A previously taboo subject is suddenly in the news.
CIA Director William J. Burns has openly recognized the possibility that Vladimir Putin may be tempted to use “tactical nuclear weapons” to win a limited victory in eastern Ukraine.
Putin’s war is foundering. Despite some continued shelling, he has apparently retreated from his original plan to seize Ukraine’s capital and install a puppet leader, loyal to Russia. Pivoting to the east, Putin is apparently hoping to slice off another segment of Ukraine, as he did with Crimea in 2014.
“Tactical nuclear weapons” are not to be confused with long-range strategic weapons, usually delivered by intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). They include short-range missiles, artillery shells, landmines, depth charges, torpedoes, etc. Putin has an estimated 2,000 tactical weapons at his disposal, many more than the United States.
If Putin introduces such weapons, it will constitute the first use of nuclear arms in a military conflict since World War II. Putin has put his nuclear capabilities on “high alert,” and he recently warned about “a lightning fast” retaliation against any strategic threat to Russia.
Is this issue relevant to Kansas? Yes! If the United States stumbles into a full-blown nuclear war, strategic targets for Russian nukes could include Wichita’s aviation industry or the Kansas City metropolitan area.
For decades, the west has been wedded to the mutually assured destruction, or MAD strategic posture we inherited from the Cold War. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations fostered the expectation that, if the Russians used a nuclear weapon, they could be assured of a devastating nuclear response from the United States and its allies.
We are dealing with a dictator who may be emotionally unable to accept even the appearance of defeat. A clue to his mental state is the massacres being carried out by his retreating forces.
Do we want, thinking like the 1950s, to plunge the world into a nuclear war over the use of a limited number of tactical weapons? On the other hand, can Putin be deterred by anything less than the old MAD formula – the threat of a massive nuclear response, perhaps on Moscow itself?
At the moment, we cannot match Putin’s thousands of tactical weapons. But Burns’ statement offers a ray of hope. CIA directors rarely speak in public. There are reports that the United States is rapidly developing autonomous weapons designed to match Russian capabilities.
So, does deterrence, even featuring tactical weapons, still work? Putin, despite his aggressive outlook, understands that the introduction of tactical nukes, leading to a massive nuclear exchange, would result in deadly destruction for Russia.
Therefore the issue, ostensibly about weapons, is fundamentally psychological. Deterrence, even during the Cold War, was always rooted in the fear of duplicating what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Let us hope that Russia and the United States will choose not to go down that dark road.
David A. Nichols, of Winfield, is a presidential historian and author of several books on the Eisenhower presidency, including “ Eisenhower 1956: Suez and the Brink of War,” about the Suez Canal crisis of 1956.