Russia’s Dead Hand is what scares the West more than anything.
Rebekah Koffler is the president of Doctrine & Strategy Consulting, a former DIA intelligence officer, and the author of “Putin’s Playbook: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America.” She also wrote the foreword for “Zelensky: The Unlikely Ukrainian Hero.“