The Coming Catastrophe: Revelation 16

Students at a Brooklyn, New York, school take part in a duck and cover drill in preparation for a nuclear attack in 1962.
Students at a Brooklyn, New York, school take part in a duck and cover drill in preparation for a nuclear attack in 1962.

The Dangers of ‘Catastrophic Consequences’

Sixty years after the Cuban missile crisis, Biden is re-creating nuclear deterrence on the fly.

October 21, 2022, 2:52 AM

Not since this week in 1962, when President John F. Kennedy announced that any ballistic missile launched from Cuba would be considered a direct attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, has Washington so publicly warned an adversary that it risked a potential nuclear exchange. Russia will face “catastrophic consequences” should it use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan threatened in late September. While Sullivan did not specifically warn of nuclear retaliation, the mention of catastrophe left open how the United States would react. More recently, U.S. President Joe Biden twice predicted “Armageddon” if Russian President Vladimir Putin detonates even a low-yield tactical nuclear bomb, leading to confusionabout whether Washington really is willing to strike back at Russia and risk all-out war.

Sixty years after the Cuban missile crisis, Russia and the United States are edging toward the greatest nuclear showdown since those 13 days in October 1962. For the first time since the days of nationwide “duck and cover” drills, the U.S. government and the state of New York have released public service announcements and guidance on what to do in case of a nuclear strike on the United States, updated from the 1960s to include social distancing and wearing masks. The Department of Health and Human Services announced the purchase of nearly $300 million worth of an anti-radiation drug. Over the past few weeks, the U.S. media and public have been more focused on nuclear war than at any time since U.S. television aired The Day After, a controversial movie about the nuclear apocalypse, in 1983.

In the face of Putin’s assertion that his threat to use nuclear weapons is “not a bluff,” respected voices are trying to reassure us that he will not choose the nuclear option in an attempt to reverse Russia’s declining fortunes in the war. This was what the Washington Post editorial board opined, based on the argument that Putin must understand that such use would be “exceptionally costly for Russia.” It is easy to dismiss Putin’s threats as blackmail, designed to frighten the West into cutting back its support for Ukraine, and not a serious risk that could result in an actual nuclear exchange. Indeed, after nearly 80 years during which no state has used atomic bombs in a conflict, the bar to their employment appears extremely high—because of the moral presumption that such weapons can be used only to save a nation from extinction and fear of the retaliation that would surely follow. Yet from Biden on down, U.S. officials have indicated they are taking the threat seriously.

After a generation in which the threat of great-power nuclear conflict played no role in Washington’s strategy, the Biden administration is suddenly re-creating the lost art of nuclear deterrence on the fly. Biden faces a perhaps unique challenge: to determine what is credible nuclear deterrence to support a non-ally during an ongoing war—where the United States faces an adversary that is losing yet has declared that the territory it has conquered will be defended as if it were its own sovereign soil. No U.S. president has faced exactly this set of circumstances.

Biden’s comments on Armageddon worry some that Putin’s blackmail could work, but White House rhetoric probably reflects the administration’s belief that invoking catastrophe is likely to lead to Putin never carrying out his threat. It is a fine line the administration must walk, and its position contains manifest dangers that could boomerang on Biden—and which pose some of the most complicated questions of strategy to challenge any recent U.S. administration. It is critical to think through possible scenarios, speculate on how Russia’s actions and subsequent events might derail U.S. policy, and choose the most effective and prudent path forward.

A U.S. Air Force B-52 drops a string of bombs
A U.S. Air Force B-52 drops a string of bombs

Sullivan’s threat must be considered U.S. policy until the administration says otherwise. The warning was clearly designed to counter Putin’s blackmail and raise the stakes for him to an unacceptable level, thereby deterring him from nuclear use. “Catastrophic consequences,” while vague, sounds like a 21st-century version of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s policy of “massive retaliation” during the 1950s. It appears implicitly to include anything from severe damage to Russia’s economy to military strikes on Russian territory. Such strategic ambiguity—refraining from specifically disclosing where, when, and what type of response Washington would choose—is a time-honored tactic designed to create uncertainty and enhance deterrence. Washington has adopted this approach most famously in relation to Taiwan: Not knowing how the United States will react makes it difficult for China to calculate its risks.

Neither “catastrophic consequences” nor strategic ambiguity mandates a U.S. nuclear response to Putin’s first use of atomic weapons. Given the long-standing U.S. aversion to using even smaller-scale tactical nukes (which have never been used in any war), we must assume that Sullivan was implying the use of conventional force against Russian military assets or measures to paralyze Russia’s economy, such as total trade and financial isolation or cyberattacks.

From the perspective of classical deterrence, taking the nuclear option off the table weakens the U.S. position right at the beginning, for if Putin does not fear an equivalent response, he may well decide the risk is worth it. Indeed, that was the criticism leveled at French President Emmanuel Macron this month when he categorically ruled out a French nuclear response. Yet equally, Washington’s warnings of “catastrophic” retaliation might force Moscow into a corner. If Putin considers losing in Ukraine an existential threat to his rule or to Russia’s future, then he will decide (whether rationally or not) to use nuclear weapons based on his assessment of the state of battle. Therefore, if he believes he must in fact employ atomic weapons, Sullivan’s threat suggests the Russian leader has only two options: a humiliating climbdown in what he considers an existential war or direct conflict with the United States. Rather than risking the complete collapse of his authority, Putin may therefore prefer to gamble that Biden is either bluffing or considering a response too weak to impose serious costs on Russia.

Any U.S. policy of catastrophic consequences therefore raises several urgent questions. Above all, what is the threshold for risking direct conflict with Russia, military or otherwise? Would it be any Russian use of atomic weapons? Would it require Moscow targeting civilians? What about a nuclear demonstration shot—or a single low-yield weapon on Ukrainian troops or infrastructure? What if Putin uses a nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapon that temporarily paralyzes the Ukrainian government in Kyiv? And what if the Russians target the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, possibly creating a wartime Chernobyl?

Would a limited Russian nuclear strike justify “catastrophic” U.S. retaliation to paralyze Russia’s economy or, as former CIA Director David Petraeus has suggested, destroy its forces in Ukraine or sink its Black Sea Fleet? Not responding at all may invite further Russian aggression and permanently shatter the anti-nuclear taboo—but too strong a reaction risks events spiraling out of control. In fact, Washington has signaled to Moscow again and again that it intends to avoid any direct confrontation. Yet even noncombat responses, such as a strict blockade of Russian ports, attempts to close Russia’s European borders, confiscation of Moscow’s assets abroad, or massive cyberattacks targeting the Russian banking system, would likely invite further responses from Putin.

As Biden has indicated, any Russian nuclear use and U.S. response increases the likelihood of an uncontrolled escalation. If Biden felt U.S. credibility was on the line after Russian nuclear use and he retaliated with a major conventional attack on Russian targets in Ukraine or somewhere else outside Russia, gaming out future rounds suggests Washington could still be drawn into using nuclear weapons. Putin would almost certainly have to respond to U.S. retaliation, no matter what it might be, if only to ensure his own political credibility. It is feasible and probable that Putin’s next move would be further nuclear use—perhaps an electromagnetic pulse attack over U.S. bases in Europe or ships at sea. This would put enormous pressure on Biden to respond in kind, since an unwillingness to meet the level of a second Russian nuclear strike would lead Putin to conclude he has a free hand to use nuclear weapons or engage in far more demanding future blackmail.

Thus, the administration’s threat opens the door for Putin to counter-deter the United States. Changes to Russian nuclear doctrine made in 2020 allow Putin to use nuclear weapons in response to conventional military strikes on critical government and military infrastructure. To forestall U.S. retaliation, Putin could promise yet more nuclear use, as Biden’s reference to “Armageddon” suggests. U.S. planners should also prepare for Putin to continue revising Moscow’s nuclear doctrine to specifically include cyber- or conventional military attacks on critical elements of the Russian economy as grounds for nuclear escalation—another attempt to deter Washington.

Washington should also plan for the longer term to ensure that the West cannot be held hostage to similar nuclear blackmail in the future.

What’s more, a “catastrophic” response by Washington risks expanding the geographical boundaries of the war. During the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy knew that a strike on Cuba would kill Russian soldiers, almost certainly lead to Soviet retaliation against Berlin, and set off a war between NATO and the Soviet bloc. Should Sullivan’s threat include U.S. strikes on Russian territory, the pressure on Putin to strike U.S. or European targets would immeasurably increase, setting off yet another spiral. The weakness of Russia’s conventional military on the battlefield is no reason to be complacent. Moscow’s nuclear arsenal has no equal in the world other than Washington’s.

The politics are just as critical. In 1962, Kennedy allowed Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev a face-saving compromise by publicly agreeing not to invade Cuba—and secretly agreeing to remove obsolete Jupiter missiles from Turkey as a mostly symbolic quid pro quo. Conversely, Sullivan’s public threat strikes directly at Putin’s personal pride. From Putin’s perspective, “catastrophic consequences” is just the latest in a long line of alleged Western insults stretching back to the 1990s and NATO’s expansion to include former Warsaw Pact countries. Instead of being cowed, Putin may consider this the endgame of his regime and the post-Cold War era.

Behind all this lies the incalculable question of how Putin views U.S. credibility. Put simply, a Washington that failed to enforce its red line in Syria, sat passively by as China militarized the South China Sea and crushed Hong Kong, and fled from Afghanistan may not be a credible adversary in Russian eyes. Will Moscow believe that Washington is prepared to risk superpower war if, say, one low-yield tactical nuclear weapon is used on a Ukrainian military target?

U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and Gen. Thomas Power watch the launch of an Atlas Missile in 1962.
U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and Gen. Thomas Power watch the launch of an Atlas Missile in 1962.

In light of these dangers, what is to be done if Putin does indeed use nukes? From a strategic perspective, Biden’s best response to Russian nuclear deployment would be to give the Ukrainians the ability to defend themselves against ballistic missiles and inflict massive and decisive damage on Russian forces inside Ukraine. As Jakub Grygiel recently argued in Foreign Policy, the United States’ smartest strategic option in a superpower conflict is to arm allies and partners.

A number of factors, however, may make it difficult to avoid a direct U.S. response, including domestic U.S. political pressures, concerns about giving advanced weaponry to non-treaty allies, and the administration’s own rhetoric promising a catastrophic response. In that case, making the U.S. response proportionate is critical, especially in the case of limited Russian nuclear use.

The administration would therefore be best served by adopting a version of the “flexible response” doctrine advocated by Kennedy’s defense secretary, Robert McNamara. This would give priority to what the nuclear strategist Bernard Brodie described in 1959 as the “principle of limiting to tolerable proportions whatever conflicts become inevitable” and providing offramps to control escalation. Offramps were a key element of U.S. nuclear doctrine during the Cold War—and should not be seen as weakness as long as the offramps are for Putin and not Western support for Ukraine.

Such a proportionate response, initially at the conventional level against Russian targets in Ukraine, runs its own risks but is more likely to limit the chance of uncontrolled escalation than the promised catastrophic consequences against Russian economic or political targets. Further, any U.S. response must, as much as possible, refrain from attacking Russian soil, unless and until Putin himself expands the geographic boundaries of the war beyond Ukraine. And contrary to Biden’s talk about Russian regime change in the early days of the war, Washington must make clear any response to Putin’s use of nukes is not aimed at removing him from power, which is best left to the Russians themselves. Western leaders understand that fear of his downfall could precipitate Putin’s nuclear use.

In the midst of a crisis, Washington must play the cards it has. But it should also plan for the longer term to ensure that the West cannot be held hostage to similar nuclear blackmail in the future. First, this would include reversing the post-Cold War hollowing out of Russia expertise in government, think tanks, and academia. Russian leadership studies, political analyses, and military assessments will remain crucial in the coming decades, whether or not Moscow wins in Ukraine. This holds just as much for the United States’ inadequate understanding of Chinese nuclear doctrine and what Americans think they know about North Korean nuclear policy. Translation, analysis, and synthesis for political, military, and intellectual leaders are needed from trained cadres with regional and nuclear expertise working together.

Let’s hope Biden communicates as clearly and carefully to Putin to keep his invasion of Ukraine from turning into a nuclear war.

Second, a renaissance in U.S. nuclear strategy and doctrine is long overdue. The role of nuclear weapons at all levels of great-power competition must be better analyzed and fitted into security policy and military planning. This was what strategists such as Brodie, Albert Wohlstetter, Herman Kahn, and others did during the Cold War. After decades of military conflict being thought of only in conventional terms, the new nuclear era looks set constrain Washington in parts of the world once considered freely accessible. How must U.S. military doctrine evolve to take into account deterring or confronting nuclear powers, both great and small? Has the threshold for direct intervention by U.S. forces been raised to an unacceptable level? Can there be conventional military pathways that successfully avoid potential nuclear escalation over, say, Taiwan?

Third, from a military perspective, tactical nuclear weapons will have a more important role in U.S. strategy. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the U.S. military has about 200 tactical nuclear gravity bombs, while Russia has 10 times the number of tactical nukes, including low-yield warheads on missiles. Although some argue that this category of weapons should be banned because they lower the threshold for a conflict to turn nuclear, it’s unrealistic to think Washington’s adversaries will give them up. (China is likely thinking about acquiring them as well.) In the new nuclear era, the United States needs the flexibility to respond proportionately to any use by aggressors. New weapons, basing, and doctrine for tactical use will provide a flexibility that is absent if a military relies solely on more destructive large weapons.

Finally, Biden must understand the spillover risk of his threat to Putin in the eyes of other potential adversaries, most notably Iran and China. Both will watch very closely whether Biden sticks to his red line. Any nuclear use and escalation could also collapse the nonproliferation regime, leading nations great and small to either build their own weapons or demand that Washington extend the U.S. nuclear umbrella over them. New nuclear commitments, however, would be a dramatic change in U.S. security policy, could make U.S. strategy incoherent, and risk overstretching U.S. geopolitical strength. Conversely, spurned allies seeking protection could either look to acquire their nuclear weapons or align more closely with other nuclear powers. These geopolitical shifts brought on by U.S. mishandling of Russian nuclear escalation would, in turn, have profound knock-on effects, including in trade and international finance, intellectual and cultural exchange, migration, and the like.

Biden now faces questions of nuclear doctrine that similarly bedeviled U.S. presidents during the Cold War. Unless finely calibrated, his attempts to prevent the nuclear threshold from being crossed may in fact further destabilize an already critical situation. The days of Washington threatening adversaries with impunity are long gone, and the recent U.S. track record when responding to challenges by other great powers is poor. A desperate or enraged Putin may well decide to call Biden’s bluff. That, more than any other act, would end the conceit that we still live in a post-World War II system governed by generally accepted norms of behavior, opening the Pandora’s box of chaos described above.

In the 2000 political thriller Thirteen Days, set during the Cuban missile crisis, a fictional McNamara rebukes the U.S. Navy chief of operations for firing warning star shells at Soviet ships during the tensest moments of the standoff. “This is not a blockade! This is language, a new vocabulary,” he exclaims. “This is President Kennedy communicating with Secretary Khrushchev.” Let’s hope Biden communicates as clearly and carefully to Putin to keep his invasion of Ukraine from turning into a nuclear war.

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